Tom Vierhile considers the rise of cider - specifically, hard cider - in many markets around the world.

Fall in the northern hemisphere means harvest time, and harvest time means fresh apples and cider. For most North American consumers, the term 'cider' refers to pasteurised, non-alcoholic apple juice, sometimes referred to as “cloudy apple juice” in some countries. But, for the rest of the world, 'cider' refers to an alcoholic beverage enjoyed much like beer, but with taste characteristics that can vary from bone dry to cloyingly sweet.

Alcoholic cider preferences vary tremendously from one country to another. On the world stage, South African consumers exhibit the greatest love for the category, with 16% of alcohol drinking consumers in this country stating that cider is their top alcoholic beverage choice, versus beer, spirits or wine, says Datamonitor Consumer’s 2013 Global Consumer Survey. Only two other countries – Sweden and the UK – had 10% or more of alcohol drinking consumers selecting cider as their top alcoholic beverage choice. In the US, just 2% of consumers of legal drinking age and above noted that hard cider was their top choice.

These numbers suggest that alcoholic ciders have a long ways to go if they are going to break out of their current niche status in most markets. For starters, two-thirds of consumers in Datamonitor’s 2013 Global Consumer Survey say that they don’t drink alcoholic cider at all, nearly double the percentage that say they do not drink lager – the top type of beer. And, those consumers that do drink cider tend to do so much less frequently than with other types of alcohol. Datamonitor’s recent survey revealed that just 13% of consumers globally say that they do drink alcoholic cider at least once per week. Contrast this with the 31% of consumers globally that say they drink red wine at least weekly. This illustrates that the challenge for alcoholic cider is both usage and frequency.

Yet, there have been a number of encouraging signs suggesting that alcoholic cider may be ready to break out in some markets. In the US, for instance, cider shipments grew 87% for the year-to-date to June 2013, according to the Washington, DC-based Beer Institute. Cider is gaining traction because it is seen as more gender-neutral than beer, which means that women are more likely to like cider than beer. Globally, at least, this appears to be the case as nearly three times the percentage of women versus men tabbed alcoholic cider as their top alcoholic beverage choice, according to Datamonitor’s 2013 Global Consumer Survey. And that momentum could continue in 2014 thanks to some high profile new product launches.

Anheuser-Bush InBev’s Stella Artois brand uncorked its 4.5% abv Stella Artois Cidre in 26 states across the US in May, with further geographic expansion planned in 2014. According to Adam Oakley, VP of import, craft and specialty brands at Anheuser-Busch InBev, “Stella Artois Cidre is designed to be savoured and is very different from sweeter, domestic US ciders.” Oakley goes on to note that “Stella Artois Cidre has the potential to change people’s perception of ciders (in the US), offering a refreshing alternative to white wine.” Underscoring the cider versus wine comparison, Belgian master sommelier Marc Stroobandt notes that “cider drinkers are now approaching cider with sophistication similar to that of wine drinkers”. If that is the case, it could shore up what is a weak area for cider; products that pair well with food has been wine’s major claim-to-fame.

The beauty of alcoholic cider is that it can draw consumers from both the wine and beer markets. Beer drinkers appear to be more in MillerCoors' sights, with the company launching new Smith & Forge Hard Cider in the US this Fall. Packaged in a tall black can, the drink is higher in alcohol than many alcoholic ciders currently on the market, checking in at 6% abv. That is by design, as Smith & Forge is focusing on what is termed to be a “massive unmet need” in hard cider products that target men. The packaging makes masculine references to blacksmithing and forging, and features verbiage that says it is “made strong” that also serves to highlight the higher than usual alcohol content.

This foray into stronger ciders echoes the “strong cider” segment in the UK, one that has come under fire in recent years with the proliferation of inexpensive alcoholic ciders often consumed by heavy drinkers. Alcoholic cider has traditionally received favourable tax treatment in the UK relative to beer or wine, as regulators have been eager to support the traditional, domestic alcoholic cider industry. But, the popularity of high alcohol, low apple content, cheap alcoholic ciders has muddled that effort. More recently, the UK is seeing the example set by the town of Ipswich’s “Reducing the Strength” campaign, which has subsequently spread to other communities. This effort tries to persuade retailers to voluntarily remove low cost, “super-strength” ciders (and beers) with abvs of 6.5% and above, from store shelves. The rationale is that these drinks are associated with higher levels of street crime and violence.

While these issues may be region-specific, new product innovation in cider suggests ample room for developments outside of higher alcohol contents alone, especially with new flavours. Outside of apple, pear is the next most popular flavour for cider, but the category is beginning to open up to more intense fruit flavours. After pear, berry-type flavours are coming on the strongest, with examples like Thatchers Somerset Mixed Fruit Cider, which features blackcurrant, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry flavours, and Strongbow Dark Fruit Cider “cut with blackcurrant and blackberry juices” – both new in the UK. Other fruits like cherry and red grape want in, with products like blood red Bulmers Bold Black Cherry and Pressed Red Grape Ciders from the UK. 

Tropical-flavoured ciders, spicy ciders for winter, and ciders influenced by other alcoholic drinks are also emerging trends. Australia’s DB Breweries recently added a limited-edition Winter Cider to its Rekorderlig Cider line-up, one flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. DB Breweries also introduced Passionfruit Cider, a blend of pear and passionfruit, earlier in 2013 in Australia.

Whisky doesn’t necessarily sound like a natural pairing for cider, but that didn’t stop Thistly Cross Cider Company of the UK from adding Whisky-flavored Premium Scottish Cider to its range. Even wine can inspire, demonstrated by Mac’s Isaac’s Cider with Feijoa, new in Australia blending feijoa (pineapple guava) wine into a cider base.

The prize for most unusual new cider should probably go to South Africa’s Distill Group which markets Hunter’s Extreme Zero Cider, an apple-flavored product with added guarana, caffeine and taurine plus no added sugar. How far alcoholic ciders can ride the energy drink wave in other countries where caffeine-enhanced products may be prohibited remains to be seen.

For more on cider from Datamonitor, click here.