Commercial cider in the U.S. tends to be painted with a broad brush by many consumers: a sweet, sugary drink meant for autumn. But as the cider segment evolves, so does the consumer demand for variety. Cider’s slow but steady growth has come by expanding on the light, bubbly sessionability for which it’s associated into higher ABV options. Enter: imperial cider.
The term “imperial cider” was first used in 2010 by 2 Towns Ciderhouse in Corvallis, Oregon, to launch The Bad Apple, their 10.5% ABV cider made with Northwest apples and Meadowfoam honey, and since then countless others have joined the subcategory’s ranks. Imperial cider is defined by alcohol-by-volume rather than flavor, and is typically 8% ABV or higher. It is now the fastest growing style in total beer sales in the U.S. per IRI data, according to the American Cider Association (ACA), showing year-on-year growth of 111 percent.
As cider in the U.S. matures, the growing strength of imperial cider is influencing the cider industry in profound ways, changing the way cider makers operate as they respond to consumer demand for higher-alcohol options.
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An Expanding Category
The original definition for imperial cider coined by 2 Towns has largely held, according to marketing director Danelle Kronmiller, “both internally at 2 Towns and in the industry at large,” and it remains a leader in the category. 2 Towns’ Cosmic Crisp is the top-selling imperial cider SKU in the U.S., according to IRI data, and its success inspired the launch of the Imperial Cosmic Explorer line in 2022.
Schilling Cider in Seattle, Washington, has added its own interpretation to the style. “For us, imperial cider means a cider where you add extra ingredients to achieve a higher ABV than the apple juice would ferment to on its own,” says Schilling cofounder and CEO Colin Schilling. “We import bitter sharp and bittersweet cider-specific concentrated apple juice from Europe which we then add to our fresh pressed juice in order to boost the potential alcohol, then we add an heirloom-style tannin structure we love in an imperial cider.”
He says the top-selling cider in the Schilling portfolio is their Excelsior Imperial Apple (8.4% ABV), Schilling’s first imperial cider available in a six-pack upon its launch in 2018.
More cideries across the U.S. have also clued in to imperial cider’s appeal, including: Square Mile Cider in Portland, Oregon; Bold Rock Cider with cideries in North Carolina and Virginia; and Blake’s Cider in Armada, Michigan, all of which prioritize imperial ciders in their lineup. Some have adjusted operations to meet current and projected demand. Kronmiller says 2 Towns recently added another building to their campus “to accommodate growing demand,” while Texas’ Austin Eastciders has gone even further. “Operations have expanded to include updated blending notes, adjustments to product priority in our production line, and staff training to help support the success of our Imperial Line. We also updated our cartoning equipment to support a new four-pack package size for this line,” says Erika Guin, the operations manager.
The Value Proposition of Imperial Cider
This consumer emphasis on high-alcohol options is not unique to cider, says Joe Gaynor, the cider maker at Angry Orchard in Walden, New York, the largest cider company in the U.S. “Higher, imperial ABV options are growing across many categories, including beer, flavored malt beverages, and cider,” he explains. He says after witnessing imperial cider become the lead growth driver in the cider category, Angry Orchard launched their Hardcore Dark Cherry Apple Hard Cider in 2022 as the brand’s first nationally available 8% ABV cider.
“Imperial ciders offer a shopper value proposition that most ciders, beers, and seltzers can’t. Especially in the crowded alcohol space, value without sacrificing on quality is key.” – Joe Gaynor, Angry Orchard
With market conditions such as high inflation and a plethora of product choice, drinkers increasingly seek the best value in their purchases, which can translate to higher ABV. “Imperial ciders offer a shopper value proposition that most ciders, beers, and seltzers can’t. Especially in the crowded alcohol space, value without sacrificing on quality is key,” says Gaynor.
Guin says Austin Eastciders aims to appeal to consumers who want to try something new that’s intensely flavored, but perhaps wish to limit their intake. “People want to feel that they are getting what they pay for,” she says. “Products with a higher ABV provide more bang for your buck which engages consumers concerned with cost or who otherwise don’t want to drink large volumes.”
She goes on to add that they also look to other categories, such as ready-to-drink cocktails, for clues on what’s trending. Imperial offerings are providing an opportunity for makers in emerging segments like cider to insert their products in new-to-them occasions, taking the place of other premium products.
“Imperial products draw the attention of a slightly different demographic and are typically associated with drinking to celebrate a specific occasion or when drinking in higher-energy, social groups,” says Guin.
Removing the Roadblocks to Ciders’ Growth
Kronmiller says it took years of lobbying to get the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to sign off on using the word “imperial” on cider labels. But even after that happened in 2014, the imperial cider subcategory still faced regulatory hurdles.
Schilling points to a number of legal changes that have helped imperial cider to grow. “Around 2017, the TTB updated the definition of hard cider to include ciders up to 8.5% ABV from 7% from a tax class perspective,” he says. While that only applied to ciders with no additional fruit added (which excluded fruit-flavored cider), it reduced the tax structure for higher-ABV ciders to bring it more in line with beer rather than wine.
Then, in 2021, the TTB updated their standards of fill to include 12-ounce cans. Previously, the requirements for compliance were 375 milliliters, which did not correspond with many standard packaging materials. This update greatly streamlined logistics for cider makers and allowed the sub-category to flourish.
According to 13-week IRI data on the cider category in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, ciders between 7.1% and 8% ABV were the biggest category by dollar sales, roughly doubling after the 12-ounce format was approved.
“After 12-ounce cans were allowed to be used for imperial cider, many other cider makers entered the category, leading to even more rapid growth,” Schilling explains. There are still some restrictions—no standards of fill approval for 16-ounce or 19.2-ounce ciders or inclusion of fruit-flavored imperial ciders under the same tax structure—but makers remain hopeful more change is coming as organizations like the ACA continue to lobby the TTB.
The Future of Imperial Cider Is Bright
While some cider sub-categories are experiencing stagnation or losses, such as citrus- or stone fruit-based ciders, imperial cider’s expansive growth offsets much of this as the category as a whole continues to grow. Even Angry Orchard, American cider’s Goliath, is betting big on imperial ciders. “We see imperial cider as a great opportunity for growth on a national scale,” says Gaynor.
Kronmiller estimates 40 percent of 2 Towns’ current portfolio is imperial cider, but predicts it will go higher. “We see that growing alongside market demand,” she says. Based on imperial cider’s success to date, Guin says Austin Eastciders also plans to invest even more in the category, adding more imperial flavors and updating production to meet demand. She’s optimistic about the future. “We feel that this type of product is one worth the investment,” she says.
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Beth Demmon is an award-winning freelance writer that specializes in covering the culture of craft beer and cider. She’s a BJCP-certified judge, Certified Cider Professional, and winner of the 2019 Diversity in Beer Writing grant from the North American Guild of Beer Writers; her work can be found at Good Beer Hunting, San Diego Magazine, and many other publications. Her free monthly newsletter on Substack, Prohibitchin’, features interviews with women and non-binary people working in beverage alcohol.