Incorrect excise tax could leave a bitter taste for alcohol businesses

Caroline Mcneill
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When you take a sip from a 330ml bottle of Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, you probably don’t consider the 47c in excise tax that was included in the price. And why would you? It would only take the fun out of having a nice cold beer.

Unfortunately, if you run an alcohol business in New Zealand, you don’t have the luxury of forgetting about excise taxes. These have risen rapidly in recent years because they are benchmarked to consumer inflation. The rise over the last three years in the consumer price index to as high as 7%, has meant more than $94 million in additional excise tax for the alcohol industry.  On top of that, the industry has had to absorb rising ingredient and packaging costs, skills shortages, falling sales and higher interest rates. It’s tough going for our alcohol manufacturers and distributors, many of whom are small privately owned and family businesses.

While this is an area of tax legislation that might only affect a small number of businesses, it has a sizeable impact. It’s a challenge to be accurate and compliant, particularly for the smaller craft producers that make up around 10% of our local market. These inaccuracies are an under-recognised issue - get it wrong, and it can be extremely costly. 

Overpaying could lead to significant unnecessary costs

Producers must record alcohol volumes accurately, have correct sales records, and lodge that data by the deadlines set by the New Zealand Customs Service. Because brewing is an art and a science, the level of accuracy required can be tricky to achieve. It’s not uncommon to see brewers make tiny errors that lead to big consequences, and the last thing anyone wants is to be facing thousands of dollars a month in unnecessary tax. It’s also easier to make errors at a smaller craft operation, because it’s less industrialised when compared to the big players like Speight’s or Heineken.

Take, for example, a fictitious beer manufacturer – let’s call it Bottle Brewery. One of its best-selling beers is a light lager that should have 4% alcohol by volume (ABV). Unfortunately, the team at Bottle Brewery isn’t equipped to be 100% accurate with its calculation and processes. As a result, its light lager has been leaving the brewery with an ABV of 4.08%. That might sound like nothing more than a rounding error, but it’s just enough to increase the excise tax on the beer.

The corresponding increase gets applied across the stock keeping unit (SKU) based on sales per month, and the light lager is selling well, shifting 100,000 units in a month. Applying the additional excise tax adds an extra $2,800 per month for that alcohol SKU alone. Plus, the Bottle Brewery team is a bit slow at filing its returns. With that late fine, and the extra excise tax, the company is unnecessarily paying $3,600 a month. Hopefully Bottle Brewery has been more accurate with its other beers or its taxes could be really adding up. 

Underpaying can be a nasty shock

When you’re underpaying tax, you run the risk of an unpleasant shock when you need to backpay the outstanding amounts. Customs carries out regular inspections of New Zealand’s alcohol businesses, walking through production facilities to see how you’re recording your alcohol volumes, checking your systems, and inspecting your reports and declarations. Inspectors will look at everything, even checking to see whether you have alcohol sitting in unlicenced areas of your property – you may need to pay excise tax on it if that’s the case.

At a time when niche brewers have been struggling to stay afloat, investing in getting this right is well worth the effort – because the costs of getting it wrong can be disastrous. If Bottle Brewery has been paying its excise tax assuming its light lager is 4%, but Customs discovers it is actually 4.08%, the business may be on the hook for several months of backdated taxes. This could be a considerable cashflow blow for a small brewery that’s already feeling the headwinds of tough economic conditions. It may even face penalties for mistakes or omissions, on top of any tax owed. If Customs decides to do a full audit, that will also take up extra time and resources they can’t afford.

Customs is very responsive and helpful, and they do have options under the legislation to remit penalties and offer time to pay arrangements. However, they don’t always have the ability or appetite to offer lenient repayment options, and outstanding excise tax and penalties may need to be paid.

The right systems and processes can save you time and money

Most breweries use spreadsheets to track their sales and alcohol volumes. Academic research has found that an estimated 94% of spreadsheets contain errors, which shouldn’t fill anyone with confidence. Breweries need to develop and maintain a laser focus on improving the quality of their data, and developing models that help them improve accuracy and file returns on time.  

Typically this investment quickly pays for itself, often simply by avoiding late filing fees. Improving systems and processes often leads to other increased efficiencies throughout the business, including better stock storage practices and more precise forecasting.

When it comes to excise tax reporting, a millilitre of prevention is worth a fermenter full of cure.