Through a Glass Lightly
As taxation helped bring about the change in the color of Britain’s export beers, tax relief helped drinkers to see what they were drinking. In 1845, the high taxes imposed on the production of glass were removed in England, just as techniques for the mass production of bottles and glasses were being developed. Clearer, lighter beers became the rage—a trend that has continued to the present day, at one point nearly dooming porter and dark mild beers to extinction.
Gaining Strength in the Marketplace—By Losing It
Taxation was also responsible for the fall in gravity of many British beer styles. Taxes on all brewing materials were dropped in the UK beginning with Gladstone’s Free Mash Tun Act in 1880, which based the duty on beer solely on the brew’s original gravity.
The standard beer was assumed to have an OG of 1057, with higher taxes imposed above this level, and lower taxes beneath it. Between 1890 and 1900, the typical OG of British pale ale was over 1060; after both world wars, it had dropped below 1040. Meanwhile, brewers made more of what they had to work with. Attenuation of extract during fermentation (the degree to which the yeast converted the available sugar to alcohol) increased during this period, from 50-65 percent to over 70 percent, producing drier brews.
The Free Mash Tun Act also helped change the composition of British beers, since no tax was afterward imposed on ingredients. Cheaper adjuncts such as unmalted grain including rice and corn, as well as the increased use of sugar, became commonplace, and the malt flavors of many British beers declined as a result.
The British bitter and pale ales of today, as good as they are, remain tax-stripped ghost of beers past. Most of them are rather mild, fairly dry beers, many under 4% ABV, with a medium hop aroma at best. They are a far cry from the much maltier, more heavily hopped British ales of the 18th and 19th centuries.
This evolution has made these beers noticeably different from their American cousins, which typically have greater hop bitterness as well as higher alcohol levels, averaging about 5 percent ABV. Small wonder that British beer drinkers often complain about the strong brews made here (although perhaps they ought to direct some of that criticism toward the tax laws that produced weaker brews back home).
Strong beers still face the prospect of higher taxes. In France, a new tax that was proposed to take effect on January 1 of this year would have raised the tax on beers over 8.5 percent ABV to 2 Euros per liter to combat the supposed health risks associated with stronger beers. According to A. Gillet, president of ATPUB (AssociaTion Pour l’Union des Biérophiles), this tax would have increased the supermarket price of these beers by over 30 percent. Ironically, the tax on alcoholic beverages over 25% ABV is significantly less—only 1.28 Euros per liter. “For the French government,” Gillet said,” a Chimay is more dangerous for your health than a tequila or a vodka.”
Belgian brewers saw this new tax as an attempt to undercut their considerable market in France, since far more Belgian than French beers would be affected by it. In response to Belgium’s complaint to the EEU about the tax, the French government finally abandoned the proposal.