With Heineken UK’s leadership stance eventually taking White Lightning off the market last year, it seemed there’d be little resistance from the major players, but doing so was more problematic than it at first seemed.
Simply whacking a higher tax band on stronger ciders wouldn’t work because, as well as punishing what are seen by some as undesirable products, it would also clobber boutique producers making strong, savouring products that already carried a premium.
To solve the problem, there needed to be a way of taxing high abv but cheap ciders associated with street drinking without harming the craft cidermakers.
As a result, since September 1 cider has been redefined to mean any product with at least 35% pear or apple juice both pre-fermentation and in the final product, and with an original gravity of 1,033°.
But the cheapest white ciders are often made from cheaper dessert apples, throwing in the pulp after the juice has been extracted, accounting for the pale colour. Sugars are added to ferment up to an abv equivalent to around the level of stronger table wines, and are then
reduced to the bottling strength by cutting with water.
The aim was to drive white ciders that fall outside the new rules into the higher made-wine duty band, effectively manipulating the price upwards.
Ciders that fall outside the new regulations now have a choice. They can increase their juice content to stay within the cider category but have higher production costs, leading to a higher wholesale/retail price; take the hit and move into the made-wine category, which would probably mean an even higher price; or do a White Lightning and give up altogether.
Taking the hit isn’t really a practical option. The duty on cider between 7.5% and 8.5% abv is £50.22 per hectolitre. For a made-wine of the same strength it’s £225.
The National Association of Cider Makers has been playing down the rule changes, suggesting that very few, if any, products will have decisions to take. To say there were would be tantamount to admitting the industry produces some unwholesome products.
Privately, some producers admit there are cidermakers with a choice to make about the future of their products.
Martin Thatcher, managing director of Thatchers, says: “It has no impact on us because we already have a high juice content. It’s a good thing because it prevents people moving into the market and calling drinks cider that generally aren’t.
“Because of the economics they’ll probably improve the quality. The white cider category is generally in rapid decline anyway. What the industry would really like to see is people making really good-quality mainstream products.”?John Mills, managing director of Intercontinental Brands and the former boss of Gaymer Cider Company, agrees improving quality will be the best route for cheap, white cider producers because “the cost of increasing juice content is not that substantial”.
NACM spokesman Simon Russell concurs that of the few products that are affected they “would be more likely to want to be able to continue to produce cider as defined and would increase the juice content”.
He adds: “If the overall effect is to improve quality, it should increase the retail price as well.”?
“We aimed to settle on a solution that isn’t too expensive or bureaucratic for cidermakers in our discussions with HMRC about this,” says Russell.
If the white cider problem can be made to disappear it will leave the industry with more time to talk about improvements in orchard management and production technology which have generally meant better ciders at the top end, with increased sustainability and traceability.
“The process is very similar to making wine,” Russell says, “so producers have turned to using the technology that can allow them to control the process.
“One of the big innovations over the past 10 years has been singe varietal cider, which has largely been made possible by the greater control producers exercise.
“Major retailers have been responsive to the improvements the industry has made and it’s enabled cider producers to talk to them about the quality, premium messages and issues such as sustainability.
“It’s led to retailers building larger ranges, and those messages are also now starting to filter through to become more important to consumers as well.”?Those messages, combined with the new regulations, could soon see white cider as we’ve come to know it become a thing of the past.