Carling Brewery, a subsidiary of Molson Coors Brewing Co. in the UK, has admitted in a court case that its Carling beer brand has been made 0.3 per cent less alcoholic than labeled for the last five years. Carling - one of the most popular lagers in the UK - has been brewed at 3.7% since 2012 but was marked as 4% alcohol by volume (ABV).
The company won a case at the Royal Courts of Justice in London in March after being accused by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) of having underpaid tax by more than £50m between 1 September 2012 and 31 January 2015. But the brewery could prove that it lowered its flagship British lager's alcohol content in September 2012 in order to save tax. The tribunal papers also revealed that Carling tested a range of strengths below 4% ABV in order to test reactions of the public.
The reason for not changing the labeling was to prevent retailers, including pub chains and supermarkets, from demanding “a slice” of the savings, said Philip Rutherford, vice president of Molson Coors Europe, during a court hearing.
By the end of 2012 also Heineken UK reduced the strength of John Smith's Bitter and Strongbow cider, from 3.8 to 3.4% and from 5.3 to 5.0 respectively. After being criticized, the Dutch brewer said that it did not want to save tax but aimed at bringing John Smith's Extra Smooth in line with the strength of rival smooth beer brands, including Tetley's, Worthingtons and Boddingtons. "We will pass on a proportion of the duty savings to our trade customers while re-investing some cost savings in the brewing and marketing of our leading ale brand.” the company said in a statement at that time.
AB InBev noticed similar reactions when lowering ABV of its most popular brands in te UK from 5 to 4.8% in January 2012. An AB InBev spokeswoman said at that time: “Our decision to bring Stella Artois, Budweiserand Beck's to the UK market at 4.8per cent ABV during 2012 is in line with evolving UK category trends.”
It looks like Carling wanted to avoid such discussions and changed the recipe without labeling it and without informing its customers. Now, the brewery might face a much bigger problem since consumers might feel mislead by the brewer and might turn away from the brand. "As a major brand, the trust of our consumers is paramount. We abide by all legal requirements in the brewing and labelling of Carling," said the brewer in a statement.
And in fact, legislation is very generous in this respect. EU laws allow products an ABV tolerance of +0.5% or -0.5% on products between 1.2% and 5.5% ABV, thus a variation of -0.3% is still within legal limits.