Stand and be judged

03 October, 2008

New procedures have led to a host of off-the- wall ales being hauled over the coals by the Portman Group's complaints panel. Nigel Hudd leston reports

The complaints process for rogue drinks products used to be a pretty straightforward affair. Some aggrieved party - more often than not Alcohol Concern - would unearth some ludicrously packaged

RTD, send in a complaint to the Portman Group, and retailers would just sit back and wait for the official notification that they shouldn't list the said brand, despite the fact that 99.999% of them would never dream of stocking such rubbish in the first place.

But this year it got a little bit more complicated. Portman decided to be more proactive, enlisting the services of management consultancy PIPC to carry out an audit of randomly

chosen brands, checking their marketing and packaging to see that they complied with the Portman code of practice on such matters.

In all, PIPC looked at 485 brands and found 32

wanting. In May, the owners of those brands were asked to make adjustments. Failure to do so would see PIPC lodge a complaint with Portman's independent complaints panel to deliver a final judgement on the future of the brand. Which is pretty much where

11 drinks brands find themselves today.

Though

negative verdicts by the panel are often reported as a "ban", Portman has no statutory powers. It can merely recommend that retailers do not

stock a certain brand. The culprit is named and shamed, and effectively labelled as irresponsible.

Retailers

have more to lose - continue to stock the brand after the cut-off date of the "ban" and Portman could report them to their local licensing authority.

But there are signs

the mood is shifting, with some suppliers refusing to take

Portman's latest attentions

lying down. A third of those identified by PIPC in May have

decided not to make changes and will take their chances with the complaints panel adjudication.

Sinclair Breweries, whose Orkney Brewery's Skull Splitter ale is one of those facing the music on the grounds that "its name implies violence and also the impact the strength may have on the drinker", is fighting back.

The company insists the name refers to an ancient Viking

earl of Orkney, rather than its

effects on drinkers, and claims to be the first small brewer to voluntarily add government alcohol consumption guidelines to its labels.

The threat to Skull Splitter means

specialist beer shops - many of whom

regard themselves as immune to problems with antisocial behaviour - could unwittingly find themselves attracting the attentions of the local licensing officer.

Sinclair managing director Norman Sinclair said he was "completely stunned" that things had gone so far.

"When [Portman] first raised its concerns with us on the back of the PIPC report we fully explained the historical background to the name and as responsible brewers we were happy to try to work with them to find a solution.

"We've co-operated every step of the way but it's apparently got us nowhere.

"We never target any of our beers at a young market, nor do we allow them to be sold at cut price."

Sinclair

recognised that Portman was trying to tackle "a very real problem with under-age drinking", but added that "real ales are not the cause of these issues".

But Portman spokesman Michael Thompson said Skull Splitter's target market was irrelevant : "The code is about irresponsible marketing, not just under-age drinking . The referral was to do with the strength of the product being the dominant theme and the name's possible connection with aggression."

The plight of Skull Splitter and the Aberdeenshire brewer Brewdog - which has three brands under the microscope as a result of the PIPC report - has even prompted one beer writer to launch an online petition

accusing Portman of

having "more money than sense".

A central plank of the argument put forward by Orkney and its supporters is that the niche appeal of the brands concerned should be a factor in the decision-making process.

Thompson at Portman said: "We aren't able to make special cases. We have a code

decided

by the industry and everyone has to be treated the same ."

He also refuted suggestions by Sinclair that the PIPC study had targeted small producers

while ignoring

major players, especially the eight major suppliers who fund Portman. Some of those companies had brands in the list of 32 originally reported by PIPC, Thompson said.

Liam McArthur, the Scottish MP who

has tabled a motion supporting the brewer, argues that there should be a case for discretion in deciding which complaints are p ursued. "The code needs to apply in a way that is sensible, proportionate and seeks to achieve the objectives everybody's signed up for," he said.

"We don't increase the chances of making a real impact on issues around irresponsible drinking by being distracted and

banning products that aren't the source of the problem."

McArthur said he would give the brewery "any support I can in whatever avenue it chooses to go down", and has already written to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to ask for his backing.

For his part, Sinclair has pledged to u se whatever political clout he has

to put pressure on the Portman Group to change its stance on Skull Splitter and its procedures.

If he's successful, a tiny brand that seemed innocuous weeks ago could change the way drinks packs and marketing are judged in future.




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