Craft Cidermakers Could Be Wiped Out By Inappropriate Action Warns Industry

By Richard Potter
Posted: 07/03/2010

Craft cidermaking in the UK would be ‘devastated’ if plans to curb alcohol misuse as currently proposed by the main parties were to be implemented.

That is the warning from the National Association of Cider Makers who are concerned that the ‘unintended consequences’ of proposals to deal with problem drinkers would effectively wipe out an important sector of the cider market – and deal a huge blow to deep rooted rural traditions and the countryside economy at the same time.

‘The proposals that have been mooted range from doubling the duty on high strength cider to potential changes in the duty differential between beer and cider,’ said Henry Chevallier Guild, the NACM chairman.

‘The politicians are right to be concerned about alcohol abuse; in fact the cider industry has been at the forefront of initiatives to deal with this problem, but crude, punitive taxation which takes no account of the structure of the market is not the answer and could easily lead, by default, to the devastation of a successful, high quality craft industry of the kind we should be encouraging,’ he said.

Mr Chevallier Guild said that although the two proposals put forward were different the net effect would be the same.

‘Proposals by the Conservatives to double the duty on high strength cider are of course aimed at the perceived problem of so called ‘white ciders’- even though this section of the market is declining at a precipitous rate and now accounts for less than 1% of total alcohol sales.

‘But of course other high strength ciders are distinctive hand crafted premium products which capture the very essence of the centuries old traditions and skills that have made the UK the world’s most important cider making nation. They are produced with great passion and commitment by small cidermakers whose efforts in turn help to sustain our hard pressed rural economy through employment, the purchase of goods and services and, of course through the maintenance and improvement of the environment,’ he said.

Cidermaking at Oliver’s at Ocle Pychard in the heart of Herefordshire has a tradition of excellence stretching back over three centuries – and Tom Oliver wants to ensure he can hand it on to future generations.

But he is very concerned that it is producers like him that will be disproportionately affected by duty changes of the kind currently being discussed.

‘The growth in craft cider and perry making in the UK in recent years has been phenomenal resulting in some superb examples of unique, high quality products that reflect not only the skill and enthusiasm of the makers themselves but capture the very essence of the locality in which they were made,’ said Tom.

‘It is important to remember that for those of us producing from a naturally fermented 100% juice from cider apples and perry pears will produce a cider up to 7% and perry up to 8% with ease and indeed on good sunny years exceed 8.5%, thus any duty increase or banding alteration will potentially  impact us heavily,’ he said.  ‘There is also the issue of customer resistance as higher duty would push up prices – not to mention the resistance from the major retailers.’

‘Damage to the cider industry from the proposals currently being considered will also impact rural jobs and the economy they support. Craft producers do not employ vast numbers of people but we are frequently examples of diversification that keep our farms going,’ he said

‘Having done it, we feel penalised for any financial stability we may have helped bring to our farming concerns. We are the single most popular tourist attraction in Herefordshire with The Cider Route. We represent real, traditional heritage products, being made to the highest of standards in some cases and represent the very best in terms of food and drink tourism and local food and drink provenance.’

Tom said such detrimental changes could also have a more long term effect as plans to invest in new orchards would be halted and much risks being lost through the innovation shown by craft producers which in many areas, has led the rest of the industry.

‘Something else that appears to have been forgotten by the politicians in this debate is that there is no alternative outlet for cider apples and they have a 25 year development life cycle which require long term investment,’ he said. ‘Working capital and investment finance will dry up as banks see cider industry as a poorer risk. Perry Pears can only be used for perry and they only reach maturity during the life time of the next generation of farmers. Pears for your heirs.

‘While some craft producers will grow and compete in the larger commercial market place, it is the smaller ones who most genuinely encompass the heritage and skills combined with the brutal hard work and passion needed to make great cider and perry, year in year out,’ said Tom

‘As agriculture in general gets the run around from government, we do not want to see cider go the way of hard cider in the USA under prohibition, lost to barely re-emerge some 90 years later.

‘Taken to an extreme, an appreciation of what you have got may be important, because it is all too easily lost. The instinctive eye of a top stockman can not be taught easily, it is a gift passed down through father to son and then used daily for life, so too are the skills and palate of a master cidermaker, one break in the chain and all can be lost.’

‘It is also the case that these premium products - which carry a premium price tag - are not the products that people who simply want cheap alcohol will purchase but are bought by consumers who appreciate the profound and diverse range of taste and flavours that have been conjured up from the humble apple by dedicated craftsmen and women. Inappropriate action could mean these products simply become uneconomic to make and so disappear from sale.’

Mr Chevallier Guild said the other issue of concern was the announcement by the Government that ‘the cider duty regime would be reviewed and proposals brought forward at Budget 2010.’

‘This is code for looking again at the different duty regimes that are applied to cider and to beer, its main market competitor. For many years the fact that the production costs for cider are much higher than that of beer has been recognised in a more favourable duty regime for cider. But the success of cidermakers in recent years has seen sales increase, while those of beer appear to be in long term decline and the revenue opportunity must look particularly appealing in the current circumstances,’ he said.

‘Such proposals, if implemented, would not only affect the craft scale producers adversely but would have a detrimental and damaging effect on the whole of the success story that is the British cider industry.’

Mr Chevalier Guild said the Association and its members are pressing their case with the utmost vigour to politicians and officials in order to prevent long term damage to their industry.

‘British cidermakers, through their own efforts, skills, innovation and passion have created a successful and sustainable industry that not only captures and develops age old skills and traditions, but protects and enhances the countryside and makes a significant contribution to the viability of the rural economy. We must fight as hard as we can to protect it.’