Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Consumption of Beer

At the beginning of WW I there was no attempt in Britain to control the level of beer production nor to limit beer strength. The only government action was a huge increase in the beer tax in late 1914. The tax rose from 7s 9d per standard barrel (36 gallons with an OG of 1055º) to 23s.

The expectation was that this would knock back beer consumption considerably. Though the estimated amount of the fall seems to have varied somewhat. At first there was talk of a 35% reduction:

The Executive Committee of the Allied Brewery Traders' Association has passed resolution to the effect that they view with alarm the operation of the increased beer duty which, is estimated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will reduce consumption of beer by 35 per cent., and will create widespread unemployment."
Western Gazette - Friday 04 December 1914, page 8.

A few months later this had been magically reduced to 23%. Though that turned out to be no more accurate.

Rise After a Fall Due to the War Tax
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer put his extra tax on beer to help to pay for the war he calculated that the fall in consumption on account of the increased price would be about 23 per cent. He thought, however, the brewer and the publican stood to gain rather than lose by charging an additional penny a pint, which was more than the extra tax itself warranted. The price of a pint of "four ale" - ale sold at fourpence the quart - went from twopence to threepence, and of beer from threepence to fourpence. The immediate effect was a drop in consumption close on 60 per cent. Many of the brewers forthwith reduced their production.

The latest reports from the country show a notable rise in the consumption. It varies considerably, of course, according to the nature the place and the density of the population. In rural districts it still remains low. The war has carried away many of the agricultural labourers. To those who remain it seems as if it has also carried away their beer, now that their customary "four ale" is no longer obtainable at the inn. But in manufacturing centres the attachment of the average working man to his "pint" has overcome the fit of economy which seized him when the price went up, and there is almost as much beer being consumed as ever."
Western Times - Friday 01 January 1915, page 12.

There's a reason why the increase in price didn't put off drinkers for long. The war also pushed up wages, especially in munitions producing areas. Though it's understandable that there was initially resistance to the price of beer increasing. It had been stable for around 50 years. Most beer drinkers would never have experienced a price increase before. Weird thought that, isn't it? Very different from my own experience. The price of a pint must have gone up half a dozen times in my first legal year of drinking, 1974.

I'm not sure why four ale should suddenly have disappeared in rural districts as early as 1915. London brewers only replaced their X Ale with Government Ale in 1917. Until then there was plenty of Mild around.

How much did beer output fall in 1915? 7.4%, in terms of bulk barrels, 8.2% in terms of bulk barrels. As you can see in the table below, the big fall was between 1917 and 1918. In terms of bulk barrels (which also takes into account the fall in gravity) the drop was almost 50%.

Beer output and tax raised 1914 - 1919
Total Tax £ Bulk Barrels Std. Barrels change bulk barrels change std barrels change tax raised
1914 13,622,971 37,558,767 36,057,913
1915 15,856,412 34,765,780 33,099,411 -7.44% -8.20% 16.39%
1916 33,747,269 32,110,608 30,292,977 -7.64% -8.48% 112.83%
1917 31,567,940 30,163,998 26,626,000 -6.06% -12.11% -6.46%
1918 19,108,663 19,085,043 13,816,173 -36.73% -48.11% -39.47%
1919 25,423,393 23,264,533 12,925,087 21.90% -6.45% 33.05%
1928 Brewers' Almanack

Note how the fall in beer production was so great that there was a considerable fall in the revenue raised from taxing it in 1918.

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