Act now to Save our Scrumpy

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Minimum unit pricing Cider Alcoholic beverage

Rural tradition: Farmhouse cider is under threat from alcohol minimum pricing
Rural tradition: Farmhouse cider is under threat from alcohol minimum pricing
If we care about rural traditions then we should all act now to save our farmhouse cider-making industry, argues Pete Brown.

One of the recurring themes in my musings is that we in Britain are pretty rubbish at appreciating what we’ve got. I’ve written before about how as a nation we don’t really celebrate our real-ale tradition, our brewers’ unique ability to pack flavour into what is, mostly, a low alcohol product.

And we don’t really appreciate our cider either. Sure, cider’s doing pretty well, but many of us still dismiss scrumpy as some rough yokel’s drink. Beer aficionados who revere the Lambic brewing tradition around Brussels fail to realise that we have something just as natural and ancient and miraculous sitting in Somerset.

I realised this last summer when I met Greg Hall, who had just pocketed a tidy sum of cash after selling his brewery, Chicago’s Goose Island, to Anheuser Busch for $30m. Greg is now looking to invest a chunk of his change in cider making, and before he starts building, he’s doing the same thing he did when he got into beer: touring the world extensively, studying traditional methods wherever he finds them, asking questions and comparing notes. And the Somerset cider making tradition perplexes him.

It’s not his fault; he’s American. And Americans like things to be precise, to be measured and defined and calibrated and controlled. “Goddamit!” he said to me with a glass of scrumpy in his hand, “You guys don’t measure the sugar levels. You don’t measure the alcohol levels. You brew with wild yeasts. You don’t analyse the fermentation. You have no laboratory facilities whatsoever.  You don’t measure anything! And yet somehow, it works!”

Rural identity
We all know you can get rough cider and perry. But the good stuff is divine, comparable to wine or Champagne. It’s the product of tradition and terroir, of skill and judgement that can’t be broken down into units to be systematised and built elsewhere. That’s the appeal of cider. It is of its place, part of our rural identity.

And after years of seeing orchards grubbed up and cider makers disappearing, the last half-decade has seen it thrive again, thanks to the Magner’s effect. “’Im ain’t zoider, ’im’s Lucozade!” roared cider-making legend Roger Wilkins, when I visited him at harvest time. “But ’e’s been a lifeline to us farmhouse cider makers. Lot if us wouldn’t be here now, weren’t for ’im.”

What a pity then, that we’re on the verge of killing the rural cider industry, almost without noticing it.

Overall, I’ve been on the fence about the proposed minimum unit pricing. I want to see an end to cheap supermarket deals that strip value out of the beer market. I think it’s disgusting how cheap potent, industrial white cider is sold to problem drinkers. I’m frustrated by journalists who should know better blithely saying ‘the alcohol industry’ opposes minimum pricing when a quick Google search shows many senior industry figures in favour of it. But I do worry about it being the thin end of a wedge that could go much further.

My own ambivalence on the subject is mirrored pretty much in the industry in general, with arguments for and against. But in our focus on supermarkets and white cider, we’ve missed the devastating effect minimum unit pricing would have on farmhouse cider makers.

Death of tradition
Farmhouse cider is nothing like white cider, except that it’s also pretty cheap. This is because it’s made and sold on the farm, with no distribution costs or logistics chain. People go to the farm to get it, often taking their own containers. And it’s unfiltered and unpasteurised, and entirely natural. It’s also strong. Because if you ferment apple juice naturally, it nets out between 6% and 8% ABV.

So the result is you can buy a gallon of strong drink on a farm for about a fiver. If minimum unit pricing were applied to it, that price would double instantly. This is not the stuff that causes problem drinking. It’s not the stuff teenagers are throwing up in town centres, or the stuff tramps are drinking on park benches.

It’s the stuff that keeps alive an ancient rural trad-ition that any other country would be protecting and boasting about to the rest of the world. If the price of cider bought on the farm doubles, that tradition will die.

So even if you support minimum unit pricing — which I think I do, on balance — this is one area where a simple exception needs to be made. Visit the ‘Save our Scrumpy’ Facebook page​. And see if there’s anything you can do to prevent one of our greatest drink traditions being killed by a simple lack of thought.

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