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Cider duty – should we be focusing on juice content?

The government is (was?) considering changes to cider duty. I can’t pretend to fully understand the proposals despite many reads, but they will be the biggest change in a long time. Reading the various discussions and points of view over the last few months it’s become clear that a lot of craft makers are passionate about trying to increase the juice content required in cider from the current 35% and a figure of 50% has been bandied about a fair bit by CAMRA. If you listened to the Neutral Cider Hotel episode back in February (was it that long ago!) Gabe puts forward quite a compelling argument for it. However the more I think about it though, the more I wonder if it’s the right fight to pick…

NACM members – taken from https://cideruk.com

Let’s face it, the National Association of Cider Makers that has the biggest voice towards Government has many members that use all the big industrial processes to create homogeneous consistent products, and that includes concentrate and dilution. So it’s not in their interest to side with upping the juice content. That’s not a reason to back down from a fight, but I’m just saying that’s what it’s up against. It was interesting on that NCH episode to also hear from Barny Butterfield of Sandford Orchards and Kingsley Ash from Thornborough who both disagreed on the need to challenge juice percentage but for different reasons.  

As an aside, my personal views of concentrate are mixed. In some ways I can see the advantage for storage and year round production for “big cider” and after all pure juice is made up of a lot of water, so taking that out then putting it back again, in theory isn’t changing much apart from wasting a very valuable resource. My biggest issues are the huge amounts of energy it uses, the excuse it creates to use less fresh juice and so less orchards and the frequent use of imported concentrate that adds even further energy consumption. Cider production as an environmental model should provide a net benefit, certainly on a small, local level. As with all things however, huge global and year round production practices of industrial scales tend to prevent those benefits from being realised.

Anyway, back to the duty issues and as a small maker I know that raising the percentage juice figure could be beneficial to the growth of the craft part of the industry and also the preservation of orchards but also has it drawbacks. Many have campaigned in the past for 100% juice, which is not really technically possible, if you wash your fruit then you’ll have to dry every apple to make sure none of that water gets in and ruins your 100% record, same if you rinse through the last bit of pulp from the mill or the last bit of juice from the pipes. So how about 90% then, which the Small Independent Cidermakers Association (SICA) went with? Well you’re going to struggle to make a more sessionable (is that a word?) percentage cider of say 4.5-5% unless you make it through cold racking or keeving, which means in most cases (I know not all) it will have to be on the sweeter side. Of course you could dilute back with fresh juice like Harry’s do for their Dabinett, but again it’s more on the medium side. Most of my juice will deliver an alcohol by volume of above 6-7% every year, so if I wanted to make a lower alcohol dry cider I couldn’t do it if we had a high prescribed juice percentage.  Not that I intend to.

So where am I going with this? Coming up with lots of problems and no solutions? Well no actually, I think perhaps the argument should be re-focussed towards the definition of cider (and perry). Two of the biggest departments the cider maker has to worry about are Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and also Trading Standards. The latter are mainly concerned with making sure that your container is filled with what it says it is on the label and the volume is correct. HMRC however are concerned with what you make and how much of it you make, and it’s the what you make that I’m on about. 

The Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act of 1979 defines cider as being “obtained from the fermentation of apple or pear juice without the addition of at any time of any alcoholic liquor or of any liquor or substance which communicates colour or flavour other than the Commissioners may allow as appearing to them to be necessary to make cider or perry”. Now there are a few permitted ingredients in Excise Notice 162 (cider duty) but none of them are other fruit flavours. So “for duty and licensing purposes” you cannot call a flavoured cider a cider. It’s taxed as a made wine and again the Alcoholic and Liquor Duties Act defines it as a made wine. So how the hell have we got to the current situation where all these “made wines” are being labelled as ciders?

Well you only have to go back a couple of decades to see the disappearance of alcopops from the supermarket shelves start to happen. Two Dogs, Hooch, Reef, Castaway, Smirnoff Ice and WKD, etc. were flying off the shelves in the 90’s. Relatively cheap, sessionable alcohol strength (mostly) and very palatable (aka lots of sugar). But they started to get a bad rep as “alcoholic soft drinks” resulting in bans such as the Co-Op who took them off their shelves back in 1997. So they started to decline and left a bit of a gap in the market, which was eventually filled by many imports of fruity and sugary alcoholic concoctions, many of which used cider in stead of spirits as a base (cheaper) and so then used the term “cider” as a very clever get around to the bad rep of alcopops.  Not too long after big UK cider saw the competition they were up against but also the pound signs and share of a market they were missing out on and sold its soul to the sugary devil. For example in 2015 Molson Coors (NACM member) acquired Rekordelig UK. So now we have bottles of flavoured “cider” on the shelves that have as much sugar as a bottle of cola and they are flying just as the alcopops did. They don’t show any sign of stopping either, hard seltzers which I thought would make serious competition due to their less calorific content seem to have fizzled out already over here. Despite the major health issue mainstream flavoured cider presents they are also the biggest challenge for craft cider as they call themselves “cider”. 

Ultimately I believe they are exploiting a huge loophole by creating a base from apples and/or pears that can be as low as 35% to justify calling it “cider” but technically they don’t have to (and I would argue can’t legally) as it’s a “made wine” anyway. So because HMRC are only concerned with how much duty you pay, as long as you pay the higher duty of a “made wine” it seems you can still call it a “cider” and this, dear readers, is what needs to be stopped. 

If the Duties Act says that cider can only be made from apples and pears (we should sort that bit out too and create a definition for perry) then why on earth can you actually make it from anything you want? I actually don’t know the answer to this one. So my suggestion is to challenge the definition in the duty legislation and either through case law (which sadly I can’t afford to fund) or lobbying, get the government to acknowledge cider as being made from only apples, perry from only pears and everything else called what it really is; either a made wine or the real truth, an alcopop in cider’s clothing. 

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