Why is my pint of beer so expensive?

Tomé Morrissy-Swan
Brits believe the cost of a pint is too high - Caiaimage

Going out for a pint is a longstanding British tradition, but, increasingly, it's seen as an unaffordable pastime. According to a survey by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), just a quarter of 2,000 people questioned believed the price of a beer was fair. 

With roughly 18 pubs closing each week across the country, that we consider drinking too expensive poses an existential threat to the British pub and beer industries. But why is a pint so dear? 

"The taxes certainly haven't been going down," says Tom Stainer, Camra's chief communications officer. A third of the cost of a pint is made up of taxes, including beer duties higher than much of Europe, VAT and business rates.

Camra is calling for the Government to reduce duties, but, according to Stainer, there are rumours a 2p tax increase could be announced in the budget in November. "This would damage the beer and pub sectors, as well as the Treasury. The higher the taxes on beer, the less the return," Staimer says.

"Pubs are great for the local and national economy. They employ many local people, and the money stays in the community. Business rates relief is coming to an end; we want it to be increased from £1,000 to £5,000," he explains. 

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Earlier this year, a YouGov poll of over 40,000 Britons discovered that, on average, Brits think £3 is a reasonable price to pay for a beer – 60p less than reality. Between 2016 and 2017, the average pint rose by 13p. According to one study by the Good Pub Guide in 2017, the highest average prices are – surprisingly – not in London, but Surrey, where £4.40 is normal. On the other end of the scale, Herefordshire and Yorkshire were cheapest, at £3.31. 

Aside from taxes, brewers have to shell out on ingredients, and smaller, independent beer producers can suffer more from a poor barley or hops harvest – or an unexpected CO2 shortage. Last year the price of hops, often imported from the United States for the brewing of trendy craft beers, ballooned by almost 60 per cent.

Then there are overheads, rental costs, license fees, staff wages and more. "Pubs are making pence on pints," says Stainer, who is also group editor for the What's Brewing and BEER magazines. So not exactly great profit margins, then. "Nobody wants to increase the prices – if prices are too high, people will stay away. But I couldn't see how they could shave the price without impacting on the pub and its staff." 

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While the pub industry struggles, the craft beer trend shows no sign of abating, and there are now more breweries in the UK than at any time since the 1930s. Craft beers tend to cost more than ales or lagers, so why are we willing to pay through the roof? Stainer explains: "It's a combination of high-end produce and a high ABV. It's often made for interesting tastes, using high-quality ingredients like exotic hops – or more hops. And drinkers are prepared to pay a bit more for the experience." 

Conversely, traditional ales are often thought of as a cheaper option, thanks partly to a low alcohol content. "The historic assumption is that a pint of real ale is cheaper – it was drunk in working men's clubs, local pubs. It's democratic, anyone could afford it. Now people are being forced to drink at home, which is a real shame," says Stainer. 

But if you thought the cost of a British pint here was bad, at least you're not in Oslo, where a cold, refreshing beer in a summer heatwave can set you back more than £7.50. In Prague, however, you can easily find a pint for under a quid. 

The best way to get the cost down, according to Stainer, is by supporting Camra. "Talk to your MPs about lowering the tax – we pay much more than many European countries. Support campaigns and continue to support pubs, because once they go, you won't have the choice any more." 

The Great British Beer Festival starts tomorrow at Olympia London, running until Saturday 11 August