Steve the Writer placed a short Facebook comment this week about Carling Zest being discounted in Sainsbury’s: ‘2 for £6. *sigh*’. His comment, a gentle poke at the inevitability of succumbing to discounting amongst the big brewers, sparked many responses. Some witty; some full of agreement; others pointed, including one which I shall paraphrase as, “It’s below 3%, therefore it’s just lime flavoured piss”.
I found myself surprisingly agitated by this comment.
First off, as far as I am aware, urea is non-alcoholic. 2%, 3%, 9% ABV …it doesn’t matter – none of these will be piss. Sorry fellas, but CGA, the industry market data analysts, classify ‘Piss’ as a NABLAB*.
Second, and the real rub, is the commonly held belief that low alcohol = low taste. Plenty of ale drinkers actively choose lower ABV (3%s) beers because they get lots of taste whilst retaining reasonable control of their faculties.
Third, it goes without saying that people having a pop at brewers for at least trying something new and different should rile anyone who is pro-beer, even if, let’s be honest, this particular innovation from Carling isn’t exactly pushing the envelope of creativity. We shouldn’t be too sniffy about this – beer drinkers, and consumers in general – are normally pretty risk averse, and I understand that Carling Zest is doing alright.
The real question is, can a beer below 3% really taste that good – not because it is low in alcohol (read: ethanol), but rather because it is potentially too low in the other elements that make beer enjoyable? Body; texture; mouthfeel; richness, ability to form foam and so on. Oh, and the psychological side of things too: can we ever believe that it can taste good if it’s below 3%**
It’s going to be something we can soon judge for ourselves in bars and supermarkets up and down the land. The Government’s move in halving duty on beers of 2.8% ABV and below a short while back is now acting as the pebble that caused the wave of new products. Carling Zest is one of the early entries – using the addition of fruit essences to mask the lack of body in the beer itself, whilst I wouldn’t add it to my beer list of choice, I can appreciate that on certain occasions, for certain moods, it’ll have a place. There are others, Marston’s have launched ‘Pale Ale’, a beer that is ‘Traditionally Brewed For Flavour & Taste’ (Best served chilled). It’s 2.8%. Adnam’s ‘Sole Star’, a ‘Pale Amber Ale’ is brewed to 2.7%; Hop Back ‘Heracles’, a ‘bold new beer….truly strong in flavour’ is 2.8%; J Willie Lees ‘Golden Lite’ (Lager) is…… 2.8%.
Notwithstanding the fact that this list sounds like the runners and riders at Kempton Park, all of these beers (and many more I haven’t listed here) have come to market recently. All, using one form of words or another, make a claim to ‘flavour’. None it seems, compare themselves to ‘piss’, nor list this as an ingredient on the back label. What a ‘relief’.
It’s about time we were more open to the wonderful diversity and lexicon of beer styles and flavours, and disconnect the crass assumptions that more alcohol automatically equals more flavour. In the UK, this category is here to stay. It’s just the job of relearning that’s going to be a big one.
*NABLAB = no alcohol beer / low alcohol beer.
**Not that long ago, I had a meeting with Tim Martin. He had an interesting perspective that there isn’t a real ‘gap’. Drinkers, he reckoned either wanted the full on experience with the alchol hit and were prepared for it (ie walking / getting a bus / lift home) or didn’t want any alcohol at all i.e I won’t trust myself to have 2 pints of a 2.8% beer and still drive.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012