Politicians and bureaucrats beware: cider makers do not back down lightly. In fact they have been known (especially English ones) to defend their home as if it were a castle. William Pitt famously stated that “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown”. This came was in response to Prime Minister Lord Bute’s Excise Bill of 1763, otherwise known as the Cider Tax, which levied four shillings on every hogshead of cider produced; and enabled warrantless searches of private property. The bill caused a public outrage and led to widespread revolt in cider’s heartlands in the West, with Lord Bute’s effigy burnt in many a market square.
Some 250 years later, a challenge from the EU threatens to draw the ire of cider makers once more. Just as these gatekeepers of rural folklore await the first call of the cuckoo (a sure sign of warmer spring weather and traditional cider custom, marking when the cider from the last harvest is ready to be consumed), a crucial piece of UK tax law that has aided craft scale cider makers for decades is being challenged.
Currently, UK cider makers who make less than 7000 litres over a 12 month period are exempt from paying any duty. This concession has enabled hobbyist and small craft producers to create and sell traditional, artisan products for fun or as a minor enterprise; whilst at the same time reviving, and celebrating the heritage and traditions of cider making in its heartlands and beyond. The problem is that EU excise duty rules oblige Member States to levy an excise duty on alcoholic beverages. This anomaly has existed since 1977, the year after excise duty was reintroduced for cider by the Labour Government of the day, but has only recently been recognised, and now the current Government is being taken to task over it.
The removal of this exemption would be disastrous for the hundreds of ciderists making less than 7000 litres a year, who, now threatened with a massive additional cost to their enterprise, may well chose to hang up their smocks and call it a day. This would be a crying shame, for these prodcuers, as well as making a fabulous tipple, also revive ancient cider traditions (see wassailing) and oft source their raw materials from old, traditional orchards.
Orchards are not only a haven for British lowland wildlife (Traditional Orchards were added to the UK Biodiversity Action plan in 2007), but they are crucial hubs for the communities that reside near them. They bring people together as a place to gather their bounty, promenade, admire the lichens, climb a tree or make a den. A study produced in 2012 found that a community in Herefordshire living near a totally obscured orchard highly valued it nonetheless – they simply enjoyed knowing it was there.
The importance of craft cider and orchards are not confined to rural communities, however. There is a growing movement of urban cider makers, such as Manchester’s Moss Cider Project, procuring fruit from people’s gardens (often in exchange for the resultant fermented beverage) or, with the help of volunteers, from lost orchards and communal plantings.
Cider’s popularity and image, of course, changed irrefutably in 2006 owing to the ‘Magner’s Effect’, the phenomenon that thrust this out of favour category back into the public eye once more. In one fell swoop, cider’s broader recent image of teenage binge drinkers and park bench orators was replaced with a nattily-dressed swathe of middle class, unisex, youthful, urban millenials quaffing these trendy drinks in pub gardens on warm summer evenings.
But it wasn’t just ciders over ice that benefitted from this cider renaissance. Existing craft producers in classic cider heartlands, such as Herefordshire and Somerset, felt sufficiently encouraged to raise their heads above the parapet and expand their part time businesses into full time occupations. At the same time a plethora of new producers emerged, mostly in the West Country, but others in places less expected, such as Nottinghamshire, Cheshire and Scotland.
It is challenging to make much cash from this scale of operation, in spite of the 7000 litre duty exemption, but so many have chosen to do it anyway. Why is this? I have no doubt that it’s because cider and perry are uniquely special; the Best of British. They invoke real passion, pride and enjoyment in those who are enchanted by the sense of culture and community. These are drinks that hark back to a simpler time; one less technologically advanced than today, but one that perhaps offered more fulfillment in our lot.
The response from the ciderists to an assault on their castle in 2015 is less violent than in 1763, but is no less fervent. We only need look back to 2010 to observe the public’s passion for this ancient drink, when the soon to be outgoing Labour Government disastrously introduced a punitive cider duty increase in the last Budget before the election that year. There was outrage at this national scandal, which prompted a public plea from the Wurzels and saw 50,000 plus people attracted to a ‘Leave our cider alone’ Facebook page. Needless to say the duty hike was rescinded.
In the face of impending uncertainty, I hope that an accord can be reached that aids the continued success of the craft producers. However, it would appear that the EU are not for turning; so the industry must adopt a pragmatic approach in the search for a solution to this issue. Some cider makers with aspirations of growing beyond the threshold find the leap to paying full cider duty too onerous. There is a strong camp that believe a move should be made to a progressive style of taxation, such as that employed by the beer industry, whereby the volume produced is proportional to the amount of duty that is then paid to the Government.
Whatever the technicalities in the resolution, I hope that provision of a newly created 0% duty bracket for craft producers could be made to further the great support the duty exemption has given on our craft producers for the last four decades. For it is crucial that cider and perry makers, producing what Laurie Lee called ‘Golden Fire’, are enabled to continue their public good as community guardians and heritage custodians. So say it loud: Save Our Ciderists!
This blog was previously published via the Soph & Gabe NZ blog