The Continuing Madness Of Britain’s Beer Censors

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The Portman Group once again clamps down on beer company advertising to pacify the prohibitionists.

We’ve discussed the Portman Group – the humourless industry authority that acts as a de facto censor of booze in the UK – several times before, and how a single complaint from a trouble-making prohibitionist (and let’s not pretend that the complainants are anything else) can see a drink pulled from sale. Given that the Portman Group will make statements to local councils when it comes to licensing, stockists will be nervous about not following their rules, no matter how stupid they are.

They’ve been on a roll this month, with three bans. In a sinister move, Orangeboom 8.5, a strong version of the Dutch lager, has been banned despite being approved in a similar hearing back in 2017. The reasoning for this about-face is that new guidelines are in place, and so entirely legal beers are now subject to a double-jeopardy hearing. Under the new guidelines, the factual statement that the beer was ‘Extra Strong’ was considered to be over-emphasised (i.e. written in letters) and would be a temptation to ‘problem drinkers’. The fact that the can was not resealable meant that it has to be consumed – shock horror! – in one sitting. How long that sitting might be, and how many regular strength lagers might be consumed in the same time period, was not a consideration.

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Some might argue that emphasising the strength of a beer is a very sensible warning as much as a come-on – how many people have picked up a 9% beer without realising, I wonder? But no. Orangeboom 8.5 is now being pulled from the UK market, so tough shit if you enjoyed it.

Also outlawed this month, ironically enough, is Purity’s Lawless. Like Orangeboom 8.5, this was picked up in a study by Zenith Global, who have carried out a study for the Portman Group intended to sweep up any alcohol that might have a sense of humour. Lawless describes itself as “a maverick beer” and “a law unto itself”, something bound to rile up the censorial. ‘Lawless’ – apparently the name of the groovy goat on the packaging – is a clear reference to illegal behaviour, and clearly if such references were banished from the shelves, illegal behaviour would end immediately. The complaint against Lawless (a complaint that couldn’t even find any public support, you’ll note) has inevitably been upheld. As of yet, Purity has yet to react, but we hope they follow the example of Lost and Grounded Brewery.

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Lost and Grounded had the misfortune to have had their beers spotted by an anonymous ‘member of the public’ in Waitrose, who decided that the can art was ‘child-friendly’. The Running with Sceptres India Pale Lager features cartoon characters that, according to the anonymous complainant, “seem very much inspired by children’s book Where the Wild Things Are while Keller Pils features a “cutesy animal in a rowing boat (that) made an instant association with children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. Well, if you are unbalanced, perhaps. But one of the Portman Group’s obsessions is with the idea that beer (it’s usually beer) is made child-friendly in the packaging, something that increasingly clashes with the desire of craft breweries to both use stylish art and hit the nostalgia hipster market, where memories of childhood favourites and a fascination with what are traditionally juvenile entertainments (Star Wars, comic books and the like) is widespread.

But the point is surely this: these beers are not sold outside of the beer aisles in supermarkets, or in off-licences or specialist beer shops, none of which are aimed at children. And they are clearly beers – the words ‘India Pale Lager’ are clearly visible on the can, certainly as visible as Orangeboom’s problematic Extra Strong. While the very concept of an India Pale Lager might have CAMRA members choking on their London Pride, there’s no way that this doesn’t look like a beer.

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Yet the Portman Group have agreed that this was something that would have particular appeal to children, who might attempt to buy it in shops (but then be turned down at the checkout, surely?) or want to drink it at home, as if cartoon characters will make the attraction of beer any more or less – I’d say that if kids want to try beer, then they want to try beer regardless of what is on the can. But what do I know?

To their credit, Lost and Grounded has sensibly rejected this decision (their other beers have similar designs, and so this ‘ban’ could effectively cripple them) and rightly questioned how a ‘member of the public’ would be so intimately familiar with the Portman Group’s rules, being able to quote the exact rule (3.2[h] to be exact) being broken. Let’s be blunt here: almost all these complaints come from prohibitionist organisations that want to chip away at the acceptability of alcohol, and who won’t be happy until we have plain packaging, maximum strengths and minimum prices (and will then go on to push for a total ban). The Portman Group, as an industry body, should be aware of this, and yet they kowtow to these people as if it somehow protects the industry rather than empowers their enemies. Bad thinking.

You are unlikely to find Running with Sceptres in the shops after June, thanks to this decision. The Brewery doesn’t seem to do mail order, but maybe I’m just not looking hard enough – anyway, I’m sure they can point you in the right direction if you want to show your support: http://lostandgrounded.co.uk/

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