Cider: a comeback on the way?

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There's much more to cider than most customers see behind the bar but the drink is facing a difficult fight.Sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. The...

There's much more to cider than most customers see behind the bar but the drink is facing a difficult fight.

Sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. The Normans first introduced cider to Britain almost a thousand years ago. By the 17th Century it had become such an integral part of the English way of life that cider was taxed, regularly paid in tythes to the church and even used as part of a farm labourer's wages. Its high Vitamin C content meant it also gained a following among sailors, who drank it not just to get merry but rather to prevent developing scurvy while at sea. A tall story, if ever I heard one.

However, since its heyday as the so-called "wine of England," cider has become a drink dogged by anecdote, stereotype and the emergence of fierce competition. It has long been associated with images of straw-chewing village idiots shouting "Get aaaaaarf moi land," and rose-tinted memories of underage drinking and teenage tomfoolery.

In addition to this image, the huge popularity of lager and the meteoric rise of premium packaged spirits such as Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice has further upset the apple cart and sent the category into a two and a half year period of decline between 1996 and 1998 from which it has yet to fully recover.

Despite the current one to two per cent annual slump, industry observers predict a rosy future for the cider market. A broader review of trends reveals that cider production in the UK has doubled over the last 20 years. Nigel Freer, chief executive of Merrydown, said: "If you look at the cider market over the past 40 years, it has been in long-term growth during that period. It is going through a bit of a blip at the moment, but one has to believe it will continue in growth over time."

Spurred on by the fact that 2.2 million people, 11 per cent of adults in the UK, drink a glass of cider every week, cider makers and producers are continuing their investment plans and there are distinct signs of improvement given the right conditions.

The major companies like Matthew Clark, Bulmers and Merrydown have been heavily investing in major brands over the last 12 months, and over the last five years, the top three draught cider brands have increased their share of the total draught cider market from 66 per cent to 83 per cent.

Despite this growth, Freer warned that the industry was putting too much money into promotional discounting of cider rather than innovative marketing.

"The cider market has been a fairly aggressive market for some time now," said Freer. "But it's a market where the bulk of investment is being spent on promotional activity, while most of us would like to be going in for more innovation and credibility.

"Anyone who owns a brand would rather see money going into creative communication with the consumer," Freer added.

The Merrydown Group has been turned around since it fell into the red four years ago after investing too heavily in alcopops. Safely in the black now, the company is working closely with Kent-based brewer Shepherd Neame to increase on-trade cider sales in the South East, and in the summer it launched a premium extension, Merrydown Classic.

Adorned in a sleek black bottle, Classic has adopted a totally new approach to the traditional cider market by getting together with Ann Summers, the risqué lingerie specialist, in an attempt to target its core (no pun intended) 25 to 35-year-old female target audience.

Freer said: "In the on-trade, cider is something of the Cinderella of the draught category. While other cider brands appear to be addressing this issue by treating cider as 'lager made from apples', we are offering a high quality refreshing drink that makes a real virtue out of its heritage and is made only from apples good enough to eat."

This approach is at odds with Bulmers which positions its Strongbow cider in the "long alcoholic drinks" category alongside lager and ale. A high profile advertising campaign and sponsorship of the high-flying Leeds United football team, has seen Strongbow become the 10th best selling long alcoholic drink in the UK.

Rival Matthew Clark has also stepped up support for both its Blackthorn and Red C draught brands, as well as its bottled white ciders like Diamond White and K6. Earlier this year, Matthew Clark added the energy drink Diamond Red to its portfolio accompanied by a massive £1.3million marketing spend over the summer months.

As the top few brands march forward to do battle with beers, lagers and PPSs, there are many that fear the smaller, niche ciders will suffer. One of the particular attributes of cider is its diversity and its broad appeal to a wide range of consumers who prefer different cider styles.

Helen Thomas, managing director of Westons cider - an independent cider maker based in Herefordshire that has achieved a listing with the leading JD Wetherspoon pub company - pointed to variety as the key to cider success. "People just don't know enough about cider," she said. "Publicans should put more variety behind the bar and offer a wider selection. As things stand, for every six beers there seems to be only one cider, but you need to broaden the choice to create interest"

Cider, like wine, can offer something for every type of palate. A diverse choice ranges from sweet to dry, still to sparkling, subtle and slight to full-bodied and hearty, and includes white ciders, cloudy ciders, light ciders and, more recently, organic ciders.

Adventurous drinkers can also trade up from mainstream blended brands, made from a variety of apples, to connoisseur "single varietal" ciders that are made using only one kind of apple.

However, this eclectic range is in danger of thinning out as smaller brands struggle to compete under market conditions that favour an increasingly strong lager market. Speaking at the Parliamentary Cider Group annual meeting, recently held in the House of Commons, the group chief executive of HP Bulmer Holdings, Michael Hughes, warned that unless there was a reduction in the government's crippling duty rates, a number of UK cider makers would suffer.

"Cider is an essential British tradition, and we should be proud of the cider we produce," said Hughes. "But the rate of overall duty is simply too high and it is seriously damaging our industry. We are up against the stronger power of beer and lager, a power that is restrictive and does not profit the consumer.

"We are further disadvantaged by the fact that the raw materials needed to make a pint of cider cost twice that of a pint of lager, and the length of the investment cycle is substantially greater. When you plant an orchard, it takes seven years before anything is paid back."

Currently nearly half of all the apples grown in the UK are used for cider production and the industry has a long tradition of playing an important role in the rural economy. With current conditions in agriculture, the importance of cider-making to the rural economy is greater than ever.

Helen Thomas added: "We use 200 growers, all of whom are local farmers owning anything from small orchards to huge acres. The government should look at the long term advantages. By reducing the duty on cider, it will allow producers to compete with other categories and encourage more people to buy cider. Which, in turn, will benefit the countryside hugely. Cider is an important part of British heritage and it would be silly to sell it short."

It's clear that cider has the potential to offer so much more than at present as a genuine alternative to either beer or wine and as a credible accompaniment to food.

So dismiss those images of country bumpkins and memories of vomiting over your first love aged 13 and embrace the joys of cider. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your country.

Related topics: Beer, Cider

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