By Kara Nielsen
For Saltshaker Marketing & Media
The hard apple cider trend in the U.S. is fascinating to study. It’s been taking place since 2011, when Boston Beer brought Angry Orchard to market and blew open the doors on this category. There were stalwart brands, of course; Vermont Hard Cider had been selling Woodchuck Hard Cider for years on bar menus, filling the slot of “alternative to beer.” But now, a more serious trend has blossomed even while industry cider sales decreased significantly in 2015. How does that work?
Well, it depends on what kind of hard cider we’re talking about. The larger alcoholic beverage industry counts sales of the mass brands sold in grocery stores, liquor stores and drugstores. The big beer companies pretty much either bought small hard cider brands or created their own to get a share of this burgeoning market between 2008 and 2014: Michelob Ultra Light Cider, Stella Artois Cidre, the purchase of Strongbow by Heineken. These companies offer products in the same vein as their beers: heavily marketed, mass-produced, often light in body, typically over-sweetened and sometimes flavored.
This glut of mass cider pushed the needle on sales tracked by industry research firms, leading to encouraging headlines and impressive growth numbers. In 2012, U.S. cider sales grew 90%; in 2013, 89%. By 2014, 71% sales were still respectable, but as competitors clogged the market by the end of 2015, sales increased barely 11%. Of course, it’s easy to grow 90% from practically nothing. It’s also easy to get drinkers’ attention with a plethora of shiny new products. But will consumers repeat cider purchases after they have tried a few and decided they didn’t really like these ciders all that much? Seems not.
However, just as craft beer created its own alternative market, craft hard cider is doing the same. This smaller, scrappier industry is bubbling up in pockets of the U.S. where local cider has long been made, like New England, and new places where craft industries thrive, like the Pacific Northwest and California. Craft brewers across the U.S., including Austin, Texas, are doing what crafty makers do: tapping into traditional producing methods, using found and local ingredients, resurrecting forgotten regional supply chains, making products in small batches, using unique and creative methods for adding signature stamps on products, collaborating with other makers, adopting cool monikers and packaging designs, and the like. Many of these ciders build on traditional English, French, and Spanish styles of cider making and range in style from crisp and dry, to semi-dry and sweet, to funky and barnyardy.
As these craft cider producers proliferate, they are also connecting with one other, organizing, sharing resources and best practices, and getting together at ground-breaking conferences and confabs that give awards and recognize standouts in the field. Industry definitions of cider have expanded, allowing for ciders to have higher alcohol levels without being taxed as wine.
This organization and growth of the craft side of the business has exploded, thanks to both the success of the craft beer industry showing cider makers how it’s done, and to the great appreciation in today’s food culture for craft practices and products. With new cider bars and cider advocates expanding, savvy consumers will be in good hands to learn more about the history, tradition and variations of craft hard cider, and keep this trend growing.