Why beer is in a bad State

In this special feature written for the Organise Issue 88, a member of the Anarchist Federation looks into the historic consequences of State intervention in beer, from frothing masses to watered-down ideas. 

Throughout history the ruling class have placed restrictions, controls and taxes on alcoholic beverages and their consumption. As with all things, this has not happened without resistance but to this day the twin evils of capitalism and the state have a huge influence on what, where and when we drink.

The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest recorded laws (circa 1754 BC), includes rules on drinks measures, punishment for tavern-keepers not apprehending subversives meeting there, and rules on where priestesses can drink. Though records of laws on beer in Britain don’t go back that far they can certainly be traced to at least the time of William the Conqueror, with controls on ale price and quality.

A tax was levied on property, including beer, to pay for a crusade as early as 1188, and business owners sought to control the trade in brewing by forming a guild in London in 1292. Tracing how modern beer and pub culture in England developed I will start with the relatively more recent malt tax of 1697, brought in to pay for William of Orange’s war with France.

War is the health of the state, but it’s certainly not good for beer or drinkers. Beer is a fermented alcohol beverage made from malted cereal grains. Barley, wheat, oats, rye and others have all been used historically and are in use today. With a tax placed on malt though it restricted commercial beer production to the use of malted barley, and so restricted the types of beer that could be made. Wheat beers used to be produced in England, but this was made illegal and so production ceased, killing off part of the English brewing tradition.

The malt tax was not imposed on Scotland until 1725, where it was met with riots and illegal strikes by brewers. Troops had to be called in to end this “dangerous challenge to the union state” and eight people died. Taxing malt made it more economical for maltsters if they continued the malting process for longer, which lead to British and European malting and brewing practices diverging. Simple single temperature infusion mashing predominated in British breweries, whereas using less modified malts the more complicated stepped temperature decoction mashing was the norm in continental Europe.

In Germany the “reinheitsgebot” law has been in force since 1906, though it originated in Bavaria in 1516. This places strict controls on which ingredients on which ingredients can be used, and is usually described today as the “beer purity law.” In fact it was brought in to help keep bread prices down by stopping brewers using grains other than barley, and again this restriction lead to a loss of beer diversity.

Hops, which had become commonly used in British beer from the 16th century, were also taxed from 1710 up until 1862, during which time other herbs were prevented from being used as flavourings. Again, this limited the types of beer that could be made. As well as taxing the raw materials beer itself was also taxed, with of course, higher tax for stronger beer.

Beer in a Bad State

The malt tax was slightly relaxed to allow sugar use in 1847, but major change came with the “Free Mash Tun” act of 1880, at which point tax was moved to the strength of unfermented beer (wort) and the ingredients used became de-restricted. Brewers quickly moved to using a proportion of sugar and unmalted cereals as ingredients, except on the Isle of Man where the Free Mash Tun act was not adopted, and to this day beer ingredients are restricted to water, malted barley, sugar, hops and yeast.

Taxing beer based on its strength has always tempted brewers to cut their costs by making weaker beer, and Britain’s beers are often weak by international standards. Other countries’ systems may be based on volume irrespective of strength, so there is not such a financial pressure to make beer weaker. This perhaps partly explains why craft brewers in the US generally make stronger beers than their counterparts in Britain.

To go back to William of Orange, it was also under his reign that gin became hugely popular in England. It was promoted as an alternative to French brandy and a number of laws were passed restricting brandy imports and encouraging gin production. Cheap and widely available, the “gin craze” ensued which persisted for decades, despite numerous attempts to restrict it.

One method used to reduce gin consumption was to promote the drinking of beer, and Hogarth’s famous “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street” engravings were propaganda promoting beer and denigrating gin. Regulations and rising prices brought an end to the first gin craze but when consumption rose again in the 1800s the authorities again promoted the consumption of beer. The Beer House Act of 1830 made it easy to open pubs which sold beer but not spirits, and pub numbers rocketed. Predictably, this relaxation of control was only temporary with licensing powers being returned to magistrates in 1869, and it became much harder to open pubs.

The State has not always been keen to promote pubs though, and religion has also played a role in having restrictions on drinking imposed. Pressure from the temperance movement, and particularly nonconformist chapels in Wales, led to the passing of the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act of 1881 which required the closing of all pubs in Wales on Sundays. A similar act failed to be passed in England, and its effect in Wales was minimised by the opening of a large number of clubs. However, it remained in force until 1961 when local authorities started holding polls on retaining the ban, with the last area not lifting it until 1996. Mostly Britain escaped prohibition, but many other countries suffered from this extreme State control, including the US and Russia, and indeed some do so today, usually for religious reasons as mythical beings often have an antipathy to alcohol.

The events that most shaped modern British beer were the restrictions brought in during the First World War. The Defence of the Realm Act, brought in four days after the outbreak of war, imposed the first of a wide range of authoritarian controls, including on alcohol sales. The hours in which pubs were open were cut from up to 19-and-a-half hours a day to just five-and-a-half.

Once States have taken power to themselves they are loath to let it go and the ridiculous requirement for pubs to close in the afternoon persisted until 1988. Buying rounds or “treating” was also prohibited, and punishable by six months in prison. Alcohol taxes rose massively during the war, up 600%, and strict controls on the strength and volume of beer produced were imposed leading to both being halved. Some beers became as low as 1% alcohol by volume.

Workers threatened to strike if more beer, and good beer at that, was not made available. Restrictions were eased slightly and “Government Ale” was brought in, at a controlled strength and price, though it’s low strength (around 3.6% ABV) did not make it popular and it was ridiculed in a music hall song:

We shall win the war, we shall win the war,
As I said before, we shall win the war.

The Kaiser’s in a dreadful fury,
Now he knows we’re making it at every brewery.

Have you read of it, seen what’s said of it,
In the Mirror and the Mail.
It’s a substitute, and a pubstitute,
And it’s known as Government Ale (or otherwise).

Lloyd George’s Beer, Lloyd George’s Beer.
At the brewery, there’s nothing doing,
All the water works are brewing,
Lloyd George’s Beer, it isn’t dear.

Oh they say it’s a terrible war, oh law,
And there never was a war like this before,
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Is Lloyd George’s Beer.

Buy a lot of it, all they’ve got of it.
Dip your bread in it, shove your head in it
From January to October,
And I’ll bet a penny that you’ll still be sober.

Get your cloth in it, make some broth in it,
With a pair of mutton chops.
Drown your dogs in it, pop your clogs in it,
And you’ll see some wonderful sights (in that lovely stuff).

Lloyd George’s Beer, Lloyd George’s Beer.
At the brewery, there’s nothing doing,
All the water works are brewing,
Lloyd George’s Beer, it isn’t dear.

With Haig and Joffre when affairs look black,
And you can’t get at Jerry with his gas attack.
Just get your squirters out and we’ll squirt the buggers back,
With Lloyd George’s Beer.

The government reacted to this by banning brewers from using the term Government Ale. In some areas pubs and breweries were taken under State control, and the government continued to own breweries up until 1974. By the end of the war the average strength of beer had dropped from around 5.5% ABV down to 3%, and it never returned to its pre-war level. When restrictions were relaxed it increased slightly to around 3.8% ABV, and it has hovered around there ever since.

Beer suffered less during the Second World War, the notorious piss artist Churchill refusing to emulate the teetotal Lloyd George. State intervention didn’t end though and to this day the authorities continue to meddle. The beer orders of 1989 resulted in the large national brewers being separated from their tied pub estates. This did nothing to lessen the concentration of ownership, as huge pub companies were immediately formed, and the national breweries all came to be owned by multinationals. A clause that was inserted after pressure from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) led to the rise of guest cask ales in pubs, and local monopolies, of cask beer at least, are now a lot less common.

Further pressure from CAMRA and the Society of Independent Brewers lead to Progressive Beer Duty being brought in by Gordon Brown in 2002. This means that smaller breweries pay less tax on beer, and this has undoubtedly helped bring about the boom in microbreweries. What he gave with one hand, he later took away with the other though, as he was also responsible for the Beer Duty Escalator, which made tax on beer automatically rise above the level of inflation, a situation that persisted from 2008-2013. Though the Beer Duty Escalator has now been stopped, High Strength Beer Duty has been introduced, so extra tax is paid on beers above 7.5% ABV, resulting in many strong beers dropping in strength to avoid this. It is difficult to know what beer we might be drinking in a free society, but perhaps we can glimpse what it might be like.

The Spanish anarchists collectivised the Damm and Moritz breweries in Barcelona during the civil war, but I have been unable to find any details of the beers they made then. The pressures of war and their enemies from the left and right wings of capitalism did not make it an ideal opportunity to express their creativity anyway. We know that state controls greatly reduced the ingredients used in beer, and when these controls are lifted the variety of ingredients grows. One area of brewing less affected by state controls and the financial pressures of capitalism is home brewing (though a licence was required in Britain until 1963).

In the appropriately named Radical Brewing, home brewing author Randy Mosher details the astonishingly wide range of beers that can be made when creativity is unrestrained. Strong, weak, bitter, sweet, traditional, novel, the possibilities are endless. The influence of home brewers on the growing “craft beer” scene has lead to much greater variety in the range of beers being available, but in only for those that can afford them. When beer is freely available on the basis of need it will likely show greater diversity and make more use of local ingredients than is the case in contemporary society.


This article first appeared in Organise Issue 88 [PDF], which you can buy at radical bookshops and online. It leads with articles about Prison Abolition, the Prison Industrial Complex plus Cuban Anarchists and an examination of political tactics to take a campaign from inception to victory.

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