Could the cider category teach the beer industry a thing or two? Pete Brown certainly thinks so

Could the cider category teach the beer industry a thing or two? Pete Brown certainly thinks so

This month, Pete Brown turns his attention to the cider category and finds that the brewers could learn alot from their fruity cousins.

It was interesting reading last week that C&C Group is in high spirits about the North American cider market. At a conference on March 21st, CEO Stephen Glancey claimed the current buzz around cider bore a strong resemblance to that around craft beer 20 years ago, and could well develop in the same way.

About 18 months ago, I decided to broaden the scope of my coverage to include cider as well as beer, and it’s been quite revealing. There are definitely a few things the beer world could learn from what was, until recently, its distinctly poorer cousin.

Cider is in a worldwide boom. Last year, sales grew in the US by 25%, and by 35% in Australia. The real boom years in the UK were a while ago now, when C&C’s Magners brand redefined the market via the simple idea of introducing pint bottles to be served over ice. Although the boom in the UK has certainly passed, cider is still in healthy year-on-year growth.

Cider is uniquely placed to steal share from the rest of the drinks market: it can be long, refreshing and fizzy, like lager – perhaps even more refreshing for an audience weaned on sugary soft drinks as the global palate becomes sweeter. Poured over ice and topped up continually from the bottle, it can also rival ale for a laid back, mellow occasion. And, with a flavour scale of sweet to acidic to dry, it can also substitute for wine.

In my last column, I mentioned that this wine comparison is particularly interesting: a 7% abv cider, presented in the right way, can be seen as a low alcohol alternative to wine rather than a much stronger alternative to mainstream beer.

I’m writing from New York, and last night I was in the Gramercy Tavern, where cider has its own section on the wine list and a 75cl bottle of Vermont’s Farnum Hill Cider is on sale for US$35. It’s a canny piece of positioning that allows a liquid to compete across the board like this.

That positioning gets cleverer the more you look at it. Another characteristic of cider is that it appeals to women just as much as men, with sales in the UK split almost equally. And, while the liquid and its overlap with wine play a part in that, to my mind, the main reason it succeeds here is that it has none of the macho imagery of beer.

Brewers are constantly debating how to broaden their appeal to the 50%  of the population who don’t like them, launching beers that don’t look, taste or smell like beer, desperately disguising their beeriness and failing every time. They wouldn’t have to do this if they hadn’t invested millions in making beer a guy’s drink, sponsoring the sports guys love and creating ads in which women are mere decoration.

There’s no product reason why women don’t love beer: it’s all in the presentation and perception. “How can we get women to like our product?” is not a question you hear, say, Starbucks or Apple asking – gender simply isn’t an issue in their markets. And, it’s not something you hear cider marketers asking either.

Another thing you don’t hear cider makers doing much is slagging off other segments of the market. Beer is constantly at war with itself, with microbrewers versus big brewers, lager versus ale, domestic versus foreign, craft versus ‘industrial yellow fizz’, all scratching each other’s eyes out on a regular basis.

Cider could quite easily do this, but tends not to. A Somerset traditional cider maker may not think of Magners as real cider, but he recognises that the brand has probably saved his livelihood by bringing in a new generation of drinkers, a good chunk of whom are now looking to trade up to the quality stuff. Likewise, in America, Woodchuck accounts for 65% of the market, but the fledgling craft cider movement recognises that this delicately-flavoured, mass-produced brand is opening up the whole concept of cider to the US market, blazing a trail that the little guys can follow.

No matter what size a cider maker is, a passion for innovation is everywhere. As the British market matures, it’s a combination of innovation and a drive to quality that’s pushing growth. One section of the market is trading up to quality ‘real’ ciders, paying a healthy premium for products made with 100% juice and no concentrate, while another demographic is constantly entranced by a procession of pear ciders, fruit ciders, mulled ciders, and spiced and seasonal products. 

This innovation is more than mirrored in the craft beer market, but mainstream beer looks dull by comparison. When I get press releases from brewers describing a slightly tweaked can design as ‘innovation’, I can almost smell the desperation oozing from my laptop.

One problem with innovation in the beer market is that it often resembles a game of football played by eight-year-olds, with everyone following the ball in one big, ungainly group. I was reminded of that image again when I heard that some brewers have been trialling beer poured from a bottle over ice. Anyone who actually likes drinking beer as opposed to simply working on it as a job knows that’s not going to work. When I say beer could learn from cider, I don’t mean ‘slavishly copy what cider did’, I mean, learn from why it was successful. Magners over ice was a new presentation of a forgotten drink. It created a ritual. It screamed refreshment, but also a special treat. It made cider seem more valuable, more premium than beer. More special. Drinking occasions are everyday treats and rewards. And brands that play on that always prosper.

I’d never abandon beer for cider – I don’t have to. I like both, for different reasons. But my enjoyment of cider, and cider’s burgeoning success, makes me think that beer should look at cider, ask what beer can do better, and celebrate those things a little more loudly.