A decade ago, it seemed hard cider had met its match, as fast-charging hard-lemonade brands stole a big slice of the category's sweet-drinking audience. But now the bite is back, as cider sales rebound thanks to surging interest from a new consumer base: sophisticated craft beer drinkers searching for taste adventures.
Cider is still a tiny fraction of the alcohol category and is not about to threaten beer, wine or spirits for booze dominance. But while mainstream beer brands are declining, cider is growing at a furious pace, drawing premium prices, coveted women drinkers and even more male fans attracted to bold flavors. Category sales were up 25% in the year ending Oct. 30, to $49.6 million, according to SymphonyIRI, which tracks grocery sales excluding those at Walmart and liquor stores.
But curiously, it's a trend the big boys seem to be missing, at least for the moment. Brewing giants MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev do not have cider brands in the U.S., although both seem to be keeping a watchful eye on the category. AB InBev, for instance, launched a cider brand in the U.K. earlier this year called Stella Artois Cidre (pronounced "see-dra") that would seem to be a logical brand extension for Stella in the U.S. SABMiller, which owns 58% of U.S.-based MillerCoors, sells only one cider, a brand called Sarita, in South Africa. Cider is "a category we're watching with interest," said a MillerCoors spokesman.
For now, the biggest stateside cider player is a privately held company operating out of tiny Middlebury, Vt., called Vermont Hard Cider Co. The marketer said it controls an estimated 60% of the cider market with several brands, including category leader Woodchuck, which has a 47% share and whose sales grew 37%, to $23.5 million in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 30, according to SymphonyIRI. The company also has the No. 4 brand, Wyder's, and imports two brands owned by Heineken International: Strongbow (No. 3) and Woodpecker (No. 15).
Just like craft beer, hard-cider brands rely on grass-roots marketing that draws consumers seeking new taste experiences, natural ingredients and authentic brand stories. And while cider used to skew to women, more men are drinking it. Vermont Hard Cider says its customer base is now 50% male, with the average drinker between the ages of 21 and 30.
"People used to feel it was just a sweet product. Now it's a lot more complex," said Vermont Hard Cider President-CEO Bret Williams. "We're doing new things and pushing the envelope, and that 's bringing in the men." Woodchuck's latest offering, Farmhouse Select Series, is made from Vermont apples and premium Belgian beer yeast. And just like craft beer, it is plugged as a perfect food pairing with cheeses and pork dishes.
The biggest U.S. brewer in the category is craft-beer pioneer Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, which sells a cider brand called Hardcore, whose sales jumped 21% in the year ending Oct. 30, and a new offering named Angry Orchard. Meantime, European cider giant C&C Group is upping its U.S. game, and recently bought the No. 2-ranked Hornsby's brand from E. & J. Gallo Winery. C&C plans to use Hornsby's strong West Coast distribution to grow its Irish import Magners, whose base is on the East Coast, said spokesman Robert Ballantyne.
Hard cider's U.S. heritage goes as far back as John Adams, who was said to down a tankard every morning to prevent gas. But in the modern era, cider has never broken through in the mass market. While growing fast, it still accounts for only 0.2% of the combined beer and cider market in the U.S., compared with 17% in the U.K. and 12% in Ireland, Nomura Equity Research stated in a recent report.
So why would global brewers even consider moving into such a small category? For one, cider has good margins. It is priced at an average of $35 a case, more than other premium offerings, such as $33 for craft beer and $29 for imported beer, according to Nomura. Also, cider attracts women drinkers. "Whereas 80% of beer companies' consumers are male, cider is gender-neutral, opening up a market in which beer players have struggled," Nomura said.