Sunday, 22 April 2012

Hollow at the core: CAMRA'S shame

I've spent a lot of time over the last week contacting as many people as I can regarding the MUP's effect of traditional farmhouse cider makers in the interests of balance and variety. As well as looking for sympathy, I'm looking for help. I'd decided to 'reach out' to groups like CAMRA knowing the influence they have. I even had the pleasurable company of NACM chairman Henry Chevallier at my kitchen table on Friday afternoon complete with Australian cidermaker Nathan Hyde. CAMRA have a huge membership (138K+), they have a Cider & Perry Committee that safeguards standards and represents 'real cider' to a discerning membership. They have anally tight definitions of what 'real cider' actually is, they have a cider and perry month each year in October and a Pomona Award given to out to the person, place or thing that has done the most to promote real cider over the past 12 months. They've done alot of work over the past 40 years to protect and lobby for real ale so it would be reasonable to assume they would prove a keen and powerful ally. I know In the main, they're busy fighting against the beer duty escalator,  so I've have been pressing Andrea Briers, National Cider & Perry Committee Chairman for a response for a week our so.

I finally got it, here it is:

"On behalf of Andrea Briers, please find below a quote from CAMRA as requested. I have sent it on behalf of Andrea as she is a volunteer and won't have time to send this until this evening otherwise.
Andrea Briers, CAMRA National Cider and Perry Committee Chairman, said:

“CAMRA's views on minimum pricing are intended to save pubs. A minimum price of 40 pence a unit should have only a limited impact on the retail price of real cider at the farm gate. Minimum unit pricing will only apply to retail sales. We wish them well with their campaign and will be looking into the potential impact of a 40 pence a unit price on farmhouse cider sales."

All the best, Jon Howard, Press Manager, CAMRA, Campaign for Real Ale"

Hey? What? Thats a complete load of guff. So I went to the CAMRA website in case I was actually tripping on drugs and didn't realise. When I read their introductory blurb, I knew I wasn't:

(Here is a link in case the text on the screen shot is too small.)

I'm no Sherlock but its obvious that something is wrong here. They are either clueless about traditional cider, don't actually give a shit about traditional cider or feel they are unable to respond appropriately . Back in January, I did a job for them on Wassails (not sure I'll be asked again.) The excellent editor of Beer magazine found some money to send me to Herefordshire to cover the Leominser Morris - it was a fantastic night - so I know that they do feel something for cider (a responsibility even?) And I'm pretty sure they can't be clueless about it - they have lots of ciderlovers in the ranks.

Disappointed and a little angry, I sent them my reply:

"Thanks for getting back to me, I do appreciate your time - I know you are all busy people. I'm really glad to hear that you guys are working so hard to support the pubs, we all know how dire the pub business is at the moment, so I feel reassured that you and your members are fighting so hard for the cause! 

I'm sad to say that I find CAMRA's lack of support to the real cider community unsurprising. I really think that for such a large organisation who has a Cider & Perry Committee, you make very little effort away from the pubs and festivals in helping protect 'real-cider' traditions -despite the token waffle on your website about "the number of outlets for real cider diminishing, even in the West Country"  and how sad it is that real cider is"rarely available away from the farm gate. It is unfortunate that many of the most well known ciders in the UK are cold, fizzy keg products which have been produced artificially rather than naturally.The facts may be true, but your pretence of care is garbage.

You sadly haven't even realised that your current standpoint is actually going to exacerbate the problem, which sums up just how out of touch CAMRA is regarding traditional cider issues. Need I ask you tell me how many real cider makers have you spoken to about this?

Over the last seven days, I've spoken with many of them, three MP's, SWECA and the NACM and they all agree that MUP will really damage rurally based traditional cider sales direct to the public. Its not about wether the MUP is a good or a bad thing - thats a different argument. This is about protecting tradition and quality - two important things that you would have the general public believe you support. 

If we lose these 'loose' cider sales (from the barrel, on the farm) 'real cider' will die a painful death and be replaced by an abundance of packaged, gassed, pasteurised- industrialised product, making your tight definition of 'real-cider' utterly redundant. You say that the MUP will only have a "limited impact" on retail sales from the farm but you fail to realise that many, many small producers who make 'real cider' depend on those retail sales, not wholesale sales. If they can't supplement their wholesale business by selling retail direct to the public, a significant proportion of the ciders you enjoy will become unavailable and the remainder will be forced to package it up. 

The truth is, if CAMRA actually cared about 'real-cider', you might at least even consider supporting a call for some kind of exemption to protect it being sold the way it always has been - from a barrel. I think you should be ashamed of yourselves because you've reached stage where you can't even practice what you preach and it would appear that your Cider & Perry Committee is a complete farce - no more than a superficial social club. 

This is a really serious issue. The finest cider makers in our country are facing devastating new legislation designed to tackle a problem that has nothing to do with them, that will rip the soul out of the UK's cider heartlands and all you can do is just shrugg your shoulders and say 'we wish them well…' Its clear you just don't care. I know CAMRA was set up to protect beer, and I fully appreciate the impact you have had in UK beer in the last 40 years, you've done a fantastic job and on the whole, your efforts are to be applauded. But If you don't care about cider in the same way - what the point in pretending you do?

Sorry if this seems harsh, but its about time someone was honest with you guys.

It is blunt, passionate and I don't want to battle with them. If I've hurt anyones feelings I'm genuinely sorry, but I believe someone has to say it. I realise the effect MUP will have on farm gate sales is really problematic for them because they voted to support MUP. I'd be interested to know what their members feel about their official point of view and how many of them once they know whats going on, would want them to back it too. This issue is already spilling over into the beer blogging community and I think it'll stir more opinion and controversy there still.

CAMRA, I've been trying to forge a relationship with you for some time altough your limp response makes me feel like its pointless. I'd prefer you decided to back an exemption for traditional farmhouse cidermakers selling 'from-the-barrel' on the farm, or at the very least respond to this issue with some balls. I hope I GOT YOUR ATTENTION so that you realise you are guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy. Its sad how the people who have the strictest definition of real cider, in the greatest numbers, the people who even the Government approach about policy are the only ones who don't appear to understand the problem and worse still, outwardly appear to care about it the least. 

Do you think there might be a better way of dealing with it than 'good luck'? You have the responsibility and the power - how about putting your money where your mouth is and being pro-active.

If anyone reading this wants to do something to help, signing this petition is a start. Please spread the word and help us out -->

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The death of sales from the barrel - the MUP's grim reaping.

Further to my last post (which made someone rather angry) I have been in touch with various people regarding their thoughts and opinions around the MUP (Minimum Unit Pricing) issues. I know various national papers have expressed an interest in the story for column inches and I have been contacting people within the BBC in the hope they might want to pick it up, with positive interest all round so far. To help put you in the picture as to where our cider industry stands regionally in the south west, SWECA (South West Cidermakers Association) have posited this response on their website:

"The South West of England Cider Makers’ Association is seriously concerned about the potential damage the Government’s proposed minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcoholic products will cause to traditional West Country cider makers, their customers and the rural economy in general. Traditional cider makers and their customers are not part of the problem that the Government wishes to address with this policy and they would be unfairly penalised by the policy. Cider is an important part of the rural economy in the South West, with makers investing in orchards with an expected life of 50 years or more and creating long term sustainable employment. We urge the Government to carefully consider these issues before making any decision that might damage our industry."

The NACM (National Association of Cidermakers) who is chaired by the fantastic Henry Chevallier-Guild (from Aspalls Cider) issued this response a few weeks ago upon hearing the news that the Government wants to push the MUP policy through had this to say:

“The cider industry is extremely disappointed with the Government's new legislative approach. There has been no consultation despite the great impact this legislation could have on our industry, which contributes significantly to the local, rural economies where our members are based.  “The NACM recognises that we must find a solution to alcohol misuse, but Minimum Unit Pricing is not a silver bullet, therefore a commitment to implement it without debate is not how we expect Government to operate.  “We are pleased to see that other aspects of planned changes will be discussed more broadly and we will be responding positively to Government recommendations for further joint-industry cooperation, working towards resolving the big issues surrounding alcohol misuse.  “We continue to support the Responsibility Deal [and believe that the Unit Reduction Pledge announced today is a positive step forward.]” 

I have also spoken to several MP's to gauge their level of understanding about the issues over there last few days and its really interesting just how varied some of that understanding is. One MP (who will remain nameless for now) had absolutely no idea that there was any issue at all and thought the MUP policy was indeed some kind of cure-all for the ills of alcohol abuse. On the other hand, Graham Watson MEP discussed various schemes previous governments had tried to target alcohol abuse legitimately and although he completely agrees with dealing with the problem, he is worried about the fate of small cider-makers, saying "we need to find a way of protecting traditional cider-making." When asked about how we might talk to the government about its plans he suggested an early day motion in parliament or by asking local MP's to speak with the chancellor and concluded that "we need to take every opportunity for people to distinguish between craft artisanal producers and the big players in the market."

Last night I had a had brief chat with Simon Rusell a spokesman from NACM. He's has been trying to raise the point regarding the uncertainty faced by the industry at the moment "about what will happen, when and what it might mean is more than just unsettling for the cider industry because more than any other sector we have to plan for the long-term... we really need stability and certainty in order to have the confidence to invest – for example in an orchard that will take years to deliver a single apple, several more years to break even and might have a productive life of over 50 years."

Please watch this great short film explaining the problem and then share it as it neatly sums up the problem we are facing 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone...

This post is a plea for help to save our beloved cider traditions from some fatal legislation that will take traditional cider making to the brink of existance just as it is blossoming again. I know that sounds dramatic but unfortunately its true. I find it difficult to believe that any government (let alone a Conservative/Liberal Democrat one who are 'popular' rurally speaking) would even consider damaging changes like these. It is an ignorant and misinformed policy that will have the consequence (no matter how unintentional) of killing and nailing the coffin firmly shut the majority of farmhouse cidermakers. The 'minimum pricing' idea that the government wants to push through parliament hopes to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol in order to curb our worst drinking habits. Whilst its admirable that a government wants to do something about it and I have no doubt that this will have the desired effect, to some degree at least, it's a 'blunt instrument' approach that will smash the livelihood of all small-medium craft drinks producers, particularly Cider due to its natural strength.

There is alot of talk on and around the cider farms here in Somerset and no doubt beyond. Some people think that the European parliament won't allow it through, others think its just a matter of time before it does with both the apple growers the cider producers being brought to their knees. The Conservative party want you to believe this: but unfortunately its utter balls because this piece of legislation totally undermines that.

The underlying the problem is that the government wants to be seen to address is binge drinking, pre-loading and general alcohol abuse. The reality is that binge drinkers, pre-loaders and abusers don't get in a car and drive all the way to a cider farm to buy gallon of cider to share at the weekend. They buy cheap, fizzy, industrial alcohol (the 'ingredients' of which have never been anywhere near an orchard) in supermarkets and off license's in our towns and cities where its much more affordable and convenient.

Artisan cidermakers that have been producing some of the finest cider in the world for generations will have find an increase of cost in their product which will make traditionally produced cider very expensive indeed. To give you some idea of the price hike, a cider maker who sells from the barrel on the farm will see an increase of a gallon from somewhere around the £5 mark to £12, possibly more.

Traditional cider apples have enough fermentable sugar in them to create about 6-6.5% abv. Thats straight up, not messed about with in any way, natural sugars giving natural levels of alcohol using natural yeasts. Its often more- even up to 8% in certain seasons. The worst industrial ciders are made by mixing sugars, flavourings and aromas to create a cider about 4.5% abv, others will use a concentrate produced from their own apples/orchards (made by reducing freshly pressed the juice and storing it until they need it.) However you want to make an industrial beverage, you do it for greater profit margins and with the aid of mass market distribution. Those of us who prefer cider made by smaller producers (who have smaller margins and smaller markets) are automatically penalised purely because its made traditionally and they aren't interfering with the process by watering it down and/or mixing it with cheaper products. Tradition will be soon be punishable by a massive increase in retail price making it one of the most expensive commodities, luxuries even, which people simply won't be able to afford. It's not just a commodity or a luxury, its a goddamn right here in Somerset. So now, by making something purer (and so, so much greener environmentally speaking) you run the risk of making it unaffordable and unsustainable. Its ludicrous. As Roger Wilkins remarked, farmhouse cider is supposed to be cheap because it was always produced by farmers for agricultural labourers for generations- our entire regional economy was based on it at one stage. And besides, people have invested so much recently - do you really want to do that to them? It grows on trees for fuck sake!

This legislation could work well at curbing the affordability of industrially made drinks wether cider, beer or artificially flavoured, brightly coloured alcopops, but whats the point if you are killing the one thing you should be protecting and encouraging- quality and tradition. Cider is on trend at the moment and is so strong, and we don't have to accept this.

I would urge all of you, even if you live in outside UK to make your friends and collegues aware of this because there is still something that can be done about it. If you live in UK, you can let the government know that you want to make artisan cidermakers exempt from the changes by signing a petition here:


It only takes a few minutes (you have to have a valid e-mail address and be a resident of the UK to be included.) If you don't live in UK, please make any UK nationals you have any influence over aware of the problem and encourage them to do something about it. Petitions need 100,000 signatures to even raise a debate in Parliament so every signature really does count... I don't expect that many responses but its certainly not impossible. The difficultly with asking people to do this is that we rarely do because we're lazy by nature and sadly many people won't realise the significance of the consequences until its added to their pint at the bar, their weekly shopping bill or they're arrive at the cider farm one day only to realise they've gone out of business. Cider was born on a farm and it appears there it shall die too unless we object.

Save our scrumpy peoples.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

                                                     WH Auden

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

John Worle

Hooray - I'm back online!

How often do you think about where all the cider and perry trees come from? Someone has to grow them and that person has to be a step ahead of demand which is no mean feat in these cidertastic times. They take a few years to get well established and a good few more before they start producing any decent amounts of fruit so its an investment for any grower and something a producer, like the legendary nurseryman John Worle, has to anticipate as carefully as he can.

Last autumn I made the time to visit several people and places in and around Herefordshire to get a feel for whats goes on up there. Its easy for me to get wrapped up in the Somerset cider scene as its on my doorstep without the chance to get a feel for a broader UK picture, so I felt it was the right thing to do.

Late one Saturday afternoon in the quiet light just before the sun goes down, John gave me an hour of his time to explain the difference between budding and grafting to me. We made a couple of flying visits to several of his different (and secret!) locations where he brings his stock on. He's had an illustrious career in the cider industry and has worked in and around cider all his life. Somerset born and bred, he relocated to Herefordshire where he still operates from today. His first job at 17 was with Coates cider in Nailsea, he later won a scholarship to Long Ashton Research Station and then went on to work for Bulmers so really is a man of true UK cider pedigree! In my opinion, he's one of the unspoken heroes of the UK cider industry - part of the backbone of expertise that quietly supports the showier, noisier front end of the industry.

He definetly has the look of a rascal: my wife Lisa gets dewy eyed when she mentions his piercing cheeky eyes and his mischievous grin that says 'Let me assure you, I am a man that knows how to have fun...'

Anyway, his trees really were first class: strong, healthy and massive for their age. When I buy my trees, they'll come from him! I'd encourage you all to do the same.

For more, please visit and say hi from me.