Friday 21 April 2017

White trash

From time to time, the authorities have a go at trying to single out categories of alcoholic drinks that they think are consumed disproportionately by “problem drinkers”. A few years ago, it was high-strength “super” lagers, which gave rise to the additional “Old Tom tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV. It doesn’t seem to have done much to eradicate them, though, and in my local corner shop you can still buy four cans for £6, which equates to 37.5p per unit. It seems that the additional tax is largely absorbed in lower margins rather than being passed on to the consumer.

Most of them do seem to have been reformulated to 8% ABV rather than 9%, but that’s basically to avoid falling foul of the alcohol nannies by having more units in a single-use can than the daily recommendation. And, of course, many high-quality “craft” products such as the aforementioned Old Tom fell into the net of the tax, underlining the point that it’s impossible to distinguish in law between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” drinks.

The latest product to hove into their sights is “white cider”, with the government currently consulting on ways of increasing the tax level on this product, which benefits from the much lower duty rate attached to cider rather than beer. A few years back, a requirement was introduced that any product classified as cider for duty purposes had to contain at least 35% apple juice amongst the fermentable materials. However, it seems that white ciders still fall within this definition, despite reputedly being mainly composed of high-fructose corn syrup.

I can’t say I’ve ever tried any white cider, as my student days were well before it had been invented, and I have no plans to change that. And it’s hard to argue that it falls even within the broadest definition of connoisseurship. But we have to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of categorising some alcoholic drinks as “bad” and others as “good”, purely because the latter are more expensive. If you’re swigging cheap gutrot, you’re a pisshead, if I’m sipping expensive craft beer, malt whisky or claret, I’m a discerning connoisseur. As this Daily Mash article says:

GETTING drunk while looking after your children is fine if you are drinking Chablis rather than WKD, it has been confirmed.

Middle class mother Eleanor Shaw and her friends regularly drink ‘some’ bottles of Chablis during their children’s play dates, insisting it is a civilised approach to parenting and ‘something French people probably do’.

Shaw said: “Chablis is a cultivated drink filled with interesting ‘notes’. It’s not like we’re just getting shitfaced.

“Sometimes we describe it using words like ‘biscuity’.”

She added: “Of course, if one of my friends turned up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand vodka I would confiscate it and then report the bitch to social services. Chablis is barely alcohol at all, really.

It’s also very nice if you mix it with half a pint of artisan gin and then stand on the kitchen table singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

This is an attitude that is sadly very common amongst beer-lovers. But, at the end of the day, however much we may savour the taste and character, nobody can ignore that fact that alcohol has an effect on you. Not necessarily an instant road to oblivion, but certainly a gentle warm glow or a lubricant of sociability. You wouldn’t drink it in the same way if it didn’t.

And I would expect that most of the drinkers of white ciders, like those of super lagers, are not derelicts or hopeless alcoholics, but simply generally responsible people who prefer to go a bit higher on the volume/strength trade-off. In general, they’re no cheaper per unit than weaker drinks in the same category, so they can’t be regarded simply as being chosen on the bangs-per-buck ratio. People just don’t want to have to drink large quantities of liquid to achieve the desired effect.

So it’s good to see Gordon Johncox of Frosty Jack’s maker Aston Manor having the courage of his convictions to challenge the attempts by anti-alcohol campaigners to single out white cider.

“There is a constant barrage of criticism and unsubstantiated points made around white cider, who drinks it and why they drink it, from all sorts of bodies.

“We got frustrated with the headlines that were being achieved by some of these well-intentioned but ultimately misguided bodies, and we have actually written to some challenging them.

“The research shows that the typical white cider drinker is very different to the demon presented by some of the bodies. We have written to the Alcohol Health Alliance. They have not replied yet.

“We are going to be far more robust in our challenges than we have been in the past. It’s just wrong that these bodies should be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims.”

It’s a pity other producers of alcoholic drinks aren’t willing to make a similarly robust response rather than just quietly appeasing the neo-Prohibitionists and hoping they will go away.

As Chris Snowdon argues in the article, if you tax white cider off the shelves, problem drinkers will simply move on to something else. And one of the most obvious destinations is normal “amber” cider where, as I’ve argued before, the line between high-quality craft product and cheap, high-strength booze can be a very fine one.

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.
In my local Home Bargains, you can buy a four-pack of 500ml cans of 7.5% ABV HCC Black cider for £2.99, which is a mere 20p per unit. But that’s proper cider, not white cider, so it would escape any crackdown that focused solely on the latter.

Of course, you can simply use a big hammer and indiscriminately apply a minimum unit price to everything. But that, as I’ve pointed out before, would kill small farmhouse cidermakers stone dead, or at least ensure that they stopped selling any commercially.

At the end of the day, any legislative attempts to single out “bad” alcoholic drinks are likely to be fraught with problems of definition and end up bringing within the net all kinds of products that weren’t intended. Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.


  1. The mistake people make when demonising this type of product is to mistake cause and effect.
    To think that these products are responsible for alcoholics and the anti social problems they represent.

    People become alcoholics for all manner of reasons but all of them will start out on a more respectable form of alcohol. As their life deteriorates so will their financial position and they trade down. Eventually hitting best bang per buck.

    Ban white cider and something else is best bang per buck.

    A point in favour of white cider is that it is clean ethanol alcohol.

    Other forms of cheap methanol alcohol cause blindness and immediate liver failure. A reason for it being removed from hospital hand cleaning fluid.

    If you want to help alcoholics, there are many worthwhile charities offering care and therapy you can donate too, including AA. None of these are prohibitionist political campaigns. They just help people who are dying from their addiction rebuild some sort of life.

  2. In terms of "bang for buck", I always found supermarket own-brand sherry/fortified wine to be the stuff.

    Good points made by both Cookie & Mudge btw.

  3. I'm in a couple of minds about this. I think that if you tried some, you might be too.* The apple content is mainly pomace; that is, the leftovers from proper cider making. So the makers can satisfy the apple requirement for duty purposes although the qualification of the resulting drink as cider is tenuous at best. So, the manufacturers are exploiting a situation to produce something which really, only the desperate will be drinking. (2 litres of amber cider at 5% is £1.99 in Lidl or Aldi. This has a modicum of palatability. If this is still not enough bang for your buck ...)

    And yet, given that some people will for whatever reason drink the trampagne, there is an argument that jakies, who will be spending their money on booze anyway, should be enabled to do so without total impoverishment and with something which at least meets a minimum set of standards. And I reckon that even for the hardcore it may be self-limiting as its not really easy drinking stuff and can result in the kind of rotgut and hangover which might make even the most committed think twice.

    And yet again ... the makers of this know exactly what they are doing and for whom. And maybe there is a line; and maybe, of all the things sold in shops as alcoholic beverages, white cider is the one which falls below it.

    *Last year bought a four pack of Frosty Jack cans from Lidl for very little money (4x500ml for £2.69 perhaps, but not certain). It was alright for about two-thirds of a can. Of course I drank the rest, but it was a near thing. (Frosty Jack shandy by the end.)

    1. But surely the same argument could be applied to products such as cheap vodka and "British wine". The fact that something is cheap crap is not an argument in itself to ban it or tax it to death. And if alcoholic drinks are being targeted on purely subjective grounds, it opens up a slippery slope. What's to say that the same arguments would not then be turned on amber cider, which, as I said, enjoys a much lower duty rate than beer, especially at the stronger end of the scale?

      As H. L. Mencken said, quoted in the sidebar, "The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all."

    2. I tried Diamond White in the 90s in a nightclub in Leicester that had a promotion of buy 1 get 1 free for girl customers only. I sent my then bird to the bar all night. Trouble was she was half my weight being a petite lass and tried to match me bottle for bottle. I had to carry her back home. I didn't think much of the drink but it was cheap and strong enough to appeal to a student sense of value. Banging hangover material though. Complete filth.

      Then it was marketed as a lasses drink more than tramps drink. A couple of years later alcopops hit the market and white cider appeared to become a 2 litre bottle of cheap tramp juice.

      Duties alter and now alcopops seem fermentable based rather than distillation based but white cider maintains its price point from the tax advantage cider gets. You could more tightly define cider but concentrated apple juice is one of the cheapest fermentable sugars even if you remove other starches broken into sugars. The cheapness is the tax break.

      In trying to defend a tax break for a none commercial cottage industry a loop hole exists for tramp juice that cannot be closed unless the tax break is removed. If you think white cider ought to be banned to help save lives, well that moral decision has a cost and the cost is the tax break for farmhouse cider.

      The argument that white cider is enjoyed by respectable drinkers doesn't wash. It is tramp juice. If it has a moral defence it as as the lesser of available evils. A market where cheap drink is unavailable is a market fuelled by dangerous black market alternatives with high levels of methanol.

      As for the moral indignation aimed towards those making white cider. I don't see those moralists wanting to help alcoholics. They just want a problem to disappear out of sight. Take it away from the shopping precinct and put it somewhere else, out of sight.

    3. "The argument that white cider is enjoyed by respectable drinkers doesn't wash. It is tramp juice."

      Not convinced by that. Obviously I haven't seen Aston Manor's research, but I'd guess that many buyers aren't derelicts or alcoholics, but simply people of limited means choosing to make a volume/strength trade-off higher up the scale, much like drinkers of super lagers.

      And is it all that different from the crafty making the calculation that he gets as much pleasure out of one bottle of 10% DIPA than two of the weak 5% stuff?

      Clearly white cider is a bit of a "tax-break special", but if the rules were changed than the same condemnation would be focused on standard cider.

    4. It is clearly in the interest of the producer to argue the pish isn't tramp juice and is enjoyed by nice polite people responsibly and maybe they can even produce some evidence if they are creative enough but are we meant to swallow that?

      Admitting it is tramp juice and trying to justify the existence of tramp juice on a lesser of available evils argument is a difficult one so I'd be tempted to try and push an outright denial of tramp juice status if given that gig.

    5. Undoubtedly.

  4. Taxation should be a method of raising money for the business of government, and not a method of social control.

    1. Using taxation rather than legislation to control so called bad behaviour is condoning such behaviour by rich people.

    2. You also have the idea that any economic process, whether industrial, transport or just trade might have a social cost that is not directly born by the participants. Therefore you impose a tax to counter that.

      Whether that is to clean up pollution, clean the streets of take away cartons or deal with the fact that some alcohol consumers cause problems that have a cost to general society.

  5. I always thought that the problem with the big bottles of white cider was kids drinking it rather than alcoholics. It's definitely closer to pocket money prices and tastes than British sherry or super strength lager. I'd admit though that I've not seen any discarded empties down the park for years. This could be a problem that's over, but health charities see an easy win, because bringing the tax on cider in line with beer is probably inevitable anyway.

    1. I'd very much doubt that cider tax will be brought into line with that on beer. There's a reluctance to change the fundamental basis of alcohol taxation, and remember the massive outcry in 2010 when Labour proposed to increase cider duty by 10%. There are plenty of Tory/LibDem marginals in the cider heartland!

  6. Dear Curmudgeon

    I once bought a plastic of Frosty Jack, which I found to be one step up from meths* minus the colour.

    I prefer strength to volume. My favourite lager for special occasions was Special Brew. Unfortunately Carlsberg capitulated to the fascists and conspired to do over their customers in order to fall in with government 'guidelines' - no can shall contain more than a man's daily measure (as defined by HMG). Having done so, that nice dame Sally halved the guidelines. Well done Carlsberg. I believe they altered the flavour too.

    Once they invoked a Churchillian character to promote Special Brew in a TV advert - allegedly it was produced to honour Churchill after the war. Can't see them running that ad again.

    What to do now, Carlsberg? Halve the strength of Special Brew? Make the cans smaller? Frankly I'm surprised you didn't keep faith with your customers and do the obvious.

    Thanks for the timely reminder from the Morning Advertiser to raise a glass for St George's Day. The only English drink I found at mine hosts' is a miniature of Poetic License (sic) Northern Dry Gin.

    So: to Her Majesty, England and St George.

    * I'm guessing - not tried meths yet.

  7. Ah, remember the cider wars? What fun!.

  8. I had a trip round Taunton Cider at Norton Fitwarren in 1994 when they still made Diamond White which was firmly targeted at the female drinker. I don't think the idea of tramp juice had quite caught on then. They were quite proud of it as it was only made from apple juice although mostly imported concentrate unlike their other ciders. It was fermented to an ABV of around 15% then diluted to the wine duty threshold but I did get to try the full monte which was just a blast of apple flavoured alcohol. Judging by the broken bottles strewn around my local park during the recent school holidays I'd say that the yoof are mostly drinking Lambrini. Not one 2L cider PET bottle to be seen.

    1. Confusingly though - Lambrini IS white cider. Or perry at least.

    2. Oh, I thought it was wine made from grape concentrate!


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