As anyone with a passing interest in the UK beer scene is probably aware, this month saw the arrival of the High Strength Beer Duty(HSBD) resulting in an additional tax burden on any beers over 7.5% ABV strength. It's important to note that the existing Beer Duty is already relative to strength; before the arrival of the HSBD we already paid twice as much duty on a 7.5% beer as we did on one at 3.75%.
This additional duty is on top of these existing rates and will have added 20p or more to the amount of tax you're paying for a pint. And bear in mind that at 7.5% your beer duty already stood at something like 80p; with the arrival of the HSBD these beers are now costing more than £1 a pint in beer duty alone.
The aim of this tax is to "tackle problem drinking by encouraging industry to produce, and drinkers to consume, lower strength beer". It's a reasonable aim, of course – we do have an issue with "problem drinking" in the country. If this new tax was going to address the problem, it would be easy to get behind. Yes, it would hurt paying even more in tax but it is only tens of pence on a bottle and even on a bad evening, it's not like I drink through a crate of Brewdog Tokyo.
The big trouble is this – it's not going to address problem drinking. Even if we accept that beer is the only form of alcohol consumed by problem drinkers (which it isn't), it's not the strength that sells it, it's the price per unit. Yes, Special Brew is strong but it's a problem because for less than six quid you can buy a four pack that would keep the most hardened alcoholic happy for an hour or two. And if you doubled, quadrupled beer duty until it became unaffordable to get drunk on beer, your problem drinkers would have switched long ago to high strength ciders or cheap spirits anyway.
And this is the real injustice; this is only targeting beer as if beer is the only thing that gets people drunk. If this was a serious policy to address problem drinking then the most effective approach is clearly an industry-wide minimum price per unit. Even at an relatively low proposed levels of 50p per unit, you'd double the cost of that Special Brew without affecting any of those high strength, premium beers currently being punished by the HSBD. Not to mention the huge boost to the pub industry, as the supermarkets are forced to end their loss-leading alcohol sales.
So, enough of the rant. CAMRGB, the CAMpaign for Really Good Beer is campaigning against the High Strength Beer Duty. They have created an e-petition (which I'd happily encourage everyone to sign) and this evening ran a twitter event to raise awareness – the aim of which was to celebrate high strength beers and show that they're about enjoying a great, crafted product and not about getting drunk and starting fights in the town centre.
Over the last year or so I've ended up with quite a stockpile of what I can only call 'monster beers'; I can't think of a better excuse to open one up than this.
Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12
As monster beers in my cupboard go, this is a relatively light one at a mere 8.0%. Based on their Old Engine Oil, a fairly tasty 6.0% Porter, Harviestoun have aged this stronger version in whisky casks from Highland Park.
They produce a range different versions of this beer, using casks which have been used to mature different expressions from the distillery – although the brewery's website only lists three (the 12, 16 and 30 Year Olds), I've seen a variety of ages all the way up to 40 Year Old online. This one, obviously, has been aged in the 12 Year Old casks.
It pours out thick and black (Ola Dubh translates as 'black oil') and carries a rich, creamy tan head. The aroma is rich, sweet treacle with some distinct hints of aged wood and a touch of vanilla once the mild alcohol kick has evaporated.
In the mouth it's smooth, creamy, with a velvet-like softness to it. Sweet plum fruit to start, giving swiftly away to the alcohol kick and a really distinct whisky like tang to it. Still lots of syrupy treacle flavours and a very satisfying, lingering alcohol burn as it slips down your throat. In a word… stunning.
It's not a cheap beer, but it's worth every penny. Even with the HSBD.
This review was originally published 21st October, 2011. It was last updated 1st June, 2023.