Watchdog's guidance angers beer retailers

Retailers and brewers fear that new Portman Group guidance around single-serve cans could damage the momentum of craft beer.

The industry watchdog published the sixth version of its code of practice this month. It says that “single-serve, non-resealable containers shouldn’t be more than four units” of alcohol so as to “establish a credible definition for assessing complaints about irresponsible sampling promotions or packaging”.

It adds that “mitigating factors for products up to six units, such as premium status, pricing and share message may be taken into account”, but the industry is concerned about the impact this will have.

Jen Ferguson, owner of London retailer Hop Burns & Black, told DRN: “We are as keen as anyone to see the issues of problem drinking addressed, but I would suggest it’s no accident that this guidance impacts significantly on craft beer while excluding products such as wine and spirits, which contain more units per bottle and contribute much more to problem drinking than higher gravity craft beers.

“It feels like another attempt from big beers to use their resources and influence – and indeed their membership of the Portman Group – to undermine the craft beer industry.”

Mike Benner, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, said he was “disappointed”, adding: “The new guidance on the immoderate consumption rule threatens new, innovative speciality beer styles such as imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles, many of which are now being packaged in large cans designed for sharing and sold at a premium price point.

“When you consider an average bottle of wine at 14% abv contains 10 units of alcohol and a small bottle of spirits [35cl] contains 14 units at 40% abv, then why target craft beers of only four units?

“As we know, beers such as imperial stouts and IPAs may have stronger abvs than a regular beer, but the strength is an integral component of their flavour and the style.”

Portman Group chief executive John Timothy said the guidance uses the unit-based threshold as “a starting point”, but reaffirmed its panel has the flexibility to allow a beer to stand if it is a craft brew of a premium nature.

Yet Gerald Michaluk, managing director of Arran Brewery, was furious. “As a SIBA member, for now, we are obliged to uphold the Portman Group’s rules but I can see this leading to SIBA being forced to move away from Portman rules if it simply doesn’t listen to common sense,” he said.

Ferguson said that more than 45% of the beers she sells are in 44cl or 50cl packs.

“Almost a third of these are the styles that the Portman Group guidance applies to: Imperial stouts, double IPAs, Belgian beers etc,” she said. “These beers are designed to be sipped slowly, enjoyed with food, shared with friends, SIBA research has shown that a majority of drinkers do this and anecdotal evidence from our shop reflects this.”

“While it’s good that the Portman Group has agreed to consider some mitigating factors in future rulings, this still poses potentially enormous disruption to craft brewers should a complaint be made.”

James Hickson at fellow London retailer We Brought Beer is less concerned about disruption to the industry, but called the guidance “heavy handed” and said it was unlikely to help reduce problem drinking.

“While we appreciate that the Portman Group should operate with the best interests of the consumer in mind, too often its approach fails to take into account the nuances and differences in the beer market,” he said. “While a £1.90 super- strength lager, at which it would appear this code update is aimed, is clearly aimed at encouraging immoderate consumption, it’s not our experience that the same can be said for the 9% Belgian tripel 33cl sold at around £4.50 or a double IPA at 8% sold at around £8 per can.

“Contrary to what some have suggested, I don’t actually think this is a case of The Portman Group, funded by big beer, taking a shot at craft beer. I think it’s more an indication that it only really knows how to operate in a heavy-handed, broad way, which won’t ultimately solve the issues it is attempting to address.

“The simple truth when it comes to strong beers being made by big brands, such as Carlsberg Special Brew, Tennent’s Super and Kestrel Super, is that they are deliberately, by virtue of the price they sell them out at, aiming these products squarely at those with the biggest problems around alcohol consumption.

“It is the big brewers, and the big retailers too, who should take more responsibility for the impact these sort of beers have on our society.

“As a retailer of strong beers, many of which would be on the Portman watch list under this new code change, I don’t personally think it will be problematic for either ourselves or the brewers, although I’m sure a couple will be picked out for reprimand as they attempt to justify their blanket approach.”

Benner at SIBA added: “As the responsible trade association for British independent craft brewers, SIBA understands that some products, such as super-strong, super-cheap lagers and ciders, are abused by some members of society.

“We recognise this is a problem that causes massive harm to families, individuals and communities and costs the NHS millions of pounds every year. More needs to be done. But SIBA does not believe this new guidance from the Portman Group will address the problem it seeks to change – preventing immoderate consumption.”

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