Is Molson Coors’ claim about Carling ABV variation reasonable?

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Misleading: breweries said was “perfectly possible” to produce beer within one decimal place of a targeted ABV.
Misleading: breweries said was “perfectly possible” to produce beer within one decimal place of a targeted ABV.

Related tags Molson coors Beer Brewing

Several breweries have cast doubt on Molson Coors’ claim that small ABV variances are a normal part of large-scale beer production, after the global drinks giant denied misleading customers over the strength of its flagship lager Carling. 

Craft beer brewers Cloudwater Brew Co and Beer Nouveau said it was unlikely a brewery of the size and scale of Molson Coors would regularly experience natural ABV variations as vast as 0.3%, while a representative from a large-scale international brewery told The Morning Advertiser (MA) ​it was “perfectly possible” to produce beer within “one decimal place” of a targeted ABV.

Last week, it was widely reported that Molson Coors had won an appeal against an HMRC claim that it owed more than £50m in unpaid duty. The company won the appeal by arguing it did not need to pay due to a reformulation to manufacture Carling at a lower ABV of 3.7%, whilst continuing to advertise the beer at 4%.

Molson Coors defended the decision by saying there was “potential for small variances” in ABV due to brewing being “a natural process” and stressed it had abided by all legal requirements in the brewing and labelling of Carling.

Significant opportunities for accuracy 

However, Paul Jones, co-founder and managing director of Cloudwater Brew Co, told MA​ it was “hard to believe there isn't more accuracy at that level”, and that he could not imagine “a brewer of that scale is getting it so wrong”.

“We're a tiny brewery with a modest lab, but we do have equipment to determine with reasonable accuracy the ABV of our beers,” Jones said. “We also regularly send our beer to JW Lees and they perform tests for us.

“From what I understand of production on the scale to make Carling, I imagine they are brewing between six and 12 times to fill a single fermentation vessel. When they do that they are undoubtedly making sure they get the maximum efficiency out of that process. Given they have significant opportunities in their process to rectify any variations before packaging, I can't imagine a brewer of that scale is getting it so wrong.

“Molson Coors will have all the equipment they could possibly want at their disposal, so I find it hard to believe there isn't more accuracy at that scale and level.”

According to EU laws relating to the labelling of alcohol, drinks between 1.2% and 5.5% ABV are allowed an ABV tolerance of +0.5% or -0.5%.

However, The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) members' handbook recommends the gap between actual and advertised ABV is “within 0.1% and no greater than 0.2% more than once in any six months”, highlighting the levels of accuracy possible across all scales of breweries.

"It is important that consumers are confident the beer they are buying is of the strength advertised on the pump clip or label, and as such SIBA's members' handbook states brewers should display the ABV as accurately as possible,” said SIBA PR & marketing manager Neil Walker.

Variation in real ale

Steve Dunkley, owner of Manchester’s Beer Nouveau brewery, said the ABV tolerance existed due to the difficulty of accurately measuring the ABV of real ale.

“With a smaller brewery it is a lot harder to hit the spot in terms of final gravity every single time, particularly with real ale and secondary fermentation in the cask. This is why that variation is there, but the larger breweries like Molson Coors aren't brewing to a particular strength, they're brewing to a much higher gravity and then liquoring it back to hit their ABV,” he claimed.

“It's a very shrewd business move on their behalf to save money, no matter how they spin it. Small brewers will get that kind of variation (+/- 0.3% ABV), Molson Coors shouldn't with the kit they have.”

Dunkley also added that he had previously relabelled a beer and released it as a separate beer because the ABV was 0.3% higher than it ought to have been, and larger breweries such as Molson Coors should do the same.

“At this level, if we are going to make the effort to change our packaging if a beer has changed slightly, then at that level they really should be doing the same,” he said.

4% ABV brewing intention questioned

Speaking off the record, a representative from a large-scale international brewery said Molson Coors had been “accurately inaccurate” in the production of Carling to save money on duty.

“When we brew to 4% we target 4% and pay duty on 4% and that's what it says on the side of the can,” they said. “While there may be some small variations, largely the consumer is getting a 4% beer, and we are paying duty on it at 4%.

“My understanding is that Molson Coors have been targeting 3.7%, so that's different to natural variation. 4% is not their intention, and that's why everyone is so incensed about it.

“If they wanted to produce a 4% beer, then within +/-0.1% they would be able to do that. Modern brewing is a relatively exact science. But if you're not targeting 4% you can be 'accurately inaccurate' and as a result save money on duty.”

However, Sean Ayling, co-founder of Kent brewery Pig & Porter, said that variations in ABV were not uncommon and a difference of 0.3% ABV wasn’t “a particularly big deal here or there”.

“The one thing that can happen is you may have a batch of yeast that isn't attenuating as well as it should do, or something like that and actually having the tolerance is really helpful for that,” he said. "0.3% isn't a particularly big deal here or there. If it was outside the tolerance it would be a different scenario, but actually I don't think it’s a massive issue.”

A spokesperson from Molson Coors told MA: ​“Recently there have been several inaccurate reports that have oversimplified and misinterpreted a very complex legal case, which Carling won on all counts in April this year.

“Beer does vary slightly in actual ABV from brew to brew - as with many consumables, there are fractional variances permitted by law. The law allows for different methodologies in the calculation of duty, as was confirmed by the recent tribunal decision. We account for duty calculated on the actual ABV of Carling when it is in the Bright Beer Tank, prior to it reaching the filling lines where the liquid is then packaged. This method of duty calculation means that we bear all duty on beer losses after that point, including for example, losses from drainage, spillage and evaporation in the packaging process.”

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