Reducing the Strength: Producers speak out

21 March, 2014

Four-fifths of brewers and cidermakers polled by OLN said local authorities should be stripped of the power to pressure retailers into removing certain products from shelves.

Store owners are being urged to stop selling beers and ciders above 5.5% abv, 6% abv or 6.5% abv under a swathe of Reducing the Strength schemes that have popped up across the country. But key players in the multibillion-pound industry told OLN the schemes are illegal, poorly targeted and a threat to their livelihoods.

Eighty per cent said local authorities should not have the power to implement Reducing the Strength initiatives, while just 8% said they should and 12% said they were unsure.

Gordon Johncox, managing director at the UK’s second largest cider producer, Aston Manor, said: “The advice is that such schemes are not legal. We are also concerned about how they distort the category, will penalise retailers, consumers and producers and fail to deliver a reduction in the harm created by misuse – something we want to work towards.

“A major concern I have is that, while a disproportionate effort is directed towards a flawed policy, we are not developing and implementing an evidence-based approach that would tackle a serious and complex issue.

“Our view is that whole population measures to tackle the misuse of a minority simply do not make sense. The view addressed by many working with people with addiction issues is that a focus on the person and not the substance – whether it be drugs or alcohol – delivers positive results.”

Henry Chevallier Guild, partner at Aspall, added: “The way it’s currently framed is quite likely illegal, plus there are many unintended consequences, such as the penalising of genuine premium products whose natural juice and sugar contents mean it is not possible to ferment out to less than 6.5% abv. This could destroy great swathes of the premium UK cider industry.”

If retailers have to strip shelves of beer and cider above 6% abv, 23% of the 398 craft products that won awards at OLN’s International Beer Challenge and International Cider Challenge in 2013 would be banned.

Matt Sadler, co-founder at Two Fingers Brewing Company, said: “Removing beers and ciders over a certain abv ignores the fact that many of the best beers in

the world are of high strength and limits consumers’ opportunities to explore the full spectrum. In beer, as in life, education is always preferable to censorship.”

Andrew Quinlan, founder of Orchard Pig, added: “Does a local authority understand why the drink is over 6.5% abv? Many craft ciders are over that historically and naturally.”

Another leading supplier said: “This has the potential to impact quality, premium craft ales and beers, reducing consumer choice.”

Many are upset that the schemes target beer and cider while naturally higher abv products such as spirits and wine are left alone.

Fergus Clark, managing director of Inveralmond Brewery, said: “Why limit it to beers and ciders? Logically you would need to remove everything above 6.5%. Why target beer and cider only?”

Gerald Michaluk, managing director at Arran Brewery, added: “Wine and spirits are all over 6% abv. Why pick on beer? It’s the least problematic alcoholic beverage.”

Ewan McCowen, managing director of Harviestoun, said: “In that case they should also remove all wines and all spirits from the shelves. Why single out beer and cider?

“That said, beer is still thought of as something that can or should be drunk in volume. There is an education piece for beer and cider manufacturers to encourage their drinkers to respect and appreciate their higher abv products.”

Others fear this is the thin end of the wedge and that other drinks, such as wine and spirits, will soon be purged.

Gemma Adams, product manager at Grossi Wines, which stocks a range of craft beers, said: “A producer shouldn’t be restricted in that way – that’s how we end up with homogeneity. What’s next – wine above 13% abv removed from shelves?”

The overwhelming consensus was that more needs to be done to tackle street drinking and alcohol abuse through better education and targeted crackdowns – and to ensure consumer choice is not eroded by authorities looking for a silver bullet that does not exist.

Martin Thatcher, managing director at Thatcher’s, said: “It’s more about effective ways to approach individual issues, such as alcohol abuse by the minority. This type of campaign is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

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