Hard cider is filling more Americans’ beer glasses

It now garners a mere fraction of market share, but some big brewers are making major moves to expand its reach.

By Jason Notte Apr 5, 2013 10:54AM
File photo of a pint of cider (© Michelle McMahon/Flickr Open/Getty Images)In Ireland, the U.K. and elsewhere, beer and hard cider coexist peacefully on adjacent taps at the local pub as equals. Hard cider hasn't quite earned that respect in the U.S., but it's coming.

The Craft Brew Alliance (BREW), which produces Widmer Brothers, Redhook and Kona beers, announced the launch of its Square Mile Cider Company brand on Tuesday, and it says original and Spur and Vine varieties should be available on the West Coast starting in May.

That in itself isn't such a big deal. But added to Samuel Adams producer Boston Beer's (SAM) jump into the cider industry, Anheuser-Busch InBev's (BUD) cider experiments and a recent spate of cider company buyouts, these are big moves by brewers to get a small piece of a growing segment.

Hard cider accounts for less than 1% of the total U.S. beer market, according to market research firm Symphony IRI. However, cider sales in chain and convenience stores brought in $450 million in 2011 and jumped 84.5% last year. That outpaces the 1.5% growth of the overall beer market, the 5.6% growth of wine and even the 17% growth of craft beer during the same span.

According to market research firm Nomura Research, beer companies have a whole lot of incentive to pick apples and get into the cider game. Roughly half of cider's drinkers are women, who make up only about 20% of all beer buyers and drinkers. Cider also sells for an average of $35 a case, well above the $29-a-case paid for imported beers and the $33 brought in by craft beer.

Simply put, cider expands both demographics and income while still pouring the same 4.5% to 6.5% alcohol by volume served to the average beer drinker.

It hasn't taken long for brewers to figure this out. In February 2012, MolsonCoors (TAP) and SABMiller joint U.S. venture Miller Coors bought Minnesota-based craft cider producer Crispin for a reported $40 million. They plan to put it in their Tenth and Blake stable of craft and import beers. Last April, Boston Beer launched its Angry Orchard cider brands, which leaped into Nielsen's (NLSN) Top 10 beer growth brands by year-end. Angry Orchard grabbed 0.1% of the beer market's volume and 0.2% of its share, which is noteworthy because all ciders combined made up 0.2% of the beer market in 2011.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, meanwhile, quietly launched its Michelob Ultra Light Hard Cider, but it stayed relatively quiet compared to the biggest player in the cider industry. Ireland's C&C Group -- which already produces Bulmer's and Magners ciders -- dipped a toe into the U.S. cider industry in 2011 by paying $25 million for California-based Hornsby's ciders. It made a far bigger splash in December, when it purchased Woodchuck Cider maker Vermont Hard Cider Co. for $305 million.

Does any of this make cider any more respected or normal than it was in years past? The growth and evolution of cider in the last decade or so say yes. Once a syrupy sweet concession to young non-beer drinkers, cider has learned from small beer brewers and began offering seasonal and specialty batches flavored with maple, ginger and elderflower.

When Square Mile Cider launches from its home base in Portland, Ore., it will be surrounded by small West Coast ciders like Ace, Spire, Tieton, Blue Mountain and Wandering Aengus, and may even find its way into Bushwhacker Cider, Portland's cider-only taphouse.

Cider may not be in America's beer club yet, but drinkers are definitely saving it a place at the bar.

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Apr 5, 2013 11:35AM
My wife and I have enjoyed many Woodchucks over the last few years after she sampled some hard pear cider in Ireland before we met.  Good stuff, sad to hear they were bought out by macrobrew Budweiser.
Apr 5, 2013 12:01PM
Next time any of you are in an Irish bar try a Magners in a glass of ice !! Good stuff !

Good article !
Apr 5, 2013 3:09PM
1/2 cider, 1/2 guiness...I love guiness and I thought it would ruin it...I learned this in London...fantastic.
Apr 5, 2013 3:04PM
If you ever get a chance try a hard dickens cider its a real pick me up
Apr 5, 2013 2:51PM
I like a good cider every now and then.  A Welsh pub opened up near me in Brooklyn a couple years ago, sometimes I order a Strongbow Cider with my English Breakfast.  I also enjoy Angry Orchard, which I believe is the one mentioned above by Boston Beer
Apr 5, 2013 3:36PM
The absolute best cider around is Kopparberg.  It's a swedish cide imported currently only found in GA, AL, TN, FL and NY.  However, it is fastly making it's presence known.  Once you taste it there will be no need to try some of the other ciders.
Apr 8, 2013 7:46PM

No thanks, I'll take a WICKED HARD instead...

Apr 5, 2013 10:01PM

We were drinking hard cider 50-100 years ago, just a batch that went bad...


Hard Cider, hard Lemonade, hard Strawberry and Cranberry...

What the hell will they try and bottle next and then the idiots will slurp it up saying how great it is for 6 months to 2 years.....I just love it...

Yuppyville or Gen Y'ers at their best.

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