Now I’m the man, the very fat man, That waters the workers’ beer, Yes I’m the man, the very fat man, That waters the workers’ beer, And what do I care if it makes them ill, If it makes them terribly queer, I’ve a car and a yacht and an aeroplane, And I waters the workers’ beer.
You can find more verses of this fine old song by looking up the Socialist’s Song Book.
As it happens Jean-François van Boxmeer is not a very fat man judging from his photo, but he does have an annual salary plus bonus of around €4,955,000 so could probably afford the odd yacht or aeroplane. And his company is watering beer.
He is the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Heineken, the multi-national company that owns John Smith’s brewery. It was announced recently that John Smith’s Extra Smooth is to be reduced in strength from 3.8% alcohol by volume (ABV) to 3.6 per cent ABV. According to the company this will bring it into line with other smooth flow beers such as Tetley’s but you might be forgiven if you think that the estimated tax saving of around £6.6 million per year is a contributing factor in the decision.
Still, at least the landlords and drinkers will benefit from the reduced cost as some of the savings will be passed on down the supply chain. Not so. At the same time as the strength is reduced, a price increase of about 2.5 pence per pint is to be imposed.
The company say that the savings will be invested in the brewing and marketing of the beer.
I suppose it needs it, given that it would be low on the list of choices for the discerning beer drinker, and it does mean that we can look forward to more of their expensive but funny adverts, such as the ones starring Peter Kay.
John Smiths is just the most recent example of the trend to reducing the strength of beers and lagers.
Others guilty parties include Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, which recently cut the strength of Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser. Carlsberg reduced the alcohol by volume (ABV) of Carlsberg Export, from 5 per cent to 4.8 per cent last year. If you buy Budweiser, Bud Light , Stella Artois, Stella Artois Legere or Becks in Canada, for example, you will find that they are all 0.2 per cent stronger that the British versions.
Where will it end? The Government have introduced a reduced tax on beer that is less than 2.8% ABV and some breweries have been experimenting with products of this strength. Skol lager is described on the company website as ‘mid strength’ and is now 2.8 per cent. Greene King’s Tolly English Ale is also 2.8 per cent while Adnam’s Sole Star is 2.7 per cent, but at least these are new beers designed to be low gravity.
I don’t have a problem with weak beer as such – it can taste good and should sell at about 50p per pint cheaper than standard bitter, but it seems wrong to take a well-known beer and reduce the strength as a money making exercise.
On the other hand, maybe Heineken need the money. Back in 2007 they were fined €219.3 million for their part in a beer price fixing cartel operating in the Netherlands. At least that hasn’t happened in Britain.