Today The Independent carries a hatchet job on ‘extreme beer’, claiming that the likes of Brew Dog and Thornbridge are targeting young binge drinkers. It uses my recent Beer 2.0 piece for The Publican as background research, and creates a master class in hypocrisy that would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that it might damage brewers I care about who spoke to me in good faith, and find themselves featured here as a result. Here’s an extract (sorry, but if you read this blog regularly you know I’m unforgivably wordy) of my response to the editor and the journalist concerned. If this issue makes you angry, please write to the paper and complain:
- It is entirely inaccurate to suggest that these beers are targeting the 18-25 age group. They may ‘remind’ the guy from Alcohol Concern of alcopops, but Alcohol Concern is a pressure group funded by anti-alcohol campaigners which is regularly quoted in articles like yours as if it is an official health body. It’s not. Some of these beers are marketed in a stylish and modern way – that is not the same thing as targeting younger drinkers. Each of these brewers has a strong corporate feel to their range, so how can you imply that the 8% beer has been designed and packaged to appeal to younger drinkers any more than the 4% beer has? To suggest that stylish packaging can only be appreciated by the under-25s is patronising to the people these beers are really aimed at – affluent, stylish drinkers in their late twenties and older – in other words, your readership. Secondly, As Martin Dickie points out, these beers are expensive. One of Brew Dog’s beers may be sold in Tesco, but as a rule they are sold by specialist beer shops, beer bars and online retailers, and cost upwards of £4 a bottle. Anyone simply seeking high ABV is going to buy something else first. My Publican feature even points out that one of the brewers you’ve mentioned – Otley – actively refuses supermarkets who wish to stock their beers and sell beer at steep discounts. Thirdly, anyone who works in the drinks industry would tell you that the trend among young binge drinkers is for drinks that combine a high alcohol content with an unchallenging flavour. The whole point of these beers is that they are full-flavoured, designed for savouring and almost impossible to glug quickly.
- The alcohol levels in these beers are not ‘mind-blowing’ – this is entirely inaccurate, misleading and potentially damaging. Some of these alcohol levels may be cause for concern if the beers were sold in pints, with the expectation that several would be consumed in one sitting. But these beers are hardly ever, if at all, sold on draught. As your feature points out, they are sold in 33cl bottles. They are designed for sipping and savouring. Wine is sold in 75cl bottles, which are commonly shared between two people. If a 33cl bottle of beer at more than 10% is more than daily recommended alcohol intake (and almost all the beers you mention are not this strong) what’s half a bottle of wine (37.5cl) at 12-14%?
- Building on these points, Saturday’s Independent demonstrates breathtaking hypocrisy which does a disservice to its readership. The magazine carries its usual page of wine hagiography (funny how you hardly ever feature beer in this way, even though a cursory look at TGI readership data would show you that your readership are enthusiastic consumers of quality beer). This week Anthony Rose talks us through Italian whites. In total 18 different wines are given enthusiastic endorsement. There’s not even a single mention of the alcohol content of any of these wines. And yet I can promise you that every single one of them has a higher ABV than any of the “mindblowing” beers in your extreme beer article, three of which are illustrated with alarmist starbursts drawing attention to their alcohol levels – levels that are so low that if wine was to be produced to that strength, EU law would prevent it from being called wine because it would be too weak.
- But it gets better. In the main paper, 24 pages after the “extreme beer” feature, there’s an article entitled ‘War of the rosés’, about a scheme to make French rosé wine more popular. Here is a direct quote from that piece: “If we are forced to put the word ‘traditional’ on our bottles, people will think, especially young people, that it is a fuddy-duddy wine, an old-fashioned kind of drink. That will ruin everything we have achieved.” That’s from a winemaker. And here’s the journalist himself: “Young people, especially, have taken to rosé as a fun drink, which is refreshing, uncomplicated and relatively cheap. (Anjou rosé sells in the UK at between £5 and £8 a bottle. Other French rosés sell for as little as £3 a bottle.)” Despite the clear admission that rosé winemakers are targeting younger people, despite the fact that rosé wine is being sold cheap and marketed in a contemporary fashion in order to lure these drinkers, there is no worried quote from Alcohol Concern. No sensationalist headline. No mention of the ABV of rosé wines. The attractive illustration of three glasses of rose – unlike your illustration of extreme beers – carries no bold starbursts. The inference is clear: when winemakers admit that they are selling cheap wine (12-14% ABV) and actively targeting young people with 750ml bottles for as little as £3, that’s OK. But when a brewer creates a beer (6-12% ABV) and sells it in a 33cl bottle that retails from £4 upwards, and tells you it is emphatically NOT targeting young drinkers, you run the piece with a ‘health fears’ headline and a subhead that claims the beers are, in fact, targeting younger drinkers – despite the fact that this is a lower ABV drink, being sold at a higher price.