Government is failing in its alcohol approach, warns industry heavyweight

number of forces have conspired against the UK’s high-strength beer and cider category over the past few years.

Local authorities launched Reducing the Strength schemes that bullied retailers for into stripping shelves of ciders and beers above 5.5% abv or 6% abv. Scotland introduced minimum unit pricing and Wales is set to follow suit, with England under pressure to fall in line. The anti-alcohol lobby seems hell-bent on wiping out white cider and has launched a PR campaign that has seen national media run several damning stories based on its unsubstantiated research. 

Even the Portman Group is lending a hand, ruling that single-serve, non-resealable containers should not contain more than four units. Throw in duty rises and the chief medical officer’s reduction of weekly guidelines for men from 21 to 14 units and now is not a great time to be a purveyor of high-strength, value ciders and beers. 

Enter stage left Nigel McNally, former managing director at Wells & Young’s, who set up Brookfield Drinks in 2012. The first thing he did was relaunch the Kestrel brand, renowned for its 9% abv Super lager. His next move was to acquire Diamond White, the high-strength cider, plus 7.5% abv sister brand White Star. Brookfield has since launched lower-abv offerings from Kestrel, taken on UK distribution of Portuguese lager Super Bock and launched a premium bottled ale and a gin. But it still has a large chunk of its eggs in the high-strength, value basket. 

You might think McNally’s timing was disastrous, but these brands are enjoying strong growth and he is now aiming to fight government intervention that has proved ineffective at targeting problem drinking. Of MUP he says: “While ministers had hoped the laws would deter problem drinkers from buying easily affordable beverages such as high-strength cider and own-brand spirits, it has had the opposite effect in terms of trying to curb total alcohol consumption.

“MUP in Scotland was introduced on May 1, 2018, and over the 46 weeks to March 29, 2019, Scots bought 203.5 million litres of alcohol, 1.8 million more compared to the same period in 2017-18 [Nielsen]. The extra alcohol consumed amounted to the equivalent of 4 million cans of lager or 2.5 million bottles of wine.”

Many in the industry think better education and targeted intervention would be far more effective than blanket measures such as minimum unit pricing and Reducing the Strength schemes, which punish responsible drinkers and retailers and fail to help people drinking to dangerous levels. “The government should interfere less in the dynamics of the marketplace for alcohol, but instead start spending on educating people about alcohol consumption,” he says. “Despite receiving almost £10 billion from duty last year, the only spend on media connected with alcohol education over the past two years was the grand total of £2 million, and that was spent by [industry funded charity] Drinkaware.”

He calls the lack of government spending on alcohol education “a national scandal”. 

McNally makes interesting points around the tactics employed by the authorities, and presents a leftfield analogy surrounding the environment. “In both beer and cider markets we need to be careful of the environmental impact of production,” he says. “The government would like us to drink lower-abv products, despite evidence that people drinking higher-abv beer and cider do so more responsibly [this comes from ONS research suggesting that, on their heaviest drinking days, consumers were more likely to opt for normal-strength beer and cider than high strength]. An issue the government hasn’t considered is the environmental impact of lower-abv beers and ciders compared to higher-abv products.

“This is in terms of increased waste, raw materials, water, pollution and road damage. It is estimated some 636 million cans of cider are sold in the UK off-trade each year. About 64% of this volume comes from the top-selling mainstream brands with an average abv of 4-4.5%. If, hypothetically, the drinkers of this volume were to switch to consuming the same number of alcohol units but from a higher-strength cider such as 7.5% abv, then 40% of these cans could be ceased from production.

“This would remove around 3,367 trunkers of cider from the roads, saving 64 trunker movements each week, offering environmental and congestion benefits: 160 million cans saved would reach the top of Everest 10 times and over 8,900 tonnes of aluminium could be taken out of production each year. Water consumption would be at least halved, together with halving the energy costs associated with production. I have given an extreme situation but nevertheless I believe the point is important.

“Westminster Council has imposed a blanket ban on beers and ciders above 5.5% abv,” he adds, referring to the local authority’s variation on the Reducing the Strength scheme. “At the same time, it supports congestion charges and wants less pollution for residents. By implementing its ban on beers and ciders above 5.5% abv, it is encouraging more trucks into London, with lower-strength beer and ciders causing more pollution. I guess the point is any government interference in market dynamics will have unintended consequences.”

He also lays into the sugar content of some lower-abv drinks. “Sugar in alcohol is going to come to the surface very soon and here we can see that certain ciders, notably fruit ciders, are the worst offenders,” he says. “While many fruit ciders contain lower abv points, the sugar and calorie content are far greater than traditional dry ciders. It is interesting to note here that Diamond, which has the highest abv among this group, has the lowest sugar content.”

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