WHEN your Government’s in trouble and you are fighting a long and protracted war, why not raise the duty on cider and tax the peasants? It’s happened before.
In 1643, during the English Civil War, the rate imposed was one shilling and threepence (1/3d) a hogshead, and a hogshead was 54 gallons unless you were in Herefordshire in which case it could be 64, 74 or even 108 gallons – the trick was to dilute the duty. England Expects Every Man to do his Duty…
In 1763, after Seven Long Years of War with the French, the de-facto Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute, decided to raise taxes on cider to help pay for it.
And what a mistake that was!
He put 4 shillings on a hogshead for the home, and 10 shillings on a hogshead for resale in the capital. There was real rebellion in Ciderland. There were riots. Effigies of Bute were burnt in the streets and hung on trees. Bute’s style of Government was referred to as the Scottish Yoke. Does this not ring bells? Bute was lampooned mercilessly in broadsheets and pamphlets and forced to resign in April 1763. Increasing the tax on cider cost him his job. So much for the wisdom of taxing ‘backward’ rural areas: Ciderland bit back.
In 1916, the year of the Battle of the Somme, when the peasants died in their thousands in mud and barbed wire, cider was made more expensive again. The tax was only lifted five years after the end of the First World War, in 1923. Somehow it escaped taxation during the Second World War, but it got re-imposed by a Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, he of the eyebrows, in 1976. However, he left a 1,500-gallon loophole for traditional artisan farmhouse cidermakers. Thank you Denis, that was a godsend for small producers, and it’s the small and middle size producers that matter: they make cider worth drinking.
Only trouble is, it is hard to find a peasant these days, some do exist in West Dorset and very proud they are of their cider clubs, but more often than not it is weekend middle class peasants who are drinking the amber apple nectar. That’s important, because they are the ones who are pushing the boundaries on cider experimentation. No more rats’ piss for them. They want a classy drink, fit for kings and queens and top class restaurants, one they can proudly put on their own dining room tables.
So now in 2010, with an expensive war in Afghanistan and an unprecedented financial cock-up, the Chancellor seeks to punish cider makers once again. But cider is not beer. Brewers can make beer any day of the week and at any time of the year. Real cider relies on an annual crop of cider apples and the labour involved in hand picking apples. The time taken in planting an orchard and waiting for it to come to fruition can often be measured in decades. The sugar that comes from cider apple juice ferments naturally and it’s this that provides the alcohol.
The problem is that much of the sugar used in large-scale cider production is not from English cider apples – far from it. Cheap cider, drunk late at night by teenagers on the streets, is an industrial product made with foreign apple concentrate ‘enhanced’ with corn syrup, colouring and sweeteners and anything else you care to mention. That, I agree, should be taxed at the same level as ‘made wines’ – but not artisan cider.
What government does not really understand is that the alcohol should come directly from natural sugar levels in the cider apple and this depends on the type of apple, the season and even the location i.e. terroir, even which side of the valley the orchard is on. Some years the sugar levels will be high and in cider apples this can give rise to alcohol levels of 8% and even higher, so the government is in effect taxing the power of the sun, which gives rise to the sugars in ciders. How green is that?
The nub of the problem is that the industrial ciders rely on corn, maize and wheat syrup where the natural starch is turned into sugar by enzymes. A good working knowledge of how ciders are made is therefore essential before taxing the industry wholesale. A watertight definition of cider and cidermaking would make the Chancellor’s decision easier to make. Juice contents on labels would also help. And herein lies part of the problem.
The National Association of Cidermakers (NACM) abides by Customs Regulation 162, but this allows them to add sugar ‘no limit’ and water ‘no limit’, as well as the use of apple concentrate. That is fine, but the general public should be made aware of how exactly their cider is made and where its ingredients have come from.
My main concern however is that the small and medium size artisan cidermakers will be penalised unfairly by this increase in cider taxation and all the hard work of re-planting orchards will be jeopardised.
If politicians want to do something constructive they should define cider more carefully and tax it according to its method of manufacture and raw materials. If there hadn’t been two expensive wars and a financial cock up of mammoth proportions would the politicians today be grasping at cider?
What is interesting about the recent hike in cider taxation is not so much the punitive increases but the real lack of knowledge about the industry and its roots in apple trees and orchards. Is it sour grapes? Or is it that cider has taken sales away from beer? Or is it a misguided attempt to punish the poor in a time of crisis, a crisis that is of the government’s own making?
The Westcountry is not a Labour stronghold, so Labour politicians feel safe in attacking what are really Liberal heartlands. They do so at their peril. They should read more history, but then history has been marginalized in the National Curriculum for years.
Lord Bute paid for his mistake with his job. After he resigned he returned to his Hampshire estate and became a keen botanist and literary patron. Among his beneficiaries were Samuel Johnson, Tobias Smollett and the Scottish architect Robert Adam. Earl Bute also gave significant financial help to the Scottish universities. No doubt Alistair Darling is considering funding the universities of Scotland in a similar vein. It is after all the poor students of Scottish universities who drink the cheap cider he is seeking to tax so heavily.
Editor’s Note: James Crowden is the author of Ciderland, which won an Andre Simon book award in 2008, and Cider: The Forgotten Miracle, which I edited for him more years ago than probably either of us care to remember. James used to make cider for Julian Temperley at Burrow Hill in Somerset and he is an expert on the history of cider orchards in West Dorset. The revival in recent years of cider clubs in West Dorset is partly down to him; one of his poems has hung for years on the wall of the famous West Milton shed.