Today on Gizmodo UK we bring you the results of several weeks of exhaustive investigative journalism. We're going to blow the lid off one of the biggest changes in pubs since plates were switched out in favour of serving food on planks of wood and in mugs. Forget Watergate... this is Fizzywatergate.
Our story begins in early January at a Fuller's pub. Upon ordering a Coke, the response from the barman wasn't simply the standard, disappointing "Is Pepsi okay?", but was instead the news that now they only carry Pepsi Max. "We're a sugar free pub now", Giz UK was informed.
Huh? Are sugar free pubs actually a thing? Bemused, it was only days later when we visited another Fuller's Pub in a different part of London that we realised that something is going on. Upon ordering a Pepsi from the bar, once again we were informed that full-fat Pepsi on draught was no longer an option. Something to do with the government's sugar tax, according to the barman.
This was when we knew. We had to investigate. This could be a bigger story than Brexit Toblerones!
Is nannying Fuller's really going to stop non-alcohol drinkers from feeling bloated and a bit sick after drinking two pints of Pepsi when trying to keep pace with our alcohol-imbibing friends? And is it at the behest of the government's new tax, or is there something else driving the decision?
The Sugar Tax?
The "sugar tax" the barman alluded to is in fact the Soft Drink Industry Levy, a measure proposed by George Osborne (remember him?) in the 2016 budget. It hasn't become law yet - but is widely expected to do so around 2018. Exactly how much it will put on the cost of a Pepsi remains to be seen - but if it passes there will be some increase.
Crucially, it will put pubs in an awkward position: do they keep prices the same and absorb the levy, meaning smaller profit margins, or do they do something that will be unpopular with customers and put up prices to compensate?
Could the reason for the dramatic change in what's on tap be a reaction to this? Or could it be something benign, like an act of corporate social responsibility and a nod towards healthy eating?
From a business standpoint, we would wildly speculate that cutting sugary drinks has a business logic to it if the tax is going to cause a price hike:
1) It would mean different drinks on draught would be priced differently - potentially causing confusion for staff and customers.
2) Two products that are basically the same (Pepsi and Diet Pepsi) would be priced differently, and this disparity would also add confusion to the price of mixers (vodka and Coke, etc).
3) As one is typically substituted for another in various circumstances, it means arguing the toss over the price with drunk people.
And conversely, if the sugar tax is absorbed (presumably through a process of osmosis! Haha! That's a GCSE Science joke), there's a really obvious reason to stop selling full sugar Pepsi: why bother selling something with a small profit margin when 99.9% of customers would instead be happy buying the product with the much larger profit margin?
To find out the real truth we emailed Fuller's Press Office - and the company says that there's a much less controversial explanation. "The reason you were given for our recent change in post mix policy is grossly inaccurate and somewhat embarrassing," a spokesperson said, before adding the following:
"As I am sure you have observed, there is an increasing emphasis on health across our industry, particularly related to children. As a company we have taken the decision to offer our customers more choice and healthier alternatives. As part of this initiative we have made our post mix guns [the squirty drinks guns bar staff use, for those of you who've never been behind a bar] sugar free however we should still be offering Pepsi in bottles for those that prefer the original. We are also evolving our food menus in the same way so there is a healthier choice for those that would like it.
"Sugar tax, or the avoidance of, certainly does not drive our decision making. We are absolutely committed to the customer experience and it is a great shame that this was not shared in the right way at [The Specific Pub We Were In - our redaction]. We have sent some Pepsi bottles there so that [Manager] can start stocking them immediately. We are also increasing our soft drinks range from January and so there will be a lot more potentially on offer including juices and mineral waters that are healthier but taste great."
So that's the official line. But if we're honest... we still remain a little sceptical. It took several days for Fuller's to get back to us. We also asked whether they did any publicity at the time the decision was made, as you can imagine "pub goes healthy" would be a fairly easy PR win for the company, but apparently they decided not to. "The shift towards lower sugar, lower fat diets has been going on for a while now, so we didn’t make a big noise about the decision," the spokesperson told us.
So are sugar free pubs definitely now a thing? We emailed 15 Fuller's pubs in London and discovered that all but one had now made the switch to being sugar-free on draught. But for the company's rivals it's a different story.
Punch Taverns told us that "We are currently working with our suppliers to ensure we have a suitable consumer offer in line with the proposed soft drinks levy" - in other words, "not yet."
Marston's told us that "We currently offer our customers choice, standard or a low/no sugar option. It is important to us that customers have options across the breadth of our food and drink menus. However as with all products we keep a close eye on consumer trends and demands, whilst monitoring health information and government guidelines for long term planning."
Finally, a Wetherspoon spokesperson told us that "Wetherspoon serves Pepsi, Pepsi Max and Diet Pepsi. It will continue to offer all three on draught" - though presumably the downside to this is that if you want to take them up on this full-sugar offering, you still have to go to a Wetherspoons.
So are sugar free pubs a thing? If they are, it could really shake up the pub industry - and everyone knows that shaking up Pepsi is a bad idea. But for now, following our exhaustive research, it appears that Fuller's are currently, and secretly, out their own their own. And now you know.