Craft beers: Why you might just be drinking a lot more than you think...
It's the sophisticated choice for beer drinkers, but one craft beer can contain up to twice as much alcohol as more mainstream choices
Published 22/04/2015 | 02:30
More and more Irish people are saying make mine a craft beer, as they swap their usual pints for a seemingly more sophisticated tipple. But what they don't know is that a single craft beer can contain up to twice as much alcohol as some more mainstream beers, so they may actually be drinking a lot more alcohol than they think.
The craft-beer industry is now a thriving business in Ireland as more and more artisan breweries open up throughout the country to sell their wares to drinkers looking for something different to the beers they grew up with.
Move over Heineken and Guinness, these days every off-licence you go into has a range of exotic-sounding brews that vie to have the most esoteric name and product description, with flavours ranging from coriander to coffee. But it does mean that we need to become far more aware of what our libations actually contain.
If you are a regular drinker of craft beers, you may be over-indulging without realising it.
A survey by the Irish Independent has shown that craft beer on sale in Irish stores can contain up to four units of alcohol per bottle - nearly a third of the weekly low-risk drinking limit for women.
Sales of craft beers have soared in the last few years - there are now up to 50 microbreweries dotted all over the country pumping out 7.1m litres of craft beer a year.
That's a staggering 45pc increase since 2013 and is nearly twice the 3.7m litres produced a year in 2012, according to a report on the Development and Economic Impact of Microbreweries in Ireland, published in 2014.
So we looked at the alcohol content of some popular beers on sale in supermarkets and off-licences.
The beer with the highest alcohol content in our survey was Galway Bay's Of Foam and Fury - a double-strength pale ale which has 8.5pc alcohol by volume (ABV).
That's twice as much as in more mainstream beers such as Heineken or Guinness which have 4.3pc and 4.2pc alcohol respectively.
It amounts to 4.25 units of alcohol which is a substantial chunk of the weekly low-risk health guideline to cap consumption at 14 units a week for women and 21 for men.
O'Hara's Double IPA beer from the Carlow Brewing Company meanwhile contains 3.75 units of beer in a 500ml bottle which compares with 2.2 units in a similar-sized Heineken.
Addiction counsellor Rolande Anderson says that drinkers should be careful not to underestimate the strength of some craft beers despite their sophisticated packaging.
"People find all kinds of ways to kid themselves they're not really drinking that much - whether using higher-strength wines or really large glasses so they think they've only had a couple of drinks," he says.
Many of the craft beers we surveyed had an alcohol content of around 5pc or 5.5pc.
Craft beer makers said that people do not typically consume craft beers in the same quantities as many weaker mass-market beers.
Chris Treanor, head brewer of Galway Bay Brewery, says that higher alcohol beers are more costly to make and this is reflected in the price with, for example, Of Foam and Fury, retailing at nearly €6 in off-licences.
"It's a beer that's meant to be savoured and enjoyed. It's not a beer you'll be drinking all night. My experience with craft beer drinkers has mostly been that they have been a fairly responsible and well-educated bunch, where the notion of quality over quantity rings through," he says.
Alan O'Reilly, who manages Galway Bay Brewery's Oslo Bar, says because of its strength and strong flavour they served Of Foam and Fury in 330ml glasses.
"You do get the odd drinker who when we tell them how strong it is decides 'That's what I'll have then' but that would be the exception," he said.
Seamus O'Hara of Carlow Brewing Company says that higher-strength beers like O'Hara's Double IPA have a strong flavour that encourages people to sip them rather than drinking high volumes.
"The best-selling craft beers would be the lighter 4.5pc to 5pc beers, and the sales of the stronger ones would tend to be smaller," he says.
Sam Black of Black's of Kinsale, which makes Rocket Ship with 6.5pc alcohol, says that the higher excise on higher-alcohol beers means price naturally limits consumption.
"Unlike conventional beers, craft beers will usually have the ABV on the lip of the tap in a pub, and we also put it on the front of the bottle so consumers know what they're getting," he says.
What a unit of alcohol is and how many is it safe to drink?
Surprisingly, that's a difficult question to answer because it's measured differently wherever you go.
By far the best-known recommendations are a weekly limit of 14 units for a woman and 21 for a man, advocated by the Royal College of Physicians.
That's based on UK unit sizes of 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol - what you'd find in a glass of beer or a tiny 80ml glass of wine.
However, to confuse matters the HSE published new guidelines in 2012 recommending weekly limits of 11 standard drinks for a woman and 17 for a man.
That's because the Irish "standard drink" measurement is around 27pc bigger than a UK unit at 10g or 12.7ml of alcohol - so the weekly limits here have been made smaller to take account of that.
Whichever units you use, the limits amount to around six pints or 1.5 bottles of wine for women, and 10 pints or two bottles of wine for men.
Many drinks on sale in Ireland are labelled with UK units though - and given the 14/21 weekly guidelines based on those are the best known with consumers, we used those in our survey.
To complicate matters further, the UK has now moved to daily rather than weekly drinking limits - it says women shouldn't regularly drink more than two to three units a day and for men the safe limit is three to four units.