USA VS. UK: THE GRAVITY GAP

Rich over at The BeerCast sent an SOS to the Aleheads this week in regards to the October 1st tax increase on all “strong beer” in the UK. Rich, and other British Aleheads, are up in arms that their nanny state government is attempting to curb problem drinking by making beer over 7.5% ABV more expensive (while actually lowering taxes on beer below 2.8%…aka: milk). Rich notes that the scourge of strong beer constitutes less than one-half of one-percent of UK alcohol sales. Nice work, Parliament! Alcoholism in the Kingdom should be cured in a matter of weeks!

Oddly, taxes on wine and spirits (both of which are, if you recall, quite a bit stronger than beer) remain untouched. This is to be expected, however, in that MPs mostly drink wine and spirits while the great, unwashed, drunken masses obviously only drink Barleywines and Imperial Stouts. It’s crazy stuff…but if you follow the machinations of the British government (which I certainly don’t), you’ll no doubt notice that they’ve actually become almost as dysfunctional and reactive as their US counterparts. In this case, the MPs remind me of an out-of-touch college dean:

MP1: There appear to be a number of drunkards rabble-rousing on our cobble-stoned streets!
MP2: I suspect their numbers have increased since those cheeky Americans began shipping their Imperialized India Pale Ales overseas.
MP1: We must put a stop to this utter breakdown of civilized English society!
MP2: I’ve got it, old chap! We’ll tax the bloody hell out of all strong beer!
MP1: Jolly good, Guvna! That’ll keep those street urchins from pissing on our statuary.
MP2: Indeed! But they’ll still tipple. They are hooligans, after all.
MP1: Ah, quite…quite. Well perhaps we can encourage them to drink terrible beer?
MP2: Brilliant! We’ll lower taxes on weak beer!
MP1: Pip, pip! Cheerio!
MP2: Stiff upper lip, harrumph harrumph.

I’m almost 100% sure that’s how the debate went. I’ve spent almost 5 whole days in England, so I think I’m pretty much an expert on how things work over there. Other than looking for some sympathy for the stupidity of this new tax, Rich at The BeerCast had a question for the Aleheads. He wanted our perspective on why American craft beer is traditionally stronger than its British equivalent. The easy answer is because the UK taxes beer based on % ABV while the US doesn’t (so British brewers have to pay more to produce stronger brews). I’m sure that’s a huge part of it (actually, as commenter Steve points out, it’s probably THE root cause), but I’ve got a number of other compelling theories that may play a role:

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1. Differentiation from Big Beer: Unlike in the UK, the American beer scene was utterly dominated for almost 60 years by cheap, watery, tasteless lagers. Thanks to Prohibition (wait no…not “thanks”, I mean “fuck you, Prohibition”), almost all of the hundreds upon hundreds of American breweries went out of business in the early 30s. The survivors were big, savvy companies like Anheuser-Busch which utterly thrived in the scorched Earth that Prohibition had created. For decades, Americans didn’t really know any better…and by the 80s, they basically had three choices of beer (Bud, Miller, or Coors…plus a handful of regional players). But thanks to some craft pioneers like Fritz Maytag, Pete Slosberg, Jim Koch and others, a revolution began brewing in the 80s which has grown exponentially ever since. Today, we FINALLY have more breweries in the US than we did before Prohibition. It only took about a lifetime.

One of the main reasons brewers got into the craft scene was to create something wholly different from the macro adjunct lagers that dominated (and still do) the American beer world. While there were any number of ways to do so (better ingredients, no adjuncts, bigger flavors, more variety), one of the crucial differences was gravity. Creating a beer with more flavor and more body often requires the inclusion of more fermentable sugars which, naturally, leads to higher-strength beers. It’s not that high-gravity brews are necessarily the goal for craft beers (though in some cases, they certainly are); it’s just that stronger beer was a common repercussion of trying to create more flavorful, richer beers than something like Bud Light. As people “gravitated” towards these stronger beers (get it!), it became more and more common for American craft breweries to push the envelope and that’s when hundreds of Double IPAs, Imperial Stouts, Old Ales, and Barleywines began hitting the shelves. The stereotype of the American Alehead with a fridge full of 12% hop-bombs isn’t entirely accurate…but I’m not saying it’s entirely false either.

In the UK, there was no need for a true craft beer revolution. Because alcohol has never been banned there, the beer wasteland that occurred in the US for most of the 20th century wasn’t an issue. As such, the nascent British craft beer scene doesn’t really have a need to differentiate itself from the kind of swill that dominates the American beer world. Their focus has been more about creating tastier, more thoughtful versions of popular British styles like Bitters, Brown Ales, English IPAs, and Porters. Relative to the US, the pre-craft British beer scene actually wasn’t all that bad. As such, UK craft brewers have set about brewing “better” versions of existing styles rather than trying to push the envelope like their American counterparts.*

*Though there are exceptions. Hello, BrewDog.

2. Pub Drinking vs. At-Home Drinking: The UK has an enviable (though sadly dwindling) pub culture. Brits gather on barstools every night of the week to discuss footy, bangers, and that twat David Cameron over a few pints of real ale. The key to these social interactions is reasonable strength “session” beer. If you’re downing 3 or 4 (or more) pints in an evening with your mates in a pub, you’re probably not looking for anything much higher than 4.5% ABV. Most Brits live within walking distance of a pub and said pubs serve as focal points for the community.

Contrast that with the American drinking scene which is MUCH more focused on drinking at home or at parties. While bar culture certainly thrives in the US, most Americans don’t live within walking distance of a taphouse (we’re a car culture). Since alcohol + driving does not end well, many Aleheads find themselves tucking into bottles in their comfort of their own homes. Because we’re more likely to just have a bottle or two at home (we feel like alcoholics if we finish a six-pack at our kitchen table…especially if our dogs are watching us), we don’t really care how strong the beer is. As such, Aleheads like myself think nothing of cracking into a bomber of 12% DIPA or 14% Barleywine since that’s probably all we’re drinking that night. The very concept of a “session” beer is completely different in the US. We think of session brews as anything we can drink more than two of and still drive home. And while I would absolutely LOVE to live within stumbling distance of a few pubs, I’m not about to give up my McMansion, my manicured lawn, my 8 SUVs, my ride-on lawnmower, and my 8 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms.*

*Note: I have none of these things.

3. American Craft Experimentation:
I don’t mean this to be a knock on any other countries, but I think it’s safe to say that America is leading the way in craft beer experimentation these days. We’re an innovative, boundary-pushing culture. Sometimes that gets us in trouble (witness the pure evil that is the KFC Double-Down sandwich), but other times it allows us to create extraordinary things. This has certainly been the case in the craft world where American brewers are making wondrous beers with crazy ingredients, ground-breaking brewing methods, and yes, really high ABVs.

That’s not to say that the UK is quite as buttoned-down and conservative as it is often portrayed. But in the case of craft brewing, there are only a handful of over-the-pond breweries pushing the envelope as hard as their American contemporaries. There are countless, delicious British beers…but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that, for the most part, they’re not quite as over-the-top as what you’ll find in any decent American craft beer bar or package store. That doesn’t mean American beer is better…just that if you’re looking for stronger, bigger, more “extreme” beers, you’ll find the most variety here in the States.

4. Brewery-Owned Pubs: It’s a minor point, but worth mentioning. In the UK, many of the pubs are “tied” to specific breweries and they exclusively (or almost exclusively) serve that brewery’s beers. There’s really no need for an offering to “stand out” when you’re visiting a Young’s, or Fuller’s, or Samuel Smith’s bar and you already know what will be on tap (not to mention the fact that all the tap handles will look the same).

Contrast that with the US where, other than taprooms attached to a brewery, you’ll rarely run into a taphouse owned and operated by a specific ale factory. At a beer bar in the US, brewers are vying for tap handles which means coming up with offerings that catch the eye (in terms of the handle itself) and pique an Alehead’s interest (say by featuring a huge, 12% Imperial Stout). I promise you that most Aleheads will gravitate towards that massive, high-gravity brew if it’s pitted against a plethora of 5% Pale Ales and 6% Browns. Again, it’s a minor point, but the inherent competition in an American beer bar forces brewers to try some crazy stuff. The brewery-owned pubs in the UK, on the other hand, can lead to complacency both amongst the brewers and the pub patrons.*

*I’m clearly speculating here. Can any of our British readers comment on this theory?

5. Historical Trends: As noted above, the UK never experienced Prohibition. But they DID suffer through two disastrous World Wars that didn’t affect the US quite as dramatically. Take a look at the chart on this site and you’ll notice something obvious…the average strength of UK beer dropped during war-time. This can be easily explained by rationing. With less grain available to brewers, the average strength of beer would have decreased noticeably. And while those numbers have risen steadily in the decades since WWII, it’s likely that most Brits developed a taste for lower-strength beer during the war years. It’s HARD to break historical trends…just look how long it took for craft beer to finally make a dent in macro lager sales in the US. And if British drinkers had gotten used to lower-strength (but still tasty) session beers in their pubs, it’s understandable why that habit would be hard to break.*

*Let’s also point out that it may not be a habit you really WANT to break.

Sure, American-style, strong craft beers are gaining a toe-hold in the UK and lots of British Aleheads are swarming to those brews, but in general, our British counterparts still prefer their traditional, session-strength brews. Add that to the fact that the Brits are generally pretty attached to their home-grown products, and you can understand why lower-ABV beers are still the beers of choice in traditional UK pubs.

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I can’t say whether any of these theories are primarily responsible for the difference between British and American Aleheads and I’m sure there are a number of other factors as well. Nevertheless, there is certainly a bit of an “ABV Divide” between our two great nations and I’m glad Rich asked for our opinion on this disparity. Regardless of our differences, please know that American Aleheads are standing with our British peers in outrage over the so-called “strong beer tax”. It’s ridiculous. It solves nothing. It’s only effect will be to hamper the growth efforts of UK craft brewers. And in this economic climate, is that really what you want? Do you REALLY want to start tacking restrictions on one of the few growth industries today?

Come on UK…you were smart enough to ignore Prohibition. You should be smart enough to leave craft beer alone.

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15 comments

  1. Some interesting theories here, although it’s my understanding that the British beer scene was nearly as flat and macro lager-dominated as it was here in the middle of the last century, a situation only averted by the formation of CAMRA which became the country’s largest consumer advocacy group and protected the rich tradition of real ale. Granted, the UK’s storied breweries weren’t all crushed in one legislative swoop of prohibition, but the “beer wasteland” you describe was probably applicable to both countries at some point in their histories.

  2. Oh, England definitely went through a “dark” period, but it was nowhere near as bad as it was here. In 1971, when CAMRA was founded, the UK and US had roughly the same number of breweries (~140). BUT, with a population almost five times larger than the UK, America’s beer industry was in MUCH more dire straits. That said, CAMRA’s founding certainly turned things around quickly in the UK. While their brewing industry began growing after 1971, the US actually continued to lose breweries and didn’t reach their lowest point until the mid-80s (when our craft beer forefathers finally began bucking the system).

  3. My assumption was because British beer has always been taxed by ABV whereas US Brewers are taxed by volume output…or is that just an incorrectly perpetuated myth?

  4. That’s correct, Steve. The US excise tax is strictly based on output, not ABV (and it’s actually changing to favor small breweries). The UK system taxes by hectoliter per percent ABV. So a 10% ABV brew would have twice as much excise tax as a 5% beer (and now even MORE than that, thanks to this new law).

    I touched on that point in a footnote at the end of the article, but your comment made me realize that said footnote didn’t get published. I incorporated it into my intro section instead so it wouldn’t get overlooked. This article was mostly looking at reasons OTHER than the obvious “higher ABV = higher tax” cause, but clearly the post is meaningless unless that fact is specifically mentioned. So thanks for catching it!

  5. An interesting post. I’ve often wished we had more of a pub culture here, but it sadly won’t happen. The whole country is built around driving to get wherever you need to go…

    It’s really not clear to me why this tax would be put in to place at all, but like most laws I’m sure it comes down to the fact that politicians are assholes.

  6. Mrs. Draught · ·

    I will point out that we have (at the Captain’s last count) something like 20 bars and pubs within stumbling distance from our house, and possibly many more depending on how far you’re interested in stumbling. We also don’t have 8 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms (or any of the other abode qualities you mention, Barley) but we’d still welcome visits from fellow Aleheads any time.

  7. I think it’s interesting that Young’s is relaunching their highly regarded 10% ABV Courage Imperial Stout… but only in the USA. Is this because of their belief that the strong beer better suits that American palate, or do the taxes noted in this article not apply to exports?

    Either way, thanks UK for sending us all of one of your best beers! I’d like to say we’ll return the favor, but we won’t.

  8. It’s an honour to inspire an Aleheads post – thanks for answering my questions, furiously pounded out on my keyboard in a haze of tax-addled anger. Steve already nailed the key difference between US and UK brewing it seems – tax on strength versus tax on output. Similarly the differences between beer-loving drinkers on either side of the Atlantic could be broadly explained by drinking at home vs the pub (although I’m guessing each Alehead is greeted like Norm from Cheers in his Stateside local, and there are plenty of Brits who drink alone, at home *cough*)

    Regarding Barley’s point about competition in the US fostering craziness, I think that’s probably a fair one. Over here, whilst the Brits are famed for being reserved, there’s more than an element of truth in it – I can’t imagine many punters here tucking into a sweet potato, nutmeg and allspice beer steeped with vanilla bean and whisky-infused pecan chips (to quote your previous post). More power to US brewers for thinking up things like that – Fullers et al would never attempt it.

    I know that’s not really comparing like with like – pub-owning UK brewers aren’t the ones who need to experiment, due to their reputation – these newcomers to the scene need to stir up a bit of interest (no offence to Four Hands Brewing). This is fostered by bloggers, of course – the roundly maligned speech of CAMRA Chair Colin Valentine (when he criticised the ‘bloggerati’) did have a few home truths – such as we do like writing about the weird, new and/or unusual.

    Anyway, we’ll still be featuring only beer over 7.5% this month – if nothing else as an experiment into liver function. Just today I found out a Scottish brewer has apparently had INCREASED interest in their sole >7.5% seasonal – so much so, that they are brewing it at the moment. Could this be the unexpected outcome of the new duty? Let’s hope so, but to be honest, I’m not holding my breath…

  9. Maybe I’m some fucked-up outlier (or just an Alehead), but I think we should have a new classification of “American-style Session Beer” that starts at 7.5%.

  10. I’m going to pile on with Mrs. Draught with a comment regarding reason #4: I’m delighted that the Pacific Northwest has a fairly significant roster of brewery-owned-pubs. The McMenamins folks have quirky locations all over Northwest Oregon (ranging from small corner brewpubs to winery estates with large-ish concert venues and/or hotels), and Portland has brewpubs within walking distance in most neighborhoods. Even Salem and Eugene each have a handful, and most towns of any size have at least one. Whether this is a contributing factor to or a resultant of the great beer culture out here, who knows? But either way, you’re not about to find me complaining.

    Also, thank you Rich for introducing me to the term ‘bloggerati’. I have a new favorite ironic nickname for The Professor.

  11. Actually, I guess the singular would probably be ‘bloggeratus’. As in: Professor pH Lager, Bloggeratus. Or should we abbreviate it, similar to esquire? Perhaps Professor pH Lager, Blg.?

  12. Beerford and Mrs. Draught…you happen to live in epic beer towns. Most of the rest of us have to hop in the car to get to our local taphouse. It sucks for us, but I do think that’s why bottle culture is so much bigger here than draught culture. I can’t stumble home from my local bar, so a lot of my beer sampling is done in the comfort of the McHops Monastery.

    Mrs. Draught, I’m hoping we can take you up on the offer soon! I’d love to visit the Cap’n’s Crow’s Nest.

  13. Anonymous · ·

    Beerford – it’s Dr. Professor pH Lager, Ph.D., Blg. if you’re going for formal titles.

  14. […] and Alehead Barley extorted us Brits to stand firm against the evil Government.* He then flipped the post around, to query just why Americans like nothing more than chugging (smaller) pints of […]

  15. We’ve finally got our retort up on the BeerCast – our response to Barley’s points…stiff upper lips all round!

    UK vs the USA – retort!

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