Is Reducing Alcohol the Answer?

A question of balance

Lion Breweries just went to quite a lot of effort to send us a sample of their new “Speights Mid Ale,” a 2.5% alc/vol version that is “Lower in alcohol without a compromise in taste.” This will be released as a tap only product, so they made a special bottling for reviewers like us. They pointed out lots of reasons you might want a lower alcohol beer, and why this one with three added speciality malts and two hops is an excellent choice.

They did not mention that in December changes to the drink driving laws go into effect, reducing the amount of alcohol permissible in your blood stream. And we wonder if our readers have been thinking about this change. Do you have a strategy for complying? Does that include choosing lower alcohol beer? Do you know what lower alcohol beers are out there?

People in the industry are certainly thinking about it. For some, it’s about being a responsible host, and finding clever ways to promote lower alcohol products (maybe a special mark for beers under 4%?). For other craft brewers and beer bars where the most flavourful beers often have more alcohol, it’s just the evolution of trying to find a tasty “sessionable” beer, where drinkers can have several in a session without feeling too drunk.

Most consumers probably aren’t planning yet. Only when the media hits it big will we really start considering our options. And the industry wants to help shape the demand when we do.

You might think we are talking about low alcohol beer, but that has a specific legal definition. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority states that “labels should not represent an alcoholic beverage that contains more than 1.15% alcohol by volume as a low alcohol beverage.”

For quite some time then, there has been “light beer” in the 2% range. But in NZ it’s fairly scarce. DB has primarily offered Amstel, while Lion has Steinlager and Mac’s products. Stoke has been making the 2% alc/vol light beer 2 Stoke for a few years that’s well reviewed and has a place in bars that want a craft NZ lower alcohol option.

But when it comes to brewing flavourful beer, there is a big difference even going from 2% to 2.5% – that’s like a 25% increase in ingredients. Speights has chosen the name “Mid Ale” and describes the category as mid-strengh, which is new to us. We suppose 2.5% is sort of between light beer and regular 4% Speights. (In the range of all beer out there, though, not to mention other categories like wine, cider, etc, it’s not really the middle of anything.) And it has a strong malt character for a 2.5% alc/vol beer.

But in NZ we don’t seem to drink lower alcohol beers if we don’t need to. A funny thing about lower alcohol beers is the perception of value. So many small scale brewers we’ve talked to have been harangued by loyal fans wanting that holy grail of the high flavour, low alcohol beer. And yet, when they have gone to the trouble of making a beer under 4% such as 8 Wired’s Underwired, it hasn’t sold terribly well.

Very often the response is “Why would I pay the same amount for half the alcohol?” This goes back to the economics of craft brewing as laid out by Stu McKinlay in the Dominion Post (What’s In My Beer) showing that ingredients and excise amount to no more that 20% of the actual price of a beer. So, at best if you used much less malt and paid half the excise, you still could only reduce the cost by perhaps 10%.

And if the “sessionable” flavourful beers around 4% aren’t selling well, then will we see success for “mid strength” pushing even further down toward 2.5%? Will there be a need created by the new law?

Or perhaps for those of us who like the flavour of stronger beers, the most practical thing to do do is to take a taxi or use a sober driver.

This article appeared previously in the Nelson Mail

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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