Will it be all White on the Night?
Alcohol has been in the news a lot recently, with last Wednesday's announcement that Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) has been given the green light in Scotland, after the laboriously long process to review the challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association finally came to its conclusion. The spectre now looms large over whether Wales and England will follow suit. I am personally a little ambiguous about MUP. I am wholeheartedly behind the effort to tackle the high levels of alcohol abuse seen in Scotland, I am just uncertain as to whether MUP will be an effective tool in achieving this. From a consumer point of view, I have reservations about Government interfering with the market place, too. Once the precedent has been established, it could give carte blanche for more measures that distort the market further. We will just have to wait and see. For the majority of cider makers, especially smaller ones, MUP will have little impact on pricing at the point of sale. Their economies of scale (or lack thereof) and the skill, time and labour-intensive nature of their product always means that their products are more highly priced. Where MUP will have a significant impact, of course, is with so called white ciders. These are ciders with a relatively low price, a relatively high level of alcohol and often sold in a large volume format. Currently, a 3 litre bottle of 7.5% white cider can cost under £4.00; but under MUP, it will cost a minimum of £11.25. This might actually be of benefit to the smaller producer - why purchase a white cider when, for the same price, one can purchase the finest of ciders from The Shire for the same price? It is white cider that is also attracting attention ahead of this week's Budget announcement. It has been single out by many health professionals as a 'killer on Britain's streets', and has been the subject of much lobbying over the last few years. At the last Budget, the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond announced that there would be a consultation on duty bands for 'higher alcohol ciders'. That consultation, the results of which will be announced on Wednesday, sought to ascertain whether a new higher rate of duty could be introduced to impact white ciders. Fiona Bruce MP has called upon the Chancellor to ensure that a higher rate of duty should, indeed, be introduced and should sit between 5.5% and 7.5% abv. She says: "Introducing a higher band of duty in the forthcoming budget would be a targeted and proportionate response. It would leave the majority of ciders completely unaffected and the vast majority of products subject to the new rate would be white ciders." Wrong, I'm afraid. For the 400+ UK based smaller producers, this could be the death knell to their ability to operate. Whereas MUP as a mechanism will not hit these traditional/artisan/craft/progressive/real (take your pick) producer, the introduction of a higher rate of duty certainly will, because of the nature of the way these products are made. There's very little margin in cider making on a smaller scale. These folk do it for the love and the passion, not the returns. There often has to be an another income stream involved somewhere. There's a lot of myth about what white cider is; that's just made from apple dust and devil's horns. The fact is, in order to pay cider duty, any cider has to comply by the minimum juice content set out by HMRC (and whether 35% minimum juice is a satisfactory threshold is a subject for another day). As for the 'white', well, low tannin apple juice and carbon filtration account for the pale colour. Yes, it will have glucose added to the juice prior to fermentation to achieve the desired alcohol level, but this is not unique to white ciders - many mainstream producers undertake this methodology. It might be interesting to note that when the first white ciders were launched in the 80s, it was served in a litre bottle and was presented as an English, and more affordable, version of the popular German wines of the times (think Liebfraumilch). However, over the course of 30 years, its production and presentation has morphed into something different. Now, I'm no fan of white cider. I don't like the taste. I don't like the process. I don't think it exudes anything close to the best of what cider can be (you'll notice the imagery I have - or haven't -used in this article). But the concept of attempting to tackle the issue of harmful drinking through the introduction of a new duty band is ludicrous and entirely the wrong method. It's like trying to treat nits with a flamethrower. Depending upon the apple variety, and nature of the terroir of where the apples were grown, their natural sugar content will dictate that the alcohol content will normally achieve somewhere in the order of 5% - 8%. Cider makers from the South East use wonderful russett apples to make a c.8% abv cider that has all the quality, texture and nature of a Sauvignion Blanc. Whilst, Kingston Black, for example, always seems to achieve around the 7% abv mark, or higher. In the hot growing conditions of Central Victoria, Australia, KB can produce a cider of 11.2% abv, as I can attest to having drunk it earlier this year. I am entirely sympathetic to the cause behind the consultation . Alcohol misuse is a predator in our society, and can have devastating repercussions. Cider, as with any alcoholic drink, should to be consumed carefully, with respect, with moderation, with passion. For me, the concern lies around the ever-increasing commodification of cider, and all alcohol, and the swollen power of the supermarkets. The fervour, however, amongst the health lobby to do away with white wider, and high strength beers, is such that some sort of penalisation will come into place, if not at this Budget, then in the not too distant future. Not only do I believe that it will be ineffective in achieving its aims of reducing alcohol harm, but it will unduly hit an already embattled cider making community. But rather than just indulging in a session of wailing and gnashing of teeth, how about providing some methods through which a distinction can be made between the targets of this consultation and the ciders being made around the country that are in effect our indigenous wines. In my mind there are three mechanisms that could be used: Juice Content A cider maker is exempt from this new duty bracket if the product has a minimum juice content of 70%. This is a neat figure because it is precisely double that of the current minimum content, and has also been proposed by CAMRA. It is set at a level that is sufficiently easy for producers of all scales to achieve (if they so wish) and certainly will protect the smaller producers that make a relatively unadulterated, high juice content cider. There is already a precedent for juice content being utilised as a factor within the cider duty regime, so the terminology/theory is already understood. Volume of production A cider maker is exempt if they produce less than c.2 million litres in any 12 month period. The manufacturers of 'white' cider are big. Bloody big. So, quite simply, if the cider maker is smaller, with none of the economies of scale, and therefore inbuilt higher costs, then let them be free of this madness. Again, the use of volume as a distinction within HMRC Notice 162 already exists, so once again this mechanism wouldn't come as a shock or surprise. British Grown Apples A cider maker is exempt from this new duty bracket if the product is made with a minimum of 50% British grown apples Possibly the least workable of the three, but an option nonetheless. White Cider are made from dessert apple juice, but there is insufficient availability of this fruit in the UK, so concentrated juice is purchased from abroad. The smaller producers in the UK, making a high quality and increasingly high value perception product use UK fruit. Whether that be age old, traditional West Country cider apple varieties, or superb quality dessert apples grown in the South east of England. So what's going to happen? Who knows? I'll be waiting with my popcorn on Wednesday just like everybody else. Except for the smaller cider makers, because they'll be milling/pressing/racking/bottling/delivering. Although given the potential impact of this Budget, they might just take 5 minutes off.