An open letter to the Chancellor calling for a major rethink on cider duty

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Drinks: Ciders, Drinks

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget 2018 announcement elicited positive responses from many within the drinks industry – but for certain British cider producers, some of the budget’s measures could prove harmful to business.  Susanna Forbes advocates for cider and offers solutions in this letter to the Chancellor


Dear Chancellor,

I am one-half of young, boutique cidery Little Pomona, based in the cider heartland of Herefordshire, as well as an award-winning drinks writer and commentator. As such, I am deeply embedded in the cidermaking community.

Understandably, there is jubilation among pub-goers and beer and cider producers for measures in the 2018 budget, including the duty rate freeze for beer and cider, extension of business rate relief and further support for apprenticeship schemes. However, the introduction of a higher rate of duty for ciders with alcohol by volume (abv) between 6.9-7.5% is a disaster for quality-driven cidermakers of all sizes. Equally significantly, it shows a complete misunderstanding of how cider and perry are made and of their potential on the global scene.

This backward step will have ramifications not just for the cider industry, but for the rural economy and the environment, and it will affect Britain’s tourism offering. Cidermaking is a craft that Britain excels at and cider is on the cusp of a renaissance.

This move is a slap in the face for those of us seeking to reinstate cider to its rightful place: not just as a drink of refreshment to be served in pint glasses, but one that can also be savoured for its complexity, as it was by nobility and royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are other issues too that need addressing with the Treasury’s (mis)understanding of what cider is and can be.

I urge you to reconsider and reverse this backward step. Without taking action, the craft cider movement will be held back, orchards will be lost, biodiversity will be affected and fewer visitors will travel to these shores.

Below is a manifesto for change. The cider sector needs support if it is to grow, not vilification simply because it is an easy target.

Change the definition of cider

The UK has a laughably low minimum juice content for its cider at 35%. Imagine hearing  that the wine in your glass contains 35% fermented grape juice, and the rest is water, colouring and additives. In the US, the minimum juice content is 50%. In cidermaking heartlands in much of Europe, it must be as high as 100% in order to be considered cider.

For duty purposes, wine is defined as ‘any liquor obtained from the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or the must (juice) of fresh grapes’. Cider, on the other hand, can officially be made by fermenting fresh juice, rehydrating concentrated juice, or a mix of the two. It can have a permitted list of additives, ranging from aromas and colourants to processing aids. Interestingly, among the ingredients to which there’s ‘no limit’ to the amount that can be added are water and sugar.

Raise the minimum juice content and rename ciders with a low juice content as ‘fermented apple drinks’.

Stop tarring quality, terroir-driven cider with the same brush as ‘white cider’

In its purest sense, cider is fermented apple juice. Prior to fermentation, just like with wine, the fruit is pressed and the juice is gathered. ‘White cider’ is a drink generally created from rehydrated apple concentrate at the cheapest price possible, where the colour has been filtered away. To true cider producers and a growing band of consumers, this has nothing to do with cider.

Rescind the new duty band

On 1 February 2019, the tax for ciders with an abv of between 6.9% to 7.5% will rise from £40.38/hl to £50.71/hl. I understand why this tax has been introduced – to tackle problem drinkers. I’ve been in the drinks trade/media for 20 years, but I’ve also been affected personally by the fallout from alcoholism. This measure will not cure the ills it is seeking to remedy. Problem drinkers will shift their gaze elsewhere. Those issues need a better targeted approach.

Just because Britain has got so good at producing refreshment-style ciders doesn’t mean that this is the only style of cider possible. Cider that is not diluted to lower its abv is crafted and respected around the cidermaking world.

In a normal year, if the fermenting juice is not being keeved (a sweetness-retaining process), cider made with bittersweet fruit can easily reach 7% or more when allowed to fully ferment to dryness. Then cidermakers decide if they’d like to sweeten – and to dilute – and if so, by how much.

Winemakers are able to celebrate the differences each vintage brings. But these new rulings mean that if it’s a hot summer, we have to add water or we will be penalised.

Moreover, saying there’s time for cidermakers to reformulate their ciders as the rate won’t be introduced until 2019 is an insult. Imagine telling top Bordeaux wine producers they need to water down their wine because it is naturally over a certain alcohol percentage.

Encourage innovation, as happens in America

When you look at the craft beer sector – fruit beers, for example – these pay duty at the ‘normal’ beer rate. As soon as a cider above 4% includes other ingredients, be it hops, botanicals or fruit, it immediately falls into ‘made-wine’ territory.

You can add artificial sweeteners like saccharin, for example, but if you want to add a natural sweetener such as honey and the cider is over the 4% level, then duty trebles. If it’s higher than 5.5%, it goes up seven-fold. This curbs creativity and reduces choice for the drinker.

Introduce a sliding scale for cider duty to encourage growth

Small Brewers’ Relief, whereby the duty rate increases on a sliding scale up to 50,000hl, was introduced in 2002 to encourage sustainable growth among smaller brewers and to maintain diversity for the drinking public. While reviewing the Small Brewers’ Relief, why not consider introducing a similar model for cider producers?

The duty exemption for those producing less than 7000l should stay. Introduced in 1977, it was designed to support smaller cidermakers. However, with no sliding scale above 7000l, the result is that cidermakers need to be producing 20,000l immediately if they are to stay on an even keel. A sliding scale would alleviate this restrictive pressure.

After all, making cider is not like producing beer. You can’t just buy more ingredients and put in extra shifts. There is only one harvest. To leap from 7000 to 20,000l is not organic growth. This is why the vast majority of small cidermakers stay small – a fact confirmed by the National Association of Cider Makers’ statistics.

Canvas opinion from all

As well as the National Association of Cider Makers, consult and visit small- and medium-sized cidermakers to fully understand the challenges as well as the potential possible.

To summarise…

The time has come to cherish a true British drink. To do this, we must rethink how cider is perceived, to promote not penalise quality cider producers, throw off archaic duty structures and to put in place ones that encourage both sustainability and growth. We urge you to pick up the baton for cider.

Wassail!

 

Susanna Forbes

Co-founder, Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery


Picture credit: Susanna  Forbes

About Author

Susanna Forbes

Journalist, editor and drinks judge, Susanna Forbes specialises in beer, cider, English wine and drinks tourism. Regularly to be found on Twitter @DrinkBritain, she’s recently bought an orchard in Herefordshire with her husband, James, to start their own cider business.

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