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Why the apple is back on top for cider

By Nigel Huddleston , 31-Mar-2017

Big Apple: the cider market is constantly evolving
Big Apple: the cider market is constantly evolving

Cider makers are convinced the apple is back and more drinkers will be enjoying the original ingredient with a more artisanal approach in the upcoming months and years. But there’s still plenty of interest in flavoured varieties.

Apples are back in vogue. Ciders flavoured with other fruit are still a major engine of growth for the on-trade cider market but, inspired by the boom in craft beer and artisanal gin, the big cider makers are increasingly returning to the original source of their product to give the category a sense of heritage and authenticity.

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Innovation is rife in artisanal ciders, a segment which itself is fragmenting into micro-trends with market-leading supplier Heineken identifying sub-categories of traditional or heritage brands (including Westons, Thatchers and Aspall), super-premium sharing brands such as its own Stassen product, and modern craft ciders like Caple Rd, Orchard Pig and Hoxton.

Heineken’s cider brands director Emma Sherwood-Smith says the company’s innovation focus this year is on the artisanal cider segment.

“This is where we’d expect most of the growth to come in cider in the next few years,” she says. “Most of the brands in it are small at the moment, but they are playing into big trends across the market around premium and provenance.

“In many ways, it’s similar to craft beer in that people are interested in the source of the fruit and the people who grow it. It’s a category where people like things to be complicated and exclusive.”

Deighton Ridge, national on-trade controller at Shepherd Neame, supplier of US craft cider Angry Orchard, also sees growth at the top end.

“We will certainly see NPD within the speciality cider sector in the coming months. We see both traditional and craft ciders sitting comfortably alongside each other within speciality cider. There is room for both of these styles and both will grow during 2017 because they are responding to consumer demand for premium quality and variety.”

Heineken forecasts a 18.2% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) in artisanal apple cider by 2020, compared with 8.2% in premium flavoured, with mainstream apple and mainstream flavoured pushing up by just over 3% each.

Heineken is looking to tap into the artisanal trend with the launch of Bulmers Orchard Pioneers, a pair of ciders focusing on the category’s agricultural heritage, named Kier’s Cloudy Apple and Sarah’s Red Apple after the apple farmers whose fruit goes into making them.

Sherwood-Smith says it aims to get a foothold into the traditional segment of artisanal cider, particularly among 25 to 44-year-old men.

“People come into the category and, as they mature, they move on to other drinks and drop out of cider, so it’s targeted at keeping them interested,” she adds.

Heineken sees Orchard Pioneers thriving in food-led pubs, but is covering the bases by also launching Orchard Thieves, a draught, modern cider aimed more at craft beer bars.

Contemporary craft cans

Westons was one of the first big cider producers to buy into the idea of contemporary craft cans – another area that looks ripe for expansion in 2017 – when it released Caple Rd two years ago. It’s also combined the twin growth categories of flavours and craft with its bag-in-box Rosie’s Pig range.

Different options for selling more

Brand owners are offering support and advice to help pubs sell more cider.

Wayne Scrivener, general manager at online drinks distributor Ooberstock, which supplies the historic Gaymers brand, says pubs should link cider promotions to events.

“There’s also a great deal of interest around food matching with cider, which offers a wide spectrum of flavours to complement different dishes,” he adds.

Thatchers is repeating 2016 activity this year to produce a cider festival pack for pubs, containing banners, posters, bunting and tasting notes for its ciders. It also has guides to food pairing and apple varieties.

“Knowing about the ciders you serve and how they’re crafted is a really important way that pubs can pique consumers’ interests,” says on-trade director Rob Sandall.

“We’re keen to ensure customers really understand our ciders so they can relay the quality message to their own customers.”

Angry Orchard is another brand advocating the incorporation of cider into menus with Shepherd Neame’s Deighton Ridge suggesting its use in salad dressings and salsas, and for mixed drinks.

He adds: “Premium cider brands can stand alone as a heritage product for cider purists, as well as bringing them potential for value-added summer cocktails.”

Katie Hunter at Diageo offers a range of tips, from tasting sessions for staff to increasing fridge space for fruit cider.

She says: “Stocking a range of different formats such as bottles, cans and draught options helps tap into every occasion in your pub, whether it’s relaxing, up-tempo or outdoors. Cider is well suited to summer events such as barbecues and sport screenings.”

Westons’ Geoff Bradman says: “Brand visibility and staff education are absolutely critical. Staff need to be knowledgeable about the products and understand the proportion.

“Brand owners need to be smarter in how we support the outlets in terms of visibility and serve. There’s nothing worse than being served a pint of cider in a Guinness glass.”

“There will be more from us in the craft arena,” says commercial director Geoff Bradman. “We recognise that as an opportunity to innovate, and we welcome others who are coming into that part of the market because it can only help to grow that area. We see competition in craft as an opportunity not a threat – it adds breadth and interest to the category.”

That’s just as well because 2017 has already seen Thatchers kick off an anticipated spring and summer deluge of craft cans with the launch of the Stan’s range, while Aston Manor launched its Friels brand in 33cl cans late last year.

Rob Sandall, on-trade director at Thatchers, says: “I believe we’re going to see many more entrants into the category this year, particularly bottled artisan ciders. As lovers of apple cider, we’re really supportive of a growing category as long as the quality is maintained.”

Successful return apples

After a few years of ticking over, with excitement around innovation mostly focusing on nothing more than new flavours, the move back to apples seems to be, ahem, bearing fruit.

Despite the buzz around craft beer, CGA figures for the 2016 calendar year show cider outperforming the total beer category, with a 2% uplift in both value and volume sales in the on-trade.

But the bigging-up of craft shouldn’t undermine the residual dominance of mainstream cider and the popularity of fruit flavoured products.

“Getting a good mainstream offering is really important because it’s 65% of the volume,” says Sherwood-Smith at Strongbow supplier Heineken. “But offering a choice of premium brands is a good way to get trade-up.”

The storming success of Strongbow Dark Fruits has propelled draught fruit cider to three-digit annual growth rates.

“We see an opportunity for the draught fruit arena to diversify and premiumise,” says Bradman at Westons whose Rosie’s Pig comes in Rhubarb, Damson and Raspberry varieties.

“We started off with the idea that it would be a seasonal range for festivals and other events through the summer but it’s been very successful so we’ve made it available throughout the year, with a mulled cider for the winter,” he adds.

“We’ve also introduced a 10-litre bag-in-box in addition to 20-litre, which has opened up the market for us.”

Fruit has been the focus of innovation for Diageo through its entries into the cider category with sub-brands of Smirnoff and Pimm’s. It’s adding to the Smirnoff range this year with Mandarin & Grapefruit.

Katie Hunter, innovation commercialisation manager, says Diageo is looking beyond niche opportunities. “We know that craftsmanship is important across all categories,” she says, “but equally so is accessibility and occasion.

“Compared to beer, craft is extremely small in cider. There is a place for big-name brands to keep doing what they’re doing so well, producing new and exciting ciders and building recognition among customers.”

Fruit has more to offer

Fruit ciders have a lot more to offer in the months and years ahead, according to Kopparberg’s senior marketing manager Rob Salvesen, who says the segment will play a big role in the on-trade in the near future.

“Naturally there is a pendulum swing to be more premium, refreshing and to have lighter bodied drinks in the warmer months and this is where fruit cider excels.”

Cider is associated with good times and social occasions, an ethos that remains unchanged, he adds, and predicts fruit cider will follow in the footsteps of apple when it comes to making products and brands that look more ‘craft’.

“Craft and heritage themes have also long been a trend across many categories over the past few years with consumers becoming increasingly discerning about the products they drink and where they come from,” says Salvesen.

“The fruit cider category will be no different and it’s those brands that can clearly communicate their true heritage and provenance while delivering a great-tasting, premium product that will continue to dominate the fruit cider landscape.”