Figures released by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) show that of the 44m hectolitres (7.74bn pints) of beer sold during 2015 in the UK, 51% was sold for off-trade, mostly through supermarkets.
In 1980 nearly 88% of all beer was sold in pubs, bars and restaurants, but the shift towards supermarket sales increased significantly after the turn of the century. By 2000 on-trade sales had dropped to just under 68%, but had fallen to 52% by 2010.
Price, trends and rise of 'home drinking'?
The continued shift towards off-trade alcohol sales raises a number of key alcohol policy issues, particularly relating to pricing policy. Certainly a widening price gap is considered a central driver, probably further exacerbated by the economic downturn.
However the BBPA's call for the Chancellor to make further cuts to beer duty to "boost the pub trade" has been rejected in an Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) blog post Beer duty cuts - don't believe the hype. It says data shows that the beer duty escalator actually stemmed the rate of shifting market share. During the beer duty escalator period of 2008 to 2013, the on-trade’s share of beer sales declined by 0.7% a year versus 1.6% in the previous eight years and 1% in the years following 2013.
As such, the IAS and other health groups have called on the Government to increase duties in recent budgets but to no avail. In March this year beer, cider, and spirits duties were frozen, with wine duty to rise in line with inflation. The Government's own analysis acknowledged that although it wants to help pubs, the duty freeze would help other retailers and some alcohol manufacturers and importers.
As the IAS blog highlights, there are various health and well-being related arguments for favouring alcohol sales to take place in regulated on-trade environments covered by far more extensive legislation. In contrast, the rising availability of cheap off-trade alcohol has been associated with a long period of increasing consumption up until 2004, as well as other issues that may be considered harmful to the on-trade such as "pre-loading".
However the most recent alcohol sales data released by NHS Scotland suggests the downward trend in consumption since 2004 - driven largely by a decline in younger people's drinking - could now be returning to an upward trend. The figures show the rise in consumption due to the growth in off-sales as the price gap between home and on-trade drinking continues to grow. Indeed the extra 20% volume of alcohol sold in Scotland over England is made up almost exclusively from supermarket and off-trade sales, particularly spirits. News reports at the time of release declared Scotland was now 'a nation of home drinkers'.
Whether the continued decline in the number of pubs and on-trade beer drinking is set to continue may well depend on the fate of Scotland's long running minimum unit pricing (MUP) battle. As the IAS blog also points out, less than 1% of on-trade beer is sold below Scotland's proposed 50 pence MUP, versus over half of off-trade beer units. Should Scotland eventually be able to proceed and fulfil the predicted impacts, England's politicians may find it hard not to follow suit. No wonder both opponents and supporters of MUP consider there to be so much at stake.