Tax Quality not Quantity
So, by the time you read this, the small beer duty scheme will have been enacted. Dwink is no Nostradamus but it can’t help but assume nothing really has changed. Has it? Thought not. It’s changed very little. Nor will it.
The Small Beer Duty Scheme means that since October, beers at or below 2.8% will benefit from a tax break while beers with an ABV of 7.5% will be given a higher tax rate. It’s a daft thing that the daft government seems to daftly believe will lead to more responsible drinking.
It won’t. It’s clear why the government is doing it – it’s an unashamed attempt to bag the outraged of Middle England scared-of-everything vote. Heaven knows, that’s a vital vote to capture as, let’s face it, there’s a lot of outraged people in Middle England and there’s nothing that riles them more than terrible tales of looting youths drinking London Pride, Deuchars IPA and Worthington White Shield in bus shelters, smashing in shop windows with dimpled mugs and throwing bottles of Timothy Taylor Landlord at Police in riot gear.
Everyone knows, if there’s one thing that is ruining this once great nation of ours then it’s definitely mid-strength cask beer. Of that we can be sure.
The Small Beer Duty Scheme is misguided for two reasons. Firstly, it’s immediately thrust Skol back into the consciousness of British drinkers. Whichever way you look at it, there’s no need for that. The psychological scars from the 1980s having barely healed, Carlsberg have reduced the strength from 3 to 2.8% but all that’s done is transform an acutely average weak lager into an acutely average weaker lager. No-one drinks Skol nor should they. Ever. It tastes of nothing, it does nothing and the reduction in ABV has reduced the price of a can by, yes – you’ve guessed it, absolutely nothing. Well done everyone.
Two regional brewers have, so far, obliged with lower ABV ales. Greene King and JW Lees are bringing out beers at 2.8% ABV called Tolly English Ale and Golden Lite respectively. Ignoring, for one moment, the economic expediency that would have driven this new product development, such moves should be applauded. It adds diversity and choice to a burgeoning beer scene and it’s easy to see why CAMRA has campaigned for it.
As any brewer will testify, it is much harder to brew a beer below three per cent with genuine depth of flavour. If any brewing nation can do it then Britain can. British brewers are revered all around the world for their ability to craft flavoursome, interesting beers at a low ABV.
But regardless of whether they’re good beers, in all honesty, is there actual consumer demand? If the commercial catastrophe that is – or was- Carling C2 is anything to go by then, hazarding a guess, probably not.
*What’s more, Small Beer Duty Scheme doesn’t benefit small brewers. As far as Dwink can tell, the new break only applies to those brewers who don’t benefit from the discount already awarded to boutique brewers. This means that the low alcohol beer being brewed will appeal to supermarket own label producers, big brewers and a handful of regionals. One could possibly argue that, as such, new low ABV beers will come from a boardroom brainstorm rather than an innovative brewer.
And here’s another thing. One of the best things about drinking beer is not just the flavour experience, it’s the buzz – everyone knows that and anyone who disagrees is a liar. That floating feeling of conviviality created by a couple of pints is one of life’s great pleasures. To achieve that with a beer of 2.8%, you’re going to have to drink a lot more and a lot quicker.
Given that in the last ten years, more than 1,300 public toilets have been closed down in the UK and that, crucially, relieving a bursting bladder in a bush or alley remains a public offence, the Small Beer Duty Scheme may, in fact, increase social disorder rather than reduce it. Just a thought – and one for which you didn’t even have to spend a penny.
As well as lowering duty on low ABV beers, the government is also increasing the duty on beer above 7.5% – to “tackle problem drinkers without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries.” This is equally out of touch. One can only assume it is aimed squarely at the dedicated drinker super-strength lager, all too often an alfresco imbiber of no fixed abode who, rather ironically, drinks Tennants Super.
Does the government honestly think this will deter this drinking demographic? If they do then they should meet ‘Mad John’, a man who shares Dwink’s local licensed convenience store and a man who thinks he controls the traffic lights by clapping. He’s also the Messiah apparently. Mad John is not monogamous when it comes to alcohol intake. If Tennents is too dear for him then, don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of other bargain bottles on the shelves giving him the glad-eye.
Yet again, the Government is playing shotgun politics and, as usual, the weapon is too big for the target. Nigel Stevenson, speciality beer consultant at James Clay, the distributor of speciality beers, argued that will unfairly penalise responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries.
“The policy has unfairly singled out beers over 7.5% as the root cause of problem drinking. These beers actually account for less than 0.5% of UK alcohol sales, whereas 99%+ of wine sales are over 7.5% abv: So why is the Government pointing the finger at world classic beers such as Duvel (8.5% abv), Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (10% abv) and Schneider Aventinus (8.2% abv) – each of them the Mouton Rothschild of their styles – and not wine? The folly lies in the fact that these beers are more akin to a fine wine in the way they are reverently crafted and consumed.
“The policy sends a clear message to the UK alcohol industry that the government is alarmingly out of touch with the market and to the real cause of problem drinking: Cheaply priced alcohol – beer wines and spirits – in supermarkets.
“To borrow a term from our friends at Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland, “Good People Drink Good Beer” and our stance is clear: Please don’t penalise the good people, but help us educate those who have not yet found the true beauty of our national drink.”
With Nigel’s plea in mind, Dwink has come up with a fair solution. It’s a beer duty scheme based on quality rather than quantity. Rather than be taxed on the level of alcohol or the size of the brewery, a duty decision would be based on the integrity of the ingredients and, ultimately, the taste of the beer itself.
For example, a 6.8% ABV lager that’s been brewed using copious amounts of Saaz hops, the finest pilsner malt and matured for more than three months would be taxed at a significantly lower rate than a 2.8%ABV cooking lager that’s been industrially brewed with rice, additives, adjuncts and that’s been in a lagering tanks for less than 90 minutes.
Each beer style would have its own bespoke criteria. To achieve a lower duty rate, an India Pale Ale must be well-hopped yet balanced, a fruit beer must use real fruits rather than syrup and an oyster stout gets a tax break if oysters are used in the brewing process. Chimay would be taxed less than Skol, Sierra Nevada would pay less duty than Budweiser and Skol could only be competitive if it was brewed in Jersey or some other strange tax haven. You get the idea.
If a beer brewed under licence differs from the original then it’s going to be taxed at a higher rate. Any beer served deliberately ‘extra cold’ would incur prohibitive tax hikes too while sweetness gained from anything other than natural ingredients would be similarly penalised.
This would make beers less palatable for young drinkers. Brewers and drinks producers are making drinking too easy for early imbibers. British beer is, on the whole, bitter and should be a challenge to drink for the uninitiated.
If, at aged 18, a spotty-faced whippersnapper somehow manages to make his way through a bottle of Fuller’s Vintage Ale then, chances are, he won’t be able to have another one. He certainly won’t go out and cause trouble, choosing instead to retire to the sitting room for some quiet contemplation and a lovely wedge of stilton.
To ensure brewers aren’t cutting corners and pulling a swift one, each and every one would be subjected to spot checks by beer inspectors with clipboards and white coats. Taste, of course, is subjective which is why there’d also be a well-paid professional beer tasting panel appointed by the HMRC and, as it’s Dwink’s great idea, Dwink would be chairperson and paid handsomely for it.
So that’s that sorted. Next month, the Middle East crisis.
*Warning: this bit is a bit boring unless you’re REALLY into beer.
This article was first published in the M&C Report. Don’t tell anyone.
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Published: November 15, 2011 / 11:57 am