As announced on Sunday (7 January), Suffolk-based cider business Aspall Cyder is to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of brewing giant Molson Coors.
The deal brings to an end eight generations of family-ownership for Aspall, and while Barry and Henry Chevalier Guild will remain involved with the company as ambassadors, the entire Aspall operation and portfolio will now be run and owned by Molson Coors.
The Aspall deal was conducted amicably and concluded with minimal fuss, and with cider continuing to show strong growth in the on-trade (overall sales were up 2.8% according to The Drinks List), this raises the question about the possibility of further buyouts in the cider sector.
However, according to cider expert Gabe Cook, we should not be anticipating that AB InBev will come in with an offer for Tom Oliver’s Vintage Cider and Perry any time soon.
“I think this is going to be a relatively unusual case, and I personally don't think we are going to see a slew of other mid-sized family producers getting snapped up by brewers,” he said. “It’s really important to point out that rather than this being a case of a big brewer aggressively going in and bullying a smaller cider maker into submission, this has entirely been driven by Aspall themselves.
“They have reached a point where in order for them to continue their growth they felt they needed some outside assistance, both in finance and also logistics and distribution etc.”
Other family-owned cider producers have also moved to quash any potential rumours they will follow Aspall and sell out. Martin Thatcher congratulated Aspall on its sale, but stressed family would remain at the heart of the Thatchers business.
“Henry and Barry should be congratulated for the fantastic job they’ve done in building up the Aspall’s business over recent years both in the UK and abroad," he said. "The cider industry in the UK has very special qualities, many of our cidermakers have been here for generations which brings a particular dynamic to the industry, and we all want to see it continue to thrive. Continued investment is essential.
"For us at Thatchers, it has always been about family, we have a fifth generation waiting to play their part in the business, and that remains a central part of our ethos.”
Westons' commerical director Geoff Bradman also welcomed the purchase of Aspall by Molson Coors, but maintained that it was "business as usual" for the Herefordshire cider maker.
“This news is not a surprise as Aspall has been under pressure in the recent past and was in need of an injection of investment in order to maintain its market position," he said. "Whilst it’s the latest in a long line of industry consolidation, it’s really positive for the premium cider category that Molson Coors has already signalled its intention to invest in the Aspall Cyder business and premium cider market.
"Molson Coors already has an excellent representation in the premium cider category with Sharp’s Orchard and Rekorderlig and it will be interesting to see how it balances its cider portfolio in light of this acquisition.
"As far as Westons is concerned it is business as usual for us as we continue with our successful strategy, and grow our business and market share. Our strategic intent is to maintain our position as the leading independent family-owned cider business and this remains a key priority for us.”
Maintaining high value perception key
As ever when a larger company buys out a smaller drinks producer, Cook predicted that there would inevitably be concerns over quality, and urged Molson Coors not to change Aspall’s recipes. “If I were them I would just leave the brothers well alone to continue making the bloody good ciders that they have been doing for the last 20 years or so,” he said.
“If they start interfering, tinkering, forcing them to cut corners by what they call 'value engineering' then there will be a noticeable decline in quality. It is up to them to take it down whatever path they see fit.”
Looking more broadly at what the Aspall sale means for the industry, Cook predicted things could go one of two ways.
“Molson Coors have purchased a producer that has a high value perception with organic at the heart of what they do, which should be viewed as a positive, as long as the product does not drastically drop in price” he said. “If one of the bastions of a high-quality product suddenly becomes really cheap then I don't think that does any good for the value perception of the category.”
Prior to the sale, a number of options, including crowdfunding, had been looked at to grow Aspall’s business in the future. Cook added that he hoped this indicated the cider industry would start to see some of the levels of investment enjoyed by craft beer breweries in recent years, but stressed that small-batch cider and craft beer remained very different.
“I so very clearly see an opportunity for these high-value ciders to fulfil some of the activity that beer has been on the receiving end of in the past five years,” he said. “There is a great opportunity and I sincerely hope this will catalyse the interest of other brewers or investors in producers of a smaller scale, who have real integrity and who are making really idiosyncratic and flavoursome products.”
“However, the crucial thing to remember is that from a volume term, what constitutes a small brewer and a small cider maker are incredibly different because of the nature of the product,” he continued. “Smaller cider makes are making their product with an annual and seasonal timescale, and the potential volume of a cider maker is always going to be that much smaller than that of a brewer.”