Sparkle goes out of cider
No lack of conviviality, as usual, at one of the bi-annual gatherings for Honourable Members and Noble Lords hosted by the National Association of Cider Makers on Monday evening.
But while the conversation turned largely on hopes of persuading the Chancellor to remove the duty escalator from cider as he has done from beer, there was also the small matter of some gloomy news from the front line: an unexpected check in sales for three of the major brands.
Over the nine months to the end of November Magners sales dropped by 11 per cent and Bulmers and Gaymers fared even worse: both down 17 per cent. And this despite a long, hot summer which could have been designed with cider-drinking in mind. Even a £3million Magners advertising campaign failed to revive the market.
So what's been going on? Well parent company C and C lays the blame on lower sales through multiple retailers, but there are clearly reasons underlying that.
One could be the Government's squeeze on benefits which has left thousands of families having to count the pennies very carefully indeed and deciding that booze is one of the things they will have to cut back on.
Hand in hand with that goes my personal theory that many drinkers are starting to find the major industrial brands unexciting, even boring. We are, after all, talking about a group of consumers of whom many are relatively new to cider. They are the ones who were lured away from beer by the original £20 million Magners ad campaign a few years back, were delighted with what they found, and have remained loyal.
But now they are becoming a little more adventurous. They are looking for something more sophisticated than the mainstream mass-produced fizz which in so many cases turns out to be considerably less exciting than the label promises, and perhaps turning to smaller, more innovative producers to find it.
That could be one of the reasons for the sales surge which was being reported last summer by so many of those, particularly Thatchers, whose single variety ciders have proved so successful and whose sales figures for July exceeded the company's total output in 2006.
We could, in other words, be witnessing the same kind of rebellion against blandness which turned so many people off keg beers and sparked the real ale revolution. The challenge for the giants of the cider industry is going to be matching the craft and ingenuity of the brewers and coming up with some new and exhilarating tastes without resorting to gimmickry.
Farmers' confidence, according to one commentator who views the world permanently through glasses tinted the colour of pink champagne is on the way up.
One wonders, however, on what basis he makes this statement.
Perchance he has spoken to dairy farmers who indeed have room to be rather more optimistic than they have for many months. As long as they have modernised they should be OK for the next two or three years. If they haven't there's no way they will be able to afford it.
But he certainly hasn't spoken in any depth to livestock farmers who have been the first to feel the downdraught from the supermarket price war Asda launched before Christmas and has now opened up on a second front.
They are the ones who have taken the hit from the dumping of tons of cheap meat, whether Polish beef or New Zealand lamb – and from it being retailed at prices lower than the English product could be bought at market.
The was the first Christmas when meat, rather than dairy produce, was used as a loss leader – and the effects on the independent sector, particularly farm shops, were startling.
Farm shops themselves are also in trouble with closures being recorded on a weekly basis, and although many of the casualties are not genuine farm shops at all but fruit and veg warehouses with a few token, locally-made pots of jam, many bona fide direct-selling operations are in trouble.
Bank managers and accountants tell a very different tale from such upbeat messages. They will speak of family farms which have always turned a profit but which now are having to borrow for the first time – and not enjoying the experience on little bit.
They will speak of the Single Payment now providing the only reliable income stream and being all that keeps the business afloat, of farmland prices only being held artificially high by City investments. Rosy? Hardly.
Contrary to recent assertions the only thing farmers are confident about is that things are showing no sign of getting any easier.
Agriculture, Le Figaro remarked last week with barely any effort to keep a Gallic sneer out of its voice, is now worth less to the UK economy than London's tourism sector.
A fair point. And perhaps a hint as to why the interests of the farming sector never seem to score very highly on the Government's priority list.
Across the Channel, on the other hand, the farming lobby is not only more vociferous, it is more influential. Political leaders have learned that they ignore the voice of the paysan at their peril.
Just look at what's been happening in Brittany, where a rural uprising against the imposition of a new eco-tax on diesel vehicles has led to demonstrations, riots, confrontations with the police and the mob's demolition of the camera gantries which were going to be used to gather information on lorry movements. The result: the tax has been put on the back burner and is unlikely to resurface for at least three years, if ever. Brittany was hit by floods just after Christmas and received a ministerial visit and promises of immediate help. Which duly arrived.
What did farmers in Somerset get last year? A visit from the current beneficiary of the sinecure that is the chairmanship of the Environment Agency, and a promise to start dredging which was forgotten as soon as lunch was over. And floods many, many times worse this year.
One idea being floated across Lake Somerset is that the drainage boards should withhold any further precept payments to the Environment Agency with funds paid instead into an escrow account and held there until such time as the dredging is started.
Of course, said the farmer who mentioned it to me, it would never work. There would be plenty of people who would say it was a good idea but when it came to actually doing it they'd suddenly lose interest, like they always do.
A view which the likes of David Handley, who has found it more and more difficult to muster the numbers for Farmers For Action demonstrations would doubtless echo.
Meanwhile, one French farmer, driven to despair by the media feeding frenzy over Francois Hollande, drove a lorry loaded with ten tons of manure and daubed with anti-government slogans into the centre of Paris last week and dumped the lot outside the national assembly building, watched bemusedly by a clutch of the city police force's finest.
That's the way to do it!