Big brewers putting supply before demand

By Simon Russell

The consensus view is that big brands don’t deliver on flavour but you can at least be certain about what you’re getting. But even that forlorn hope appears misplaced as the brewers of Carling – a one of the biggest beer brands in the UK – admit that the alcohol content is less than claimed.

Global brewing giant brewer Molson Coors owned up that their big seller is actually a modest 3.7% abv and not the 4% abv advertised on cans and in pubs.

Though a relatively small change it makes a big difference – around £50m in unpaid duty the HMRC claimed since the switch in formulation in September 2012.

Molson Coors appealed the HMRC decision and won – good for them – but the row leaves a bitter taste for many, both those in the drinks trade and millions of ordinary drinkers. A flaw that might yet leave them nursing a hangover.

First, Molson Coors admit that they engineered the recipe change to save money and even tested different formulas to see what might be tolerated.

With the 3.7% version, “It was found that consumers were broadly tolerant from a taste perspective” said the firm’s Marketing Director – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Second, when they settled on the new brew they didn’t tell consumers or even their customers and left 4% on all marketing material. This they claimed was to make further cost savings.

They feared, perhaps with good reason, that if they were transparent and revealed to customers that they were saving money the major retailers would demand a slice of the action.

Hard-nosed supermarket buyers may yet make up for lost time and clobber them now – particularly as they won their appeal and kept the cash out of the hands of Chancellor Philip Hammond.

Plus consumers could exact some measure of revenge as no-one likes to be misled. There is no shortage of alternative, both in the mainstream market for Carling and in the buoyant craft beer sector.

Whilst brewing to 3.7% and declaring 4% is entirely legal given the allowed tolerances, by their own admission, Molson Coors knew what they were doing and their scale of operation can be assumed to be absolutely precise in terms of what is produced.

Some years ago Blackthorn Cider championed a new recipe and a lower abv and were met with open revolt from loyal consumers in their Bristol and West Country heartland.

For a brand that formerly claimed to be ‘Refreshingly Perfect’ there is much to do to repair the reputation of both the brand and the actions of big brewers.

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