“Cider is as English as Shakespeare.” With the new Minimum Unit Pricing legislature to be passed in Britain, cider photographer Bill Bradshaw, of IAmCider.blogspot.com, worries about its adverse affect on traditional farmhouse cider.
Article and photography by guest writer: Bill Bradshaw
In 1763 the British government had reached unprecedented levels of national debt and so tried to introduce the Cider Bill, taxing all cider production. It would provide a huge increase in revenue, as cider was such a massive part of the rural economy. The result? Riots all over the West Country, particularly in Somerset. A year later the prime minister was so unpopular he had to step down.
In March 2012 the British government, again at unparalleled levels of national debt, announced they want to introduce Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). The legislation ensures a minimum price per unit of alcohol at retail regardless of production cost, in order to tackle the problem of binge drinking (although some will have you believe it is just another plan for more revenue). This time the result could be more fatal. The death of sales of farmhouse cider from the barrel something Somerset particularly is known for.
“Cider is an important part of the rural economy in the South West, the makers investing in orchards with an expected life of 50 years or more and creating long-term sustainable employment,” writes South West of England Cidermakers’ Association (SWECA) on their website.
The problem that initiated the MUP thinking is what’s known as ‘white cider.’ It’s the name given to an industrially made drink styled on cider that contain very little, if any, apple at all. White cider is made by mixing various adjuncts (sugars, flavorings, aromas etc) that are easy to control, cheap to buy, produced on a massive scale, fermented to about 7 – 8.5% abv. and sold cheap with profitable margins. The drinks are known for their combination of high alcoholic strength and their low price. White cider drinks are available nationally in supermarkets and are popular with problem drinkers. The MUP was designed to tackle these low-cost/high damage drinks by making them more expensive and so discouraging and penalizing unhealthy drinking habits.
Tragically, our best artisan cidermakers here in England and Wales who have been producing some of the finest cider in the world for generations will be tarred with the same brush, by the same legislation. Buying farmhouse cider from the barrel on the farm where it was made is one of Britain’s oldest surviving cider traditions. It’s as English as Shakespeare.
An increase of somewhere between 100%-150% of the current price threatens that tradition and many believe will take it to the point of extinction. A recent survey conducted by Nook’s Yard Cider & Perry reveals that over 90% of the cidermakers here in Somerset, where that tradition is strongest, will be affected adversely.
‘Scrumpy’ as it’s often referred to here, is made from apples grown on the same farm as they are pressed and fermented then matured as cider. As such, the price it’s sold for at on the farm gate reflects those low input costs. It also has a low carbon footprint: mostly sold ‘loose’ here in Somerset (straight from the barrel) unpackaged into a container that customers bring themselves. The natural strength of traditionally made cider is working against it in this instance (apples have enough fermentable sugar in them to create about 6-6.5% abv., sometimes more). So now, by making something purer (and so, so much greener environmentally speaking) you run the risk of making it unaffordable and unsustainable. A ludicrous consequence by any measure.
Customers who prefer artisan cider made by smaller producers will automatically be penalized purely because their traditionally made cider isn’t interfered with (i.e. not industrialized: made with concentrate, gassed pasteurized, filtered, etc.). Making the tradition a most expensive luxury, which many sensible people, who don’t abuse alcohol, simply won’t—or can’t—afford to pay it.
As people won’t visit the cider farms any more, sales will suffer, farm gates will be locked and orchards will be grubbed out. Our cider will be more packaged, gassed, pasteurized—industrialized—than ever before. And worse still, the beautiful scruffy and magical cider farms, the final bastions of our cider heritage dotted around the landscape here in UK will die out. A tragedy.
“[We are] seriously concerned about the potential damage the Government’s proposed MUP for alcoholic drinks will cause to traditional West Country cidermakers, their customers and the rural economy in general,” writes SWECA summing up the issue. “Traditional cidermakers and their customers are not part of the problem that the Government wishes to address with this policy and they would be unfairly penalized by the policy… We urge the Government to carefully consider these issues before making any decision that might damage our industry.”
This MUP legislation might make some difference at curbing the affordability of industrially made drinks (be it white cider, cheap beer or artificially flavored and brightly colored alcopops) but what’s the point if you are killing the one thing you should be protecting and encouraging—quality and tradition? How are future generations supposed to learn what quality cider tastes like and experience the mystique of buying traditional cider from a farm out of a barrel?
Prominent writer Pete Brown puts this down to part of being British is being terrible at appreciating what we’ve got.
Julian Temperley, a well-known cidermaker for Somerset Cider Brandy, recently said,
“We have spent the last four years in Brussels, campaigning to protect Somerset Cider Brandy and have been treated with great consideration and respect by endless committees. We now have legal protection because they recognized the importance of Somerset Cider Brandy to rural Somerset. It would be a terrible indictment of the UK political system if it should turn out that Brussels showed more care and concern about rural England than Whitehall.”
Our government wants to be seen to tackle binge drinkers, pre-loaders and alcohol abusers but the reality is that binge drinkers, pre-loaders and alcohol abusers don’t get in a car and drive all the way to a cider farm to buy gallon of cider to share at the weekend. They buy cheap, fizzy, industrial alcohol (the ‘ingredients’ of which have never been anywhere near an orchard) from supermarkets and off license’s in our towns and cities where its much more affordable and convenient.
Cider was born on a farm and it appears there it shall die too, unless something is done to protect it.