Following on from Sunday’s post about low strength beers, there comes the news that they are the saviour and future of the drinks trade. Or so might your conclusion be if the media coverage of the recently released off-trade figures is to be believed. For across the board sales of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers have soared 40% in the last year. The reasons-according to retailers-are that customers are reacting to the improved product quality and range, a desire for more healthy living, and better awareness of drink-driving risks.
Now 40% is indeed an impressive increase in sales, but of course the benchmark is much lower in this category to begin with. For example, Tesco, who are trumpeting a 47% rise in sales across their stores, sold just 15m bottles of non and low-alcohol beer last year. Small beer (ho-hum) in the scale of things. However, they are expecting a further 15% rise this year and remain so enthused about prospects in this area that they are launching no less than 11 products in a category that they will label “mid-strength”.
Mid-strength? Wouldn’t that make full-strength 5.6%? Surely not what they are alluding to, but presumably preferably to labelling them “pisswater”. Chiara Nesbit, Tesco’s specialist beer buyer, argues that quality has improved in recent years with “many breweries using far better ingredients in order to create full-bodied brews that taste like their more alcoholic cousins.” She also feels that growing number of drinkers are prepared to buy lower alcohol beers as “long as the quality is good.”
But is it quality or is it price? And aren’t all these drinkers merely swapping one product for another? I find it hard to visualise horses of new converts beating down the doors of their local Tesco Express. Of course, Tesco aren’t the only player in town. Waitrose are also keen for a slice of the action as they have seen sales of Becks Blue rise 27%, low-alcohol beer Bavaria by 11% and their own low-alcohol cider by 16%. The whole concept of low-alcohol cider deserves a post by itself, but let’s go back to Tesco and Ciara Nesbit.
In a hyperbole worthy of someone with a vested interest, Ms Nesbit claims that: “The growing number of 2.8% brews will offer greater diversity than ever before for drinkers, whilst at the same time offering them very high quality and extremely great tasting brews.” Extremely great tasting, eh? Well I shall be the judge of that.
But wait, there’s more. Tesco are changing the landscape of home drinking. Yes, really. They are “creating a new middle ground for beer drinkers which will offer a solution to anyone fancying a midweek pint, perhaps to enjoy while watching the football, but who doesn’t want anything too strong”. A solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in my book, and will you please stop using terms like “middle ground” and “mid strength” when referring to pisswater.
But wait...there’s more. These “mid-strength” beers are seen by some as a panacea for the pub trade’s ills. With the licensed trade reeling from the closure of 16 pubs a week, apparently it’s pinning its hopes on “the wider range of economically-priced low-alcohol beers to entice even more customers in”. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one, if I were you.
What we need is some words of wisdom from CAMRA. Step forward CAMRA Press Officer, Jon Howard. Now surely he will put a cork in all this talk of quality pisswater? Sadly, not quite. According to him: “Brewers have already proven in a short time that it is possible to brew a low-strength beer packed with flavour and aroma.” Er, no they haven’t. Not to my satisfaction, anyway.
Only when Windermere Pale, tasting as it does now, comes down to 2.8% or someone produces its equivalent, can these beers be regarded as genuine “thirst-quenchers”. Until then, my definition of pisswater will remain