One of the laziest devices in journalism is to proclaim that something is the new something else. Private Eye even has an occasional column that keeps us up to date on what is this week’s ‘new black’.
I’ve always tried to avoid saying that ‘beer is the new wine’, because it is poor writing, and because it is not true. And this year I’m hoping to avoid causing anyone to proclaim that ‘cider is the new beer’ when I finally finish my new book, World’s Best Cider.
There’s already been a lot of that kind of talk in recent weeks, thanks to a new Mintel report on the UK cider market, which much of the media misinterpreted as claiming that sales of cider have overtaken those of beer.
It’s claims like this that make some brewers look at me coldly when I tell them I’m writing a book on cider. Some even see it as a betrayal, which I find strange given that I’m not actually part of the beer industry, but an independent writer.
Cider is not bigger than beer, and it never will be. In volume terms, UK sales are still only £2.4bn compared to £11.2bn for lager.
What the report actually said is that, for the first time (in the modern era, at least), more people are drinking cider than lager. That distinction tells us some pretty interesting things about both drinks.
Firstly, why are more people drinking cider than lager?
Because cider has unisex appeal. Men think of it as a perfectly acceptable substitute for lager, while women are not alienated by it. Given that, at the most mainstream end of the market, the difference between leading lager brands and leading cider brands is minimal — both are ice-cold, fizzy and refreshing and don’t taste of much — this proves that beer’s failure to attract women is due to an image problem.
Cider has managed to build male appeal without pissing off women. Instead of attacking cider for its success, any beer brewer or marketer unhappy about these latest figures should take a long hard look at themselves.
But secondly, if more people are drinking cider than lager, how come cider is still only a fraction of the size of lager? Obviously, that’s because, on average, we drink far less cider than we do lager. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, cider is more seasonal — people switch to it in warm weather. Secondly, cider’s strength is that it can substitute not only for lager, but also for ale and wine. But that strength is also a weakness — people can switch out of cider into those other drinks just as easily as they switched in. And thirdly, apart from a few toothless headbangers, most people find that cider simply is not a session drink the way beer is.
The first pint is bliss. The second one starts to give you a sugary build-up that rattles your teeth and rumbles your stomach. Any more than that is more than enough. As I’ve travelled round the world researching my book, even the most passionate cider maker switches to beer if our tasting session turns into a full-on evening.
The Mintel report also revealed that cider struggles to be seen as a premium drink. This reveals another weakness behind cider’s recent success. Innovation in the category has been at the lower end, and the most dynamic sector of the market isn’t true cider at all, but alcopops wearing a fresh set of clothes.
The aggressive marketing behind them is already turning flavoured ciders into a fad that will not last. The premium end of the market has hardly been touched, and this is where producers and retailers really need to be looking if they want the market to sustain its success.
In a beleaguered drinks world, it’s easy to see people close to you as ‘the enemy’. Cider is not the enemy of beer. Each drink has different strengths and does different things. Rather than being suckered into fighting each other, beer and cider should look at their relationship and each use it to recognise what’s best in themselves.
And more importantly, pubs need to recognise that a decent range of each is important. If you pride yourself on your cask-ale selection and interesting range of bottled beers, do you really think complementing that with Magners and a couple of Swedish alcopops in disguise is enough?
Cider is coming of age, and good cider is complementary to good beer. When pubs offer a good range of both, that can only be a good thing for drinkers and publicans alike.