Saturday, 30 June 2012

When strong meant 3.9%

Here is an advert from the Glasgow Evening Times of December 26, 1957.

“Mackeson is a strong stout.” In 1957 Mackeson was 3.9% abv. It seems as ludicrous as back in the 1980s when the likes of Red Stripe at 4.7% used to be marketed as “Strong Lager”. It was only strong in comparison to the watery “standard lager” pub drinkers were used to, such as the unlamented 3.0% version of Heineken.Bu

But even at 3.9%, Mackeson actually was stronger than most beer drunk in Britain at the time. This 1971 exchange from Hansard, prompted by the Sunday Mirror’s notorious exposé of the gravities of widely available beers, suggests that the strength of beer remained pretty much the same from the 1950s through to the 1970s:

3. Mr. Ashton
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will introduce legislation to control the alcoholic content and gravity of beer.
Mr. Anthony Stodart
I see no need for legislation. There is no evidence that the alcoholic content, or gravity, of beer has changed significantly since 1951. Nor is it evident that consumers are incapable of selecting a beer which meets their taste from the many on offer.
Mr. Ashton
Has not the hon. Gentleman seen the Sunday Mirror report, which is quite contrary to what he just said? If it is possible to have the proof written on the label of a whisky bottle and the octane rating on a petrol pump so that the consumer can have a proper choice, why cannot the same be done for beer? If the gravity is declared to the Excise authorities, as it must be, why cannot it be put on the beer pump or the beer bottle label?
Mr. Stodart
The hon. Gentleman has asked several questions. I have read the Sunday Mirror, but a comparison of its article with the article in Which? in 1960 shows no marked trend. If the House wishes, I will circulate the complete comparisons in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The average specific gravity has varied by only 0.2 in 20 years; it has gone up very slightly since 1951. As to the comparison with whisky and petrol, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that they are different. The hon. Gentleman will give just as good a performance on light ale as on heavy.
Mr. Farr
Is my hon. Friend aware that the specific gravity and the alcohol content of beer bear no relation to the quality of the drink, and that the quality of British beer brewed today is higher than it has been at any time since the war?
Mr. Stodart
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. There are other things that interest beer drinkers. There is colour and there is flavour, and alcohol content is not one that particularly interests me.
Mr. Michael Cocks
Does the Minister agree that it is regrettable that the House must rely for information on a survey in 1960 and a more recent report in the Sunday Mirror? Will the hon. Gentleman consider cutting through all the objections raised on both sides by publishing the tax the drinker pays on a pint, so that the drinker can make his own comparisons?
Mr. Stodart
That is not the Question that was asked. The House does not have to rely on the Sunday Mirror, The Customs returns show that in 1951 the average gravity of all beers was 1036.51 and in 1970 it was 1036.78. Therefore, they show that it is higher.


  1. I suppose you could say that in the context of Scottish sweet stouts at the time, Mackeson was pretty strong.

  2. Average OG was not far away from 1070 from 1951 until the 1990's.

  3. That shoutd have read 1037, of course.

  4. I don't think it's particularly 'ludicrous' to claim that beer with an alcohol content of 4.7% is "strong", even today. Most draught beer is around 4%, and is not considered "weak".