Friday, 10 April 2009


I keep telling you what a massive effect WW I had on British beer and brewing. But there was another, non-war-related event that had a considerable impact. The Great Depression.

Once the dust had settled after WW I, average gravity had dropped by about 10º from its pre-war level. It remained at around 1043º until 1931, when a big rise in beer duty (from 80s to 114s per standard barrel) prompted brewers to cut gravities to avoid increasing the price of a pint.

The uneven approach of brewers to the tax increase - dropping the gravity of some styles, such as Mild and Porter, increasing the price of others like Bitter - widened the gap in strength between the cheap and expensive beers. In 1923, Whitbread's X Ale had an OG of 1042.1º and its PA 1046.4º. In 1933, X was 1036.1º and PA 1048.8º.

The tax increase was reversed in 1933, but gravities never got back to their old levels, remaining around 1041º. Nor did the government's tax revenues. As you can see from the table below.

In the 1920's, X Ale (standard Mild) cost 6d a pint and had a gravity of around 1042º. After the tax increase, the gravity dropped to 1036º and the price remained at 6d a pint. When tax went back to 80 shillings a barrel in 1933, brewers left the gravity the same and dropped the price to 5d a pint. Drinkers couldn't have complained that much about their Mild tasting watery.

There were two classes of Bitter, one which sold at 7d a pint and had a typical gravity of 1046º, the other was 8d a pint and 1053º. In the early 1930's, the stronger version mostly disappeared. Mostly just a single Bitter was sold, at a price of 8d a pint and with a gravity of 1046º.

Draught Strong Ale (or Burton) was, before 1930, always 8d a pint and about 1053º. After the tax rise, there are two different types. One that cost 9d a pint and had the old gravity. The other was 8d a pint and 1046º. When the tax fell again, the price of each type was cut by 1d.

Perspective. Like I was saying the other day, perspective is what you need. There present times may be difficult for British brewing, but it's survived worse in the past. Increasing beer tax in an economic recession isn't likely to equivalently increase government revenue. Demand for beer isn't that elastic. As the early 1930's demonstrate. It took the industry the best part of 10 years to recover from an injudicious tax increase. I wonder how long it will take this time?


Tandleman said...

You ought to send this on to our dear Chancellor and let him judge history.

Ron Pattinson said...

Tandleman, that's one of the reasons I posted this. What happened in the early 1930's is eerily similar to what's happening now. But which politician ever really took lessons from history?

Gary Gillman said...

I could see the decision being fairly complex (to raise price or lower gravity) because I would think you would need to know things such as:

- average amount of ethanol a drinker would take in on a pub visit

- how much volume of beer a drinker on average was prepared to drink (irrespective of alcohol content)

- how resistant drinkers were to price increases in the particular time.

I would think in some cases, brewers would make more money than before by lowering gravity because drinkers would buy more mass to get the accustomed effect. If they would not do so, though, it would be the drinker that lost out unless the brewer shared the pain in some way. I wonder if the big brewers at least were using cost-benefit analyses and other sophisticated business methods to determine the best course to take.


Bill said...

Between the government and the brewery owners it appears British beer never had a chance. Guess they were to busy trying to stay in business to worry about their product. In America to screw things up so well requires a Harvard MBA.

Ron Pattinson said...

Fist Stater, I don't quite understand what you're saying. These are the circumstances that forged modern British beer. Adverse conditions forced British brewers to adapt and innovate.

My point was that British brewing has survived worse crises than the current one and come out stronger for it.

Bill said...

It seems the data points to British beer coming out weaker, not stronger following a 20th century crisis. The brewers could have returned to pre-war strength but chose not to. Same with the tax, they again folded and changed to a weaker beer. When the tax was repealed they did not increase gravity, only profit. The first(?) golden age of British beer seems to be pre-20th century. That is my point.

Ron Pattinson said...

First Stater, you misunderstand, the brewing industry came out stronger, not the beer.

British brewers became expert at making flavoursome beers of modest strength. Something no other country has ever managed.

You have to remember, too, that the economic crisis in Britain didn't begin with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 but around 1922.

Strong does not equal good.