The hard cider category may trail behind wine and beer in sales, but it’s quickly making up ground.
Leading cider brands grew 57.8% between 2013 and 2014, according to information collected by the Beverage Information and Insights Group. Sales across the overall category expanded by 63.1% during that same time period.
This is hardly an anomaly. Annual gains in the cider market have risen for some time now.
“The cider segment is the fastest growing segment in the alcohol industry, growing 700% since 2009,” says Alejandra de Obeso, Brand Director for Heineken International’s Strongbow Apple Ciders.
These numbers are somewhat inflated by the segment’s previously lower sales, before they benefitted from the craft movement.
“The reason there’s so much growth in cider is because there was so little there to begin with,” points out Phil Kuhl, a certified cicerone and craft beer specialist for Wirtz Beverage, Wisonsin, whose accounts include Seattle Cider and Finnriver Cider.
Nevertheless, there is no denying what the category has recently achieved. As more consumers purchase products that are craft, local, and/or small-batch, they are increasingly drinking cider.
“If cider were a beer style, it would be the number two most popular style next to IPA,” Kuhl says.
Cider is a flavorful alternative to other beverages. It has a wide range in taste, appealing to modern drinkers (especially Millennials) who crave variety. Worldwide, there are more than 7,500 different varieties of apples.
“If you had the recommended ‘apple a day’, it’d take 20 years to try them all,” explains David Sipes, a cider-maker for Boston Beers Company’s Angry Orchard. “Just as we’ve seen the palates and interests of craft beer drinkers continue to grow in sophistication and expand over time, drinkers today are approaching hard cider in the same way,”
Perhaps as much as any other beverage, cider is positioned well within the alcohol industry.
Explains de Obeso, “The explosion of innovation among wine, spirits and beer is driven by three key trends: consumers’ search for variety in taste, the growth of upscale beverages, and the increased awareness on quality ingredients. Cider is unique in its ability to capitalize on all three of these trends.”
Ciders are usually gluten free. This places them in an ever-expanding market for such products, where some beverages cannot compete. “Unfortunately there are not a lot of gluten-free beers that are very good,” says Kuhl. “It’s an easy jump to cider, especially craft cider, if you develop Celiac disease and were already drinking craft beer beforehand.”
Ciders can range from light to dark, dry to fruity. They can be hoppy, like beer, or fizzy, like wine. Anyone who already enjoys a brew, or a glass of red or white, will find familiar flavors in cider.
All this helps attract a large number of consumers across age groups and genders. “In our experience, we’ve seen that cider appeals to both men and women, in a far more balanced way than beer or wine — around a 50/50 split,” says Sipes, “and the majority of those fall between drinking age and 40 years old.”
Cider has benefited from following in the footsteps of what is likely its greatest competitor — craft beer.
Compared with wine or spirits, cider has been more closely associated to beer in terms of drinking occasions and how they’re both served. Cider is sold in six packs (its predominant packaging), bombers and single-serving bottles, which are basically identical to craft-beer packaging. And the category’s low ABVs are similar to sessionable lagers and ales.
While this means that cider cannot help but compete against beer, it also gives the category a clear path forward.
“Craft beer got a 15 to 20 year head start on craft cider, and forged the way ahead,” says Kuhl. “Cider is starting to put on its ‘big boy shoes’. Ten years ago, craft beer did this when it became all about being extreme. That’s what it had to do to distance itself tremendously from the alternatives.”
“Now that’s what cider is doing,” he adds. “So you see ciders that are hoppy, seasonal, or barrel-aged. They’re trying to grab the attention of the drinker who otherwise might pass by it.”
Hoppy cider, uncommon just a few years ago, is an increasingly popular way to add flavor and consumer intrigue. And by no accident, it’s in line with the great American thirst for IPAs.
“We recently launched Angry Orchard Hop’n Mad Apple, our first hopped cider,” says Sipes. “Hops are traditionally viewed as an ingredient for beer, but we used a process typically used in brewing called ‘dry hopping’ — where hops are added to cider after fermentation is complete — to impart all of the aromatic elements of the hops, without their trademark bitterness.”
Getting On Tap
Where cider most visibly lags behind beer is on tap lines at bars.
“For a long time now, the top restaurants and bars have done away from AB, Miller, Coors, etc., and replaced them with craft beer — except for their cider line,” Kuhl says. “Their cider is still made by Millers. Some of that is because of them not knowing any better, and some is not having a better option.”
Even trendy bars that feature craft cider do so only a little at a time. While this provides drinkers an alternative to beer, it hardly showcases cider as a diverse category worth exploring in depth.
“We have to prove to bar owners that we’re worth a tap spot in their bar,” says Martin Thatcher, the fourth-generation owner of England’s Thatchers Cider, which is rapidly expanding its U.S. offerings. “If something is going to take up space on your tap, it may as well be something that sells. And once you have one cider on tap, you may in time move to three taps, because then there’s a range for customers to try.”
Bars may also want to consider being more proactive. “In those accounts where cider is already available, the on-premise channel could benefit from a greater opportunity by specifically calling out the cider category on menus,” says de Obeso. “There is an immense upside to selling cider in the on-premise, just considering distribution alone.”
The tide does appear to be turning. Most bars with at least six to eight taps now feature at least one type of cider, especially if it’s a local brand. Some leading-edge businesses are offering even more.
“A bar is going to open up in Manhattan that serves only cider,” says Thatcher. “That’s a big step forward for the market here.”
Teaching and Tasting
So how can cider take the final step, from budding alternative to mainstream beverage? The key will be consumer education, which has already helped the category progress this far.
Continued advancement of the category requires a “strong investment in category education,” says de Obeso. “The biggest challenges cider faces are expanding consumer awareness, providing enough variety, and encouraging trial. We are doing our part in letting our consumers know which stores serve our ciders through our product locator — discoverstrongbow.com — and making sure we have proper touch points throughout our shoppers’ path-to-purchase experience.”
Strongbow holds tastings that highlight the product’s flavor when served on the rocks. “Our ‘over ice’ sampling events have significantly increased the rate of sale of Strongbow in participating accounts, and led to loyal fans and repeat shoppers in the category,” says de Obeso.
Boston Beer takes a similar approach.
“Drinker education and awareness-building is critical,” explains Sipes. “That’s where we place a lot of focus — whether that’s through wait staff education at a bar or restaurant, or walking drinkers through the ingredients of Angry Orchard ciders in stores or at tasting events — asking them to try cider, learn about how it’s made and its history.”
Cider was among the nation’s most popular alcoholic beverages in Colonial times, Sipes says, thanks to the greater prevalence of apple trees back then.
But it gradually slipped from the mainstream. European immigrants brought beer, and Prohibition forced orchards into producing sweeter (non-cider) table apples. “Even today, bittersweet apples can be difficult to find in the U.S.,” Sipes says.
Nevertheless, the future for American cider remains bright.
“There’s still a ways to go from an education perspective, but the good news is we’re seeing a tremendous shift,” says Sipes. “Now, stores are carrying almost twice the amount of cider options than they did only a few years ago.”
The craft movement has reinvigorated cider and allowed it to once again flourish. So what’s next? Beyond mirroring beer and wine in terms of styles, cider is also broadening its appeal through versatility.
“We’re seeing drinkers start to experiment with hard cider much like they did with craft beer years ago through using cider as an ingredient in cooking, pairing cider with foods, in cocktail recipes, and even people making cider at home,” says Sipes. “As the U.S. drinker’s palate for cider expands, we’ll see new styles and ingredients.”
Kuhl agrees. “Cider lends itself to being used in cocktails. It’s an alternative to getting acid into a drink, or a sparkling wine,” he says. “Cider is taking ideas from craft beer and cocktails. Seattle Cider does a gin botanical cider. Draft Magazine named it a top 25 craft beer of last year. It was the only cider on the list.”
du Obeso is optimistic for the years to come.
“The cider category is still in its infancy, with considerable room for growth,” he says, particularly in the “high-energy, upscale, and very social segment.”
“We believe there is tremendous untapped potential in this segment,” he adds, “which will in time help double the volume of the entire category.”
Featured Image: A scene from Angry Orchard’s orchard in Walden, NY.