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Friday, 2 August 2013

Alcopop: the drink that dare not speak its name.

Where's George Orwell when you need him?

The inventor of double speak, already one of the best writers on pubs we've ever had, would have loved the shenanigans happening in the drinks market today.

A couple of days ago, the BBC proclaimed 'The quiet death of the alcopop'.

These are - or were - alcopops.

Under the image above, they told us that the ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage sector of the drinks market (alcopops to you or me) has halved in size since 2005. Interestingly, the decline is blamed on the tacky, garish image of the products above. Not much is said about the desire for sickly sweet, fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages, and whether that has gone away or not.

The truth is, our desire for these concoctions is just as strong as ever. Sales of alcopops are soaring. The leading brands just don't want you to call them alcopops, and some get angry if you do. 

A few weeks ago I wrote in my column for the Publican's Morning Advertiser that Kopparberg and Rekorderlig, which refer to themselves as 'premium fruit ciders', are nothing of the sort. They are alcopops in disguise - admittedly a very fetching, stylish disguise, especially in the case of Rekorderlig, whose packaging and labels are so beautiful that it sometimes takes a mental struggle to remember how unpleasant the product was - to my palate - when I tasted it. 
And this is another alcopop.
I understand that both brands were rather angry with the PMA for printing my opinion. I don't understand why. I based my contention that these producers are not cider simply by quoting the ingredients they list on their labels/websites.

This is also an alcopop.

Kopparberg is made from ‘naturally occurring soft water’, fruit juice, sugar, acidifier (citric acid), flavouring, and potassium sorbate.

Likewise, Rekorderlig consists of ‘fresh spring water, pear and apple wines, sugar, acids: citric acid and sodium citric, berry flavours, preservatives: E202, E220 and caramel colour.’

Cider, on the other hand, is made from apples. The character of any cider depends on the varieties of apple that are blended, just as most great wines are about the blend of grapes (you can of course have single varieties of either). Even a leading commercial cider such as Magner's - which many cider geeks would not consider cider at all - proudly talks on its website about the 17 varieties of apple used to make it. Say what you like about Magner's, and I don't drink it myself, but the draught version contains more Dabinett apple than the bottle does, a specific move to compensate for the fact that it's going to taste different when not poured over ice.

By contrast, I can find no mention of apple varieties anywhere in Kopparberg or Rekorderlig's promotional material. Rekorderlig's website has a tab telling you about 'flavours'. When you click on 'apple', this is what it says:

"Made from the purest Swedish spring water, traditional yet modern Rekorderlig Apple Cider is best served over ice for a crisp, cool and refreshing experience." 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS, the 'apple-flavoured' variant of their 'cider' is made from water rather than apples.

Click on the 'history' bit on Kopparberg's website, and the word 'apple' doesn't appear once. Instead it talks about the minerality in 'Koppaberg's lakes and waters', which proved inspirational to Kopparberg's first 'brew master'. Cider is not 'brewed'. And once again, cider is made from apples. Not water.

It's sad that we have such a lax regulatory environment that these alcopops are allowed to get away with calling themselves ciders. They do so, of course, because cider is so much more fashionable these days than any kind of flavoured alcoholic beverage.

But this post is not just about faux 'fruit' ciders - the current alcopop boom is much broader than that.

This, too, is an alcopop

Jeremiah Weed has had a brilliant launch. Again, it looks and feels too posh to be called an alcopop, but as a ready-to-drink, flavoured alcoholic beverage, that's exactly what it is. It reeks of authenticity and heritage. In fact it has none whatsoever - it's entirely a creation of 21st century Big Marketing. That aside, at least it doesn't claim to be a different kind of product from what it is.

Or that's what I thought - until the second comment below from alerted me to this news story from last month - it seems Jeremiah Weed is now a cider too! In the company's own words, although this product:
This is an alcopop, also
has not changed from when it was launched as a 'ginger brew', it is now, apparently, a 'Kentucky style cider brew'. (Remember, cider isn't brewed. At all.) And why have they pulled off this astonishing feat? Why have they changed one type of product into a completely different type of product, while not changing the product AT ALL? Why, "to help consumers, retailers and bar staff to better understand the brand's exciting and innovative offering and [entirely fictitious] Kentucky heritage" (my italics). That's right: they've started calling something a cider that isn't a cider and didn't used to be called cider to help people better understand what it is.

And then there's the recent summer sensation: Crabbies ginger beer.

This is a tricky one, because 'ginger beer' is a recognised style of drink. You could get into an awful lot of semantics here because a true 'ginger beer' is brewed from a combination of ginger, sugar, water, lemon juice and a bacteria called 'ginger beer plant', and this fermentation process produces alcohol. But while it may be called 'beer', it resembles what we commonly understand as 'beer' in no way whatsoever - it has a completely different base of fermentable sugars and flavour ingredients from any beer. In terms of ingredients and process, it looks a lot more like an alcopop. And that's assuming Crabbie's is brewed in the traditional way - which it isn't.

This is - oh, you get it by now.

But this ambiguity has now led to something truly absurd, something which makes the whole long-drinks market look utterly farcical, even more ridiculous than water-based 'ciders'. Here's the trade ad for Crabbie's that ran on the back of the Publican's Morning Advertiser last week:

I don't know what the hell this is, but it's certainly not a premium ale.
A cloudy alcoholic lemonade. Haven't we had these before? Oh yes, they were the original alcopops weren't they? Before the riot of different flavours came along. Surely there is no argument whatsoever that this is an alcopop.

But no: look at the second bullet point down: on the basis that ginger beer could be confused with actual beer, Crabbie's claims to be not an alcopop at all, but a premium ale. That's right: an alcoholic lemonade is classed as being the same kind of product as Fuller's London Pride, Thornbridge Jaipur, and any other ale between 4.2% and 7% ABV.

Alcopops are enjoying a boom to rival anything they saw in the mid-90s, but they've learned their lesson and are now seeking to establish a credibility that will allow them to outlive the natural 'fad' life cycle they enjoyed last time. Because they do not have any intrinsic credibility of their own, the leading brands are stealing it from beer and cider, ashamed to admit what they really are.

A lot of people like them and that's fine - not everything has to be crafted and balanced in flavour. But by claiming to be something they are not, they displace other products that have some integrity, increase confusion among paying punters, and denigrate the image of the drinks they are masquerading as.


Andrew Bowden said...

I read that BBC article and raised my eyebrows for slightly different reasons.

I raised them because I'm increasingly seeing Hooch on sale in pubs. And not in late night bars.

Hooch. How can you have a quiet death when that mainstay of the alcopop era is on the comeback?

[You're right on the rest too]

neil, said...

Did you not see that The Jeremiah Weed stuff has been rebranded as a cider too? It was reported in the PMA no less!

BeerCast Rich said...

'Craft alcopop' - bandwagonism at it's best/worst...

Bill Bradshaw said...

Here here.

The fact that anyone feels the need to have 'apple' written on the front label and proudly list water as on the back, doesn't really understand what cider is, or how its made, Using APPLES. We really need to increase the minimum juice content for something to be described as cider- at only 35% its still woefully low and leaves the back door open for companies like this to hide behind 'cider', a traditional product with important cultural values.

I do find it amusing just how upset they seem to get when other people read their labels and comment on it. Keep it up!

Ray and Gail said...

Excellent read, Pete. I am horrified by the clamour from some quarters to have these flavoured "ciders" accepted as "cider" and even by some (if still and in a BiB or cask) a "real cider". There has to be some way of sorting out the real high-juice ciders from these pretenders, with or without added "flavourings".
Keep up the great work foir those of us who love good beer, real ale, good cider and real cider.

Pete Brown said...


Thanks Neil, on the basis of this comment I have to go back and re-edit the piece. Thanks so much - don't know how I missed that one!

David said...

Andrew is dead right. Global Brands, the manufacturer of VK (now the leading alcopop in the UK, and growing I believe)has relaunched Hooch (and Reef). It's in most of the major supermarkets and elsewhere in the on trade. And you know what? That's OK by me - I won't drink it personally, but equally it's not pretending to be something it's not. Rekorderlig et al on the other hand are: Pete is bang on. They are not ciders. They are not made from apples and therefore, unsurprisingly do not taste of them. They are more stylish & up to date versions of Apple Hooch. That's what you get if you come from the land of Ikea, Volvo and Absolut, I suppose. Clever or deceitful? You decide.

Ray and Gail said...

Excellent piece, Pete. We think along very, very similar lines. What's more worrying is the belief amongst many that not only are these true "ciders" but that when still and served from a BiB or plastic tub, they can be classed as "real cider". If you ever have the urge to explore and contemplate the growth of the flavoured ciders from the smaller UK cider-makers, I'd be very interested to read your thoughts.

David said...

Oh, and another thing. The real irony in all of this? According to CGA / Nielsen cider is now in decline... the buses seem to be arriving too late.

Anonymous said...

Could there possibly be a tax dodge in here somewhere? Cider (at least on the federal level) is taxed differently than beer or wine. I'm not up on the numbers, but it could be the unasked question.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I do remember some years ago at a White Horse dinner where I was talking with a well-known drinks writer and I dismissed some drink as an alcopop — I was in firmly put in my place, whatever I was going on about was a FAB…good piece.

Matt Veasey said...

Clear labelling listing %age apple juice content on all brands that have 'cider' on the label as first step - let the consumer see and decide on whether they're being deceived.

A better regulatory step would be to distinguish true cider (craft, real, artisan, whatever) as that being made from over a majority percentage apples - let's start the bidding at 90% apple juice.

Curmudgeon said...

"Could there possibly be a tax dodge in here somewhere?"

Nope, as soon as you include any fruit other than apples and pears it's treated as "made-wine" which bears a higher level of duty than beer, let alone cider. Hence why most of them are only 4.0% ABV.

Anonymous said...

Can we be honest and admit most of the fashionable IPAs are little better than Kopparberg - even though they are truly "brewed"?

Pete Brown said...

Possibly the silliest comment I've ever had on here anon, thank you.

neil, said...

Cheers for the link Pete. A great piece.

I couldn't quite believe what I was reading when I spotted the piece on jeremiah weed being rebranded. It's bloody disgusting stuff and about as far removed from cider as a drink could be.

Paul Tuohy said...

Great piece...

Paul Tuohy said...

I work for Mentor - a charity that works to protect children from alcohol harm. I'd like to thank you Pete for helping to keep us aware that sadly 'alco pops' are in fact still alive and well.

Ali Kocho-Williams said...

Great article.

I might add a few things - Crabbies produced Ginger Wine back in the 1930s (I've seen ads while doing research in both British and Indian newspapers).

And George Orwell didn't invent doublespeak - he referring to the discourse of the Soviet Union under Stalin (sorry, but I'm a Sovietologist by profession - feel free to ignore my retentiveness).

Ali Kocho-Williams said...

Great article.

I might add a few things - Crabbies produced Ginger Wine back in the 1930s (I've seen ads while doing research in both British and Indian newspapers).

And George Orwell didn't invent doublespeak - he referring to the discourse of the Soviet Union under Stalin (sorry, but I'm a Sovietologist by profession - feel free to ignore my retentiveness).

Garth said...

What about the pre mix bourbon or whiskey and cola cans that contain water, ethanol, sugar and flavouring. Never seen any whiskey near them at all.

Nitch said...

I've had Rekorderlig. I thought it was a cider. I even had a Swede with me who called it her "favorite cider."
I feel dirty.
There must be some kinda of lawsuit I can file, this is deceptive marketing!