Specter of taxation haunts Britain's cider drinkers

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 02, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON — Beer on cider's a good rider; cider on beer makes your head feel queer.

-- Old pub saying

LONDON -- Scrumpy will get you if you don't watch out.

In fact, some of the few pubs that sell it will allow only 2 pints per customer. Not a drop more.

A guy named Harry, encountered in the Builders Arms pub not long ago, allowed that cider is all he drinks.

"Doesn't give me gas," said Harry, a true epicure.

Scrumpy is hard cider, made of crushed apples allowed to ferment naturally. It's neither filtered nor pasteurized nor pumped full of carbon dioxide as so many others are.

Scrumpy is the generic name for the real thing. It's twice as

strong as beer, and it is more lightly taxed and cheaper in most places.

This makes it popular with the young.

Harry wasn't drinking scrumpy, but rather what David Kitton would describe as "a cold, fizzy and pasteurized apology for the real thing." Mr. Kitton is an expert associated with the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a consumer group, so to speak.

He wrote a book on the subject, "The Good Cider Guide."

The British love their booze. Last year, they paid nearly $8 billion in beer tax alone.

It is a hard-drinking society, especially among the young. Unlike the youth in most continental countries, many young Britons go to the pub on weekends not so much in search of relaxation as oblivion. Ales and beers and ciders are the most popular drinks, more than wine or spirits, which are very expensive.

Pubs stop serving at 11 p.m. "Time" is announced by a loud gong. Between 11:30 and midnight, especially on weekends, neighborhood streets all over Britain reverberate to the roaring of young drunks trying to be lions going to war with each other.

New ciders are coming on the market that, at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, are even stronger than scrumpy.

They assure more sleepless nights for the neighbors, and an inflation of black eyes.

But today the shadow of taxation haunts Britain's cider drinkers. The European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, reasons that because cider is made from fruit, as wine is, it ought to be taxed at the same rate. If the commission, the executive for the European Community, carries out its intention, the cost of a glass of pub cider could increase by 200 percent.

Should that happen there will be grumbling in the pubs -- and maybe worse, bootlegging.

Nobody really knows how many cider drinkers there are in the United Kingdom.

CAMRA's Iain Loe says they are all over the country, but most are found in the West Country, in Somerset, Avon, Devonshire, Dorset. There, he said, "90 percent of the men and women in any given pub are drinking cider."

In London, he estimates that between 5 percent and 10 percent are cider drinkers in the average pub. All pubs serve cider, although not that many serve scrumpy, the real thing.

Mr. Loe and his group have been lobbying the European Parliament against the commission's proposal to run up the tax on cider. They argue that because cider is not a communitywide drink like wine (outside of Britain, it is really only consumed in Normandy and in parts of northern Spain), it shouldn't be taxed as one.

They've succeeded in getting the Parliament to pass a resolution urging the commission to reconsider. But the commission, more powerful, does what it wishes.

It is expected to decide between now and June.

One should not expect the commission to be generous. The EC is growing more ambitious and needs more and more money to fulfill those ambitions. EC President Jacques Delors recently brought in a budget demanding $25 billion more from member states.

Everybody in Brussels and London knows that alcohol is a most lucrative revenue source, especially in Britain.

But they might remember one thing: The last time a heavy tax was put on cider here, disorder ensued. That was in 1763-1766 when King George III tried it. He sparked such a violent response, especially in the West Country, that he gave up on the idea.

Still needing revenue, he turned around and applied new taxes on his colonists in America.

Everybody knows what that led to.

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