Beer blowout: Popular pints get weaker as breweries water down Brits brews in 'drinkflation' trend

19 June 2023, 08:15

Brewers are cutting the alcohol content of their beers as a way to save on tax.
Brewers are cutting the alcohol content of their beers as a way to save on tax. Picture: Getty
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Between surging energy costs, mounting mortgage rates, and the downsizing of products on supermarket shelves, consumers in the United Kingdom are finding themselves with less bang for their buck in every direction they turn.

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However, even those seeking solace in a pint may find their satisfaction dampened, as a disconcerting trend called "drinkflation" is taking hold.

Some of the country's most renowned beers are being diluted, leaving imbibers feeling short-changed.

Fosters, Spitfire, Old Speckled Hen, and Bishop's Finger are among the beloved brews that have recently witnessed a reduction in their alcohol content, measured as ABV (alcohol by volume).

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Brewers are resorting to such measures in order to mitigate the impact of inflation on their production costs.

Drinkflation mirrors the phenomenon of "shrinkflation," observed on supermarket shelves nationwide, whereby product sizes decrease while prices either remain the same or increase.

Notable examples include Mini Cheddars, which have become smaller and less cheesy, and Magnum ice creams, which have curtailed the number of ice cream sticks in their multipacks.

Breweries are strategically reducing the alcohol content of their beers to alleviate the burden of taxes. Levies are assessed based on the alcohol percentage in a beverage, making ABV reduction an accessible means of cutting expenses.

This year, Fosters, owned by the Dutch brewing giant Heineken, saw its ABV lowered from 4% to 3.7%, resulting in a tax saving of 3p per can.

Curiously, despite the diminution in strength, Heineken hiked the price of kegs of the lager sold to pubs by a staggering 15.8% in January.

Similarly, Shepherd Neame in Kent reduced the ABV of its popular Spitfire ale from 4.5% to 4.2%, saving 3p on each 500ml bottle. Bishop's Finger ale also experienced a decline, from 5% to 4.8%, leading to a tax saving of 2p per bottle.

A spokesperson from Shepherd Neame acknowledged the prevailing trend among breweries and other food and beverage producers, wherein soaring costs of raw materials and energy, including glass, far exceed the headline inflation rate.

As a result, the prices of all their beers have been raised, despite extensive testing to ensure that the reduced alcohol content does not compromise taste.

Meanwhile, Suffolk's Greene King brewery adjusted the ABV of its renowned Old Speckled Hen to 4.8% from 5%, saving 2p in taxes per bottle.

A spokesperson from Greene King noted that reducing alcohol content helps to mitigate the significant cost escalation faced by the brewery without noticeably affecting the flavour of the beer.

Brewers have been accused of "drinkflation" by cutting alcohol levels without slashing prices.
Brewers have been accused of "drinkflation" by cutting alcohol levels without slashing prices. Picture: Getty

Bill Simmons, an industry consultant, explained that breweries are under pressure from supermarkets, their largest customers, to keep prices low. With supermarket food inflation already at 20%, there is a concerted effort to control further increases.

Simmons commended the strategy of reducing alcohol content as a viable option for brewers, considering their thin profit margins.

Although the individual tax savings per can or bottle are minimal, the sheer volume of beer sold by major breweries accumulates substantial sums. However, Simmons believes that most consumers would be unable to detect any difference in taste.

This rise of "drinkflation" coincides with the increasing preference among shoppers for weaker beers, as they seek to moderate their alcohol consumption. Simmons highlights the substantial growth in the market for low and non-alcoholic beers, particularly among those under 45 years old.

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