Pete Brown has a (rhetorical) question: When is a 7% abv drink more alcoholic than a 14% abv drink? Why, he answers, when it’s a beer, of course.

Being the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world has its disadvantages. It means you tend to be the scapegoat for all alcohol’s problems, even if those problems are, in reality, linked far more closely with other drinks.

Here in the UK, we’re currently seeing the proposal of a raft of measures aimed at reducing the average strength of beer. Late last year, we saw an extra tax burden introduced on beers above 7.5% abv, and a reduced tax on beers below 2.8%, in an effort to get people drinking lower strength beer. There was no similar measure introduced for wine between, say, 13% and 15%, despite the fact that the average strength of wine has crept up from 12% to 13.5% over the last ten to 15 years, and despite the fact that more drinkers are switching from lower abv beer to higher abv wine, and wine is taking an ever greater share of throat.

And, what about spirits? 

A contact in the drinks industry recently told me they were summoned to a meeting with the Department of Health, at which the government told the drinks industry they wanted to take 1bn alcohol units out of the British market, and they were going to sit there until they decided how to do it. The representatives of the beer and wine industries duly got to work. The spirits guys didn’t even bother turning up to the meeting. Which, I guess, means they don’t have to do anything.

This all makes it very easy for mainstream beer brands to slash the strength of their flagship products. Anheuser-Busch Inbev, relentlessly alert to any opportunity to cut costs, were first out of the traps in January, announcing that the strength of Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser in the UK will be cut from 5% to 4.8%. It’s estimated that the move will save the brewer GBP8.6m (US$13.6m) a year in duty on sales of Stella Artois in the off-trade alone. Obviously, the consumer will see none of this benefit, and the brewer gets to look like it’s behaving responsibly. 

In the present climate, other beers will surely follow.

I’m sure A-B Inbev conducted consumer tests comparing the 5% product and the 4.8% product and found consumers couldn’t tell the difference. I imagine responsible consumers even welcomed the move – same ‘great taste’, but it won’t get me drunk as quickly.

But, there’s a hoary apocryphal story in advertising about this manoeuvre. The version I heard was about Campbell’s Soup: every year, they cut their costs by using cheaper ingredients. Every year, they tasted the new recipe against the old one, could’t tell a difference, and congratulated themselves on having shaved their costs with no apparent loss. Then, one year, a new CEO comes in. They duly present him with two bowls, the old and the new recipe, and sure enough, he can’t taste the difference. But, he says: “Go make me a bowl to the recipe we were using ten years ago.” This causes some agitation, but eventually the bowl arrives. He tastes it. Everyone does. At this point, depending on how sentimental you are, people tend to invent their own details about grown executives weeping at the return of the taste they remember from childhood, now long-vanished, or the CEO saying something like: “And that’s why our sales are down.” Whatever – you get the idea.

I worry that, in the current climate, we could be looking at further "Hey, 4.7% doesn’t taste any different from 4.8% - say, what about 4.6%?" style cuts.

The quality of the beer suffers. And what I find frustrating is, it won’t change beer’s status as scapegoat for all alcohol’s ills. We have the ‘beer belly’, so beer must be more fattening than other drinks (even though it’s not). We have the ‘lager lout’, so drinkers who cause anti-social behaviour must be drinking beer (even though they aren’t). And, because the beer industry is so good at sending out press releases about beer that never get turned into stories, harried sub-editors, when they need a picture to illustrate the harm that alcohol does, have plenty of shots of people drinking beer to choose from. Those shots may not illustrate the problem – after all, they just show a person drinking a beer – but these images become entwined with the negative.

And so, culturally, beer remains the perceived problem. I regularly enjoy drinking a beer of 8% or 9% abv. When I do, friends will usually express a mixture of laddish approval at my hard-man bravado, and slight concern for my alcohol dependency. I then ask them what they’re drinking. It’s usually wine. I ask if they know how strong it is – they don’t. But, when they check the bottle, it's often 14% or even 14.5% abv – those New World reds sure do pack a punch. Even though my beer serving is often little or no bigger than their wine serving - meaning I’m effectively drinking half the alcohol they are - I’m still seen as the one with the problem.

Brewers are very quick to reduce alcohol levels in their beers or launch new low alcohol variants. And, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, so long as it’s a beer that was designed to deliver a satisfying, balanced flavour profile at a low abv rather than a beer that should be 5.2% that’s just been watered down. 

But, by simply cutting abv alone, they’re kind of admitting their guilt. It would be nice if, at the same time, the industry were equally enthusiastic about pointing out that beer is already the lowest alcohol drink we have.

Last year, I visited the new wave of US craft cider makers in New England, and was impressed by their cool, sparkling ‘hard’ ciders at around 7.5% abv. In the UK, we’d say: “Whoah, a pint of this and you’ll be on the floor!” In the US, they package it in 75cl bottles, stylishly labelled, and sell it to Manhattan restaurants as a low alcohol alternative to wine. 

It’s all a matter of perception, packaging and positioning. There’s no such thing as a wine drinker or a beer drinker or a cider drinker – we’re all repertoire drinkers now. And, within that repertoire, treated the right way, beer – particularly strong beer that can stand up to food and must be drunk slowly – is part of the solution, not the problem.