Duty may put future of Mather’s Black Beer in jeopardy

The Budget, in addition to retaining the notorious duty escalator, also removed a duty exemption which could possibly threaten the survival of one of the oldest beers made in Britain ( I am grateful to Matt for pointing out this change).

Mather’s Black Beer is the last remaining British survivor of a category of beer known as “black or spruce beer” in the language of tax specialists. Its distinguishing features are extreme syrupiness, a huge original gravity of over 1.200, and its dark colour. The name spruce beer derives from spruce tips that were once used to flavour beer, though as far as I know Mather’s doesn’t use those any more, if it ever did.

Black (“or spruce”) beer was once more common. In colonial times seafarers had to make beer from whatever ingredients were available such as spruce tips and molasses, and it is one of the foodstuffs Captain Cook used to prevent his crew getting scurvy. The once renowned Brunswick Mumme belongs to the same general category of thick, syrupy beers, and the seafaring connection is surely not a coincidence.

(Mumme was once praised as “a safe and speedy remedy, to remove the unnatural heat of the stomach, and giddiness in the head, contracted / by drinking French Brandy.” So you allegedly could get pissed on French brandy, and then sober up by drinking mum. Wonder how efficacious that was?)

There has been an exemption for “black or spruce beer” in the UK since the 1930s when beer duty was hiked up dramatically. Black beer got off the hook because it was regarded as medicine.

According to this story in the Daily Telegraph, the producers of Mather’s, Continental Wine & Food of Yorkshire, are concerned that the effect of the budget will double the price of a bottle. If this causes a dramatic drop in sales, the product may cease to be commercially viable. CWF already sell just 35,000 bottles a year, mostly to elderly people in Yorkshire.

CWF have an interest in exaggerating the danger, of course, but if true it’s a terrible shame that a type of beer with such a long history should be on the verge of extinction. If it came from America and cost £6 a third in the Rake, beer geeks would be all over it. I have drunk a few very strong and under-attenuated imperial stouts which reminded me of Mather’s more than anything else.

Apparently the exemption is to be removed to “simplify” the tax regime, and black (“or spruce”) beer will henceforth be treated like any other beer of 8.5% abv. This levels the playing field and is therefore beneficial to competition, say the government’s experts.

The last remaining example of a type of beer that’s been made since the Middle Ages — I can’t see how driving that into extinction is good for competition. The next time the ministers of the current government start going on about defending English heritage from EU interference, remind them how they did their best to kill off a beer that Captain Cook drank.


  1. nice post, sad to see a part of history knocked on the head by the tax man and the government

  2. Tut tut Rob. Quoting the Telegraph. This story was in Scotland on Sunday on er... Sunday.

  3. The taxman has never been interested in tradition. Britain's long traditions of both wheat beers and ales flavoured with herbs were knocked on the head by legislation designed to protect the malt tax and the hop tax respectively.


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