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Mellows: The Portman Group is trying to target a certain type of drinker through a certain type of product, and they don’t perfectly match up.

OPINION: Will Portman’s revised code threaten stronger craft beers?

The Brewery Manual’s Phil Mellows weighs in the latest attempt by the Portman Group to pinpoint a specific societal drinking issue with a sledgehammer. 

Having been at it for 30 years, The Portman Group must by now have risen to that blissful state of accepting that if everyone is disagreeing with you, you must be doing something right.

The sixth iteration of its Code of Practice covering the naming, packaging and promotion of alcohol drinks typically drew criticism both from brewers, who generally resent being told what to do, and sections of the public health lobby that see it as a mere sop to ward off statutory regulation.

While going along with most of the changes to the Code, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) was quick to jump on the new definition of ‘immoderate consumption’, and the rule that single-serve, non-sealable containers should not contain more than four units of alcohol.

This would proscribe, for instance, 440ml cans of 9% abv ‘craft’ beers of which a growing number are being produced, and, said SIBA, “damage the market for speciality beers like imperial stouts, porters and IPAs.”

As far back as 2011 major brewers reached a voluntary agreement with The Portman Group to withdraw larger cans of super strength lager in an effort to tackle the extremes of street-drinking, so it’s not a completely novel idea.

What bothers smaller brewers is that enshrining this principle in the Code will shut off an important niche market for them.

Beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell declared that “The Portman Group is trying to destroy Britain’s proud history of strong ales.” The Arran Brewery was unequivocal that its Milestone Special Reserve, a 6% abv beer packaged in 750ml bottles for sharing, had just been “banned.”

“This is crazy,” said managing director Gerald Michaluk. “Wines and spirits all contain more alcohol and are not being banned so why single out a very expensive £12-a-bottle beer?

“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 they simply don't listen to common sense.”

It’s a good point, and one that the Portman Group has, in fact, attempted to address in guidance notes that list a series of “mitigating factors” including a ‘share’ message, the drink’s “premium status/quality”, “its positioning in the market including the price at which it is generally sold” and “the overall impression conveyed by the product packaging.”

“It is not possible to produce an exhaustive list of mitigating factors,” it adds, suggesting that its Complaints Panel has a large degree of flexibility to ensure that it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, if that’s an appropriate simile.

In his response to SIBA, Portman Group chief executive John Timothy said he was “confident that the guidance is nuanced enough to strike the right balance between protecting consumers and judging products fairly and in context.”

That still wasn’t good enough for the independent brewers’ organisation. 

“SIBA has consistently argued that beers like DDH (double-hopped) IPAs, stouts and Belgian tripels could and should be compared to a fine wine,” said head of public affairs James Calder. “They’re not consumed daily or even weekly. 

“Our evidence shows they are decanted, shared by consumers and savoured. They don’t encourage immoderate consumption just by virtue of their ABV and in that sense the new guidance isn’t fit for purpose. 

“It will only result in complaints and rulings against craft beers. It will do nothing to target cheap strong beers and ciders which cause problems in communities up and down the country.”

Progress possibly in the offing

The exchange, however, prompted a meeting between The Portman Group and SIBA to sort out their differences. Early reports suggest progress has been made.

At this stage, though, it’s not clear whether any objections to a premium product will need to be tested by the panel with brewers having to mount a formal defence, or whether The Portman Group executive might be able to sensibly intercept and reject a complaint against the ‘wrong beer’ before it’s got that far.

There’s also the cap on being able to deploy mitigating factors at, for some reason, six units. It’s certainly not inconceivable, the way brewing innovation is going, that some unlucky beer might get caught by that with no recourse to premium claims.

The underlying problem here is that The Portman Group is trying to target a certain type of drinker through a certain type of product, and they don’t perfectly match up. That’s why the Code has to resort to nods and winks about market positioning.

There is an unspoken understanding lurking here that some people can drink quantities of strong beer without experiencing problems, and there are those who apparently can’t.

Everyone knows the four-unit rule is aimed at depriving dependant drinkers of their favoured beverage, the theory being not that they will then immediately stop but that it might open a window of sobriety through which alcohol services may be able to engage with the individual and help them. In that context the absence of strong, cheap beers might also play its part in encouraging them to cut down.

Of course, that assumes we have an army of outreach workers ready and waiting to hit the streets – but these are the very services that have been decimated by austerity.

Public health, on the other hand, might hope that the Code will do something to stop people falling into that state in the first place and would like it to have a wider impact on drinkers. Or, failing that, be replaced by statutory legislation.

So, for them the new Code is flawed in different ways. While the changed definition of ‘immoderate’ is based on the Chief Medical Officer’s switch from daily to weekly guidelines it does not follow the recommended limit of 14 units a week – four units a day adds up to twice that much.

Nor does the revised Code cover the inclusion on labels of the new CMO guidelines. The government has given the drinks industry until September this year to do this voluntarily and the omission could be interpreted as a sign that it’s minded not to play ball.

The one addition everyone seemed to welcome, though, was that “a drink’s name, packaging or any promotional material or activity should not cause serious or widespread offence” with reference to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age. “Protection of the vulnerable” is now “an overarching principle of the Code.”

“Bye-bye sexist pump clips,” declared Wild Card head brewer Jaega Wise on Twitter. “I would like to thank everyone who has campaigned on this issue. It is an important change.”

Phil Mellows
30th April 2019

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