Real ale and craft beer ABV trends

CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) is again holding its annual Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) in London this week. The organisers share some information about all the beers on offer at the festival on their website, including their alcoholic strength of each one. The strength is measured as ABV, or alcohol by volume. Since 2016, we’ve been tracking the strength of the beers drunk at the festival.

Knowing that more and more low and no alcohol beers are appearing on the market all the time, we have been expecting there to be more lower alcohol beers at this festival as well. But so far we have not seen that trend at this flagship event.

The festival separates their beers into two main categories “Real ales” (UK beers, served from a cask) and “International beers” (beers not from the UK, served either on draught or from bottles). We’ve looked at them separately as well, since the international beers tend to be higher strength and combining the two could distort the findings.

Where is the ABV of real ales going?

The average ABV of the GBBF real ales was 4.4% in 2016, and 4.5% in both 2017 and 2018. A little higher, but not very much. In 2019, the average has jumped again, this time to 4.7%. This is beginning to look like an upward trend.

In a similar vein, the ABV of each year’s highest strength beer keeps getting higher. From an already quite high 7.5% beer in 2016, via 10% ones in 2017 and 2018, this year we found a 12.8% beer at the top of the list.

We also searched for all the lower strength beers, to see whether there is more choice for the mindful drinkers looking to reduce their alcohol consumption. Happily, we find that there is more low-ABV options on offer. The ABV of the lowest strength beer has reduced from 3.0% in 2016 to 2.2% in 2019. And the number of beers at 3% and under has increased from a lonely 1 in 2016 to 4 in 2017 and 2018, and an even better 8 in 2019.

Stronger international beers

Looking at the international beers (for which we don’t have the data from 2016), the picture is more stable. The average ABV of these beers has come down slightly, from 6.5% in 2017 to 6.3% this year. The lowest strength beer has been a constant 3% at all three festivals. And at the other end, the highest ABV beer has varied from 14% to 18%. On the whole the international beers are then much stronger than the UK ones, but their ABV figures haven’t changed much over time.

Does it matter?

All of these numbers are of course only from one event, so they may not tell us too much about what is happening in the world of beer. And they also contain errors: a 6% beer was listed as “0.0%” in this year’s programme, and a 6.8% beer as “68.0%” last year (we’ve corrected both of these figures for our analysis). There are likely to be other mistakes in the data.

We also know that there have in fact been alcohol-free beers at the festival in previous years, but for some reason they have not been listed in the online beer line-up that we’ve used to gather our data. However, the alcohol-free beers have always been limited to a very small number, so they would not change the overall picture by very much.

It is good to see that the festival website guides people to the vegetarian/vegan and gluten-free beers available. It is unfortunate that they don’t make the same effort to make it easier to find the lower alcohol beers.

When we spoke to CAMRA in 2017, they told us that their “beer orderers however are careful to ensure that there is a wide range of beers at a wide range of ABVs”. We feel that they could be a bit more careful still, to find more beers in the lower ABV range.

The details

All data has been downloaded from the Great British Beer Festival website each year. The number of real ales listed by year: 535 (2019), 520 (2018), 444 (2017), 374 (2016). The number of international beers listed by year: 482 (2019), 384 (2018), 365 (2017). For anyone worried that the average is not the best measure to use here, the median of the real ale ABVs has followed a very similar trend: from 4.2% in 2017 to 4.5% in 2019.

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