I've been lucky to drink with many brilliant people over the years and I have always been interested in the way people approach drinking. I'm sure we've all experienced those who drink to get drunk, the slow and steady drinker, the enthusiastic quaffer, the minesweeper and the bloke who is inexplicably buying shots for everyone at the bar. Even close friends of mine, with whom I share many similar interests, surprise me with their choices. Varying from my snooker playing friend who scans the taps for the lowest percentage alcohol quality beer to an avant-garde buddy who tries to persuade the bar staff to sell him a pint of the eleven-percenter despite only being priced for a small glass. Sometimes the ABV seemed to be the main focus and other times it seemed invisible.
When I was in my early twenties, I noticed that there was a trend of tinkering with the ABV, particularly with brands in the mainstream and beers that had been bought up by the big guys. It used to be the case that the mainstream brands would put out stronger beers but label them 'Export' to differentiate them from the brand leader. However, I remember Heineken moving from 4.1% to 5% with no evident fanfare or consumer education. This was nothing on British brewing giant Greene King's decision to tinker with a real ale favourite, Old Speckled Hen. When the publicly listed brewer took Old Speckled Hen into it's stable they changed the ABV of the drink from 5.2% to 5%. Then in a bizarre twist, Greene King released Old Speckled Hen, on tap, with a ABV of 4.5%. This was apparently to make the pub version 'more sessionable'. This led to an odd situation of being able to sink an Old Speckled Hen from the bottle at 5% and then head the pub to have the 'same' drink save for 0.5% ABV.
Then there was the Victoria Bitter debacle of the shifting ABV to much mainstream press coverage. What seems curious about these scenarios is the reaction tends to talk of tradition and consumers being short changed, but few comment on the fact that if the beer changes ABV, then it is, by its nature, a different beer. If the local milk farmer started selling new full fat skimmed milk, surely we wouldn't accept that it that was the same product as the original skimmed milk? Sure it's still milk...
So, the ABV of beer is very important when I scan the beer list and it probably marks the difference between the beer scenes in the US/Australia and the UK. In a UK quality beer pub the beer blackboard will have 20 ales with an ABV generally below 5% with any beers straying over the 5.2% mark being labeled as 'Strong Ales'. Whereas walking into a craft beer specialist bar in the US or Australia, you struggle to find anything under 5.5%. I drank a local Melbourne ale that was 5% last week that was labelled as 'sessional' - certainly something that you'd never see in the UK. That said, I'm encouraged by the amount of brewers in the US and Australia taking on the challenge of brewing tasty ales of depth with sub 4% ABV. Bridge Road Little Bling and Tuatara ITI (NZ) are great beers weighing in at 3.4% and 3.3% respectively. But it probably says more about the perception of lower percentage beers that they have adopted the names with 'little' and 'small' connotations.
It may be a long time before a craft beer bar has a sub 5% list but let's encourage brewers to experiment and deliver high quality beers that we can have a few pints of without worrying if our legs will carry us out. After all, we go out for a long time, not for a good time.