In an email to its members, seen by The Morning Advertiser, SIBA warned that the Portman Group, the body for responsible alcohol marketing, are proposing an addition of a piece of guidance to the already existing rules relating to 'immoderate consumption'.
The proposal would seek to define ‘immoderate consumption’ as four units of alcohol per non-resealable container, and any product which falls within this category could theoretically be referred to the Portman Group’s independent complaints panel, if a complaint was made by a member of the public.
Beer styles such as DIPAs and imperial stouts are often sold by craft brewers in 440ml or 500ml cans. Under the new proposals, these beers would have to have an alcoholic strength of less than 9.1% ABV (440ml can) or 8% ABV (500ml) or risk falling foul of the ‘immoderate consumption’ rule. A 330ml can would be allowed to have a strength of up to 12.1%.
It is thought that drinks such as 750ml corked bottles of beer, wine and champagne would not be affected by the proposed changes as they are not designed to be consumed by one individual in a single sitting.
If the panel ruled that the product encouraged ‘immoderate consumption’ then the Portman Group would advise the producer to reformulate its recipe, or retailers not to stock the product in future.
Brewers have reacted with anger and disbelief to the proposals. Russell Bisset, founder of Leeds-based Northern Monk warned that the move came across as “an attempt to curtail the growth of the independent craft brewing sector.”
“We are troubled by the Portman Group’s attempts to influence and dictate the strength of beer we are able to produce,” he said. “Britain is globally celebrated as one of the spiritual homes of great beer and it is synonymous with British culture. Limitations on the strength of the beer we could brew would impact on our ability to explore historic British styles as well as look at how we progress the medium and challenge preconceptions about measures and volumes of beer.
“Broadly speaking, higher volume beer allows us to achieve bigger, deeper flavours which lend themselves to being drank in smaller measures, and paired with the specific nuances of the flavours of food dishes. We are champions of considered, mindful drinking.
“This move makes great strides in undoing any work the Portman Group have done to seek to understand and act as custodians for the British Beer industry and looks to be an attempt to curtail the growth of the independent craft-brewing sector.”
Kate Russell, director of Inner Bay Brewery in Inverkeithing, Fife, also objected to the plans. “In my opinion, immoderate consumption is a matter of individual responsibility,” she said. “With the definition given of a 'single serve non-resealable container' it is not under the control of the producer to define what is a single serve.
“There are situations where I would personally share a 330ml can or bottle, likewise a 660ml. One assumes the Portman group are not going to define a 750ml bottle of Champagne as a single serve, or similarly a bottle of wine with a cork closure, therefore the assumption of single serve should not be applied to beer regardless of the size of the bottle and the strength of its contents.”
Craft beers not 'problem products'
SIBA’s head of public affairs and communications James Calder acknowledged the Portman Group’s aim of reducing consumption of ‘problem products’, but warned the proposals could have “unintended consequences” on the production of historic and innovative beer styles.
“This new proposed guidance is rightly designed to help capture the 'problem products' on the market,” he said. “Super cheap, super strength, mass produced lagers and ciders that sadly do a lot of damage to communities across the UK and the vulnerable people who drink them. As a responsible trade association we support that approach to reduce alcohol harm."
"However, a blanket rule on maximum of four units per non-resealable container has unintended consequences for new, interesting, innovative styles of beer that are becoming more popular,” he continued. “It has an impact on brewers' ability to brew historic styles of beer that are part of our cultural heritage and that are meant to be paired with food - double IPA’s, triple IPAs, imperial stouts and porters, and Belgian styles.
“These are not ‘problem products’. They’re supposed to be enjoyed, savoured and shared among friends. Their price point also reflects the superior quality and care in their creation.”
“We’re working closely with the Portman Group to ensure this consultation doesn’t impact on the innovation and excitement that is taking place in the beer industry right now, but does help target ‘problem products’ appropriately."
In a statement to The Morning Advertiser, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group said: “With the removal of a daily unit threshold from the Chief Medical Office guidelines, the Independent Complaints Panel lost a long-established reference point for determining ‘immoderate consumption’.
“That’s why we are asking for opinions on a new and credible definition in our consultation, which is open until 6 July. This is the opportunity for the industry and wider stakeholders to respond with their thoughts and opinions on this and other issues to keep the code fresh and responsive to change.”