The American cider industry is growing—in volume, as well as diversity. “Over the last two years we have really started to see the regional cider makers [taking] share away from the big cider makers,” said Gregory Hall, founder of Virtue Cider in Fennville, Michigan. “I think the ’20s are going to be the decade of cider.”
A range of other cider experts and panelists convened at the 10th annual CiderCon in Oakland, California, earlier this year. Hosted by the American Cider Association (ACA), the conference attracted more than 1,000 attendees and members from 11 countries and 35 states.
Although hard cider represents a mere 1 percent of the overall alcohol beverage industry in the U.S., the category has grown 10 times its size over the last decade, said Danny Brager, senior vice president of beverage alcohol and cannabis practices for Nielsen. According to the firm’s data, local and regional cider sales are up 15 percent year-over-year, and nearly half of the top 50 cider brands show double-digit growth in off-premise sales.
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As the category continues to grow, evolve, and compete, CiderCon’s panelists predicted many of the category trends the industry can expect to see in 2020 and beyond.
Traditionalists vs. the New School
Even longtime cider professionals disagree on the exact definition of cider: Must cider be made from only the juice of apples or pears? At what point do additions like hops or fruit shift the beverage out of cider completely? How do traditional beer brewers or winemakers fit into the category? ACA leaders spoke about the need for a collective movement. “Cider is stronger together,” said Michelle McGrath, ACA’s executive director.
Panelists from the United Kingdom—the world’s largest producer and consumer of cider—said the split between cider traditionalists (who believe true cider is made exclusively of apples or pears) and others (who believe the category should have more flexible parameters) leads to further confusion.
Yet many believe that more flexibility is required in order for the category to attract new consumers. “New drinkers are looking to the future, not the past,” said Gabe Cook (a.k.a. The Ciderologist) during the panel discussion “The Full Juice: An Update on Grassroots U.K. Cider Projects.”
Innovation is vital to cider’s continued success, believes Brager, as it will enable a wider range of flavors, ingredients, and ABV levels. The largest share of cider drinkers are under the age of 30, according to Nielsen’s data, and Brager says it’s a group that values premiumization of product and a variety of styles above strict terminology.
Many American producers are answering this call with expanded, less conventional offerings such as Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider’s barrel-aged ciders, Ulee’s Light Cider’s low-calorie ciders, wild-fermented ciders like Arlo from Shacksbury, and even CBD-infused ciders like Otto’s.
Other cider producers are taking advantage of category overlap by tapping into the explosive popularity of hard seltzer. “Cider drinkers don’t only drink cider,” Brager said. And indeed, Nielsen’s off-premise retail numbers show 19 percent of cider drinkers drink hard seltzer, and 18 percent of hard seltzer drinkers drink cider. Brager expects those numbers to increase as “that category continues to explode.” Cider brands such as Bold Rock and Austin Eastciders are currently making seltzers and he predicts more brands will emerge and capture consumer overlap between the two segments.
Playing into the Wellness Trend
Consumers are increasingly seeking “better for you” experiences in food and drink, and that spills over into cider. Brager says that people are no longer as fixated on the base liquid as the primary purchasing factor; rather, they’re looking at the calorie or carbohydrate count, ABV, gluten content, and natural ingredients.
This, coupled with Nielsen’s data indicating that 66 percent of drinkers between the ages 21 and 34 are making an effort to reduce their overall alcohol consumption for health reasons, means cider’s relatively transparent and simple list of base ingredients—pomme fruit and yeast—makes it an attractive alternative to other alcoholic beverages.
Overall, “low-alcohol conversations are up 400 percent in the last two years,” said Devon Bergman of Social Standards, a consumer insights company, during his panel, “Cider Adjacent: Emerging Beverage Alcohol Trends” at CiderCon. In addition to low ABV and carbohydrates, he said the market can expect to see more gluten-free and non-GMO ciders.
New Flavors, New Packages
The emergence of rosé cider has been successful in bringing wine drinkers into the cider category. “We started making [rosé cider] in 2013,” said Hall. “It brought a whole set of new people into cider.”
Though it hit its peak in 2015, according to Nielsen off-premise data, rosé cider remains an important subset of the cider segment. It’s among Nielsen’s biggest cider off-premise subsegments (followed by pineapple-flavored cider and hopped cider) and numerous brands offer rosé versions, including Angry Orchard, Virtue Cider, and Finger Lakes Cider House.
As in beer, wine, and ready-to-drink cocktails, cider in a can has enjoyed market growth—comprising 37 percent of the overall category (beer commands 42 percent of canned beverages and wine less than 1 percent). Canned cider cocktails such as Peak Brewing’s Highball line are poised to capture a crossover market; 22 percent of cocktail drinkers ages 21 to 34 told Nielsen they drink cider cocktails.
Embrace the Craft Beer Path
“Beer is never going to go away…. but cider is going to have diversity, too,” predicted Virtue Cider’s Hall. As the former brewmaster at Goose Island (which was purchased by A-B InBev in 2011, and A-B InBev then bought a majority stake in Virtue in 2015), Hall is familiar with the craft beer trajectory and borrows much from that playbook (for example, using only apples sourced from Michigan). Hall challenged cider makers to take inspiration from craft beer’s business model, relying on local ingredients and having more direct engagement with consumers. “I’d love to see more cider pubs out there and more cider fests… That’s the path craft beer took—going from oddity to more mainstream.”
Crafting the Future of the American Cider Industry
In her capacity as head of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, Michelle McGrath is helping define what American cider is—and what it can be
Sam Perry, co-founder and manager of Colorado’s Fenceline Cider, agreed. Speaking in CiderCon’s panel discussion “Narrative of Place,” he said, “Anyone starting a cidery should invest in a taproom. It’s a whole different ball game.” Cideries like Potter’s Craft Cider in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Calico Cidery in Julian, California, have recently embraced the tasting room concept to build their consumer base. Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery believes this can provide the opportunity to speak to “flavor lovers and beer lovers outside our [cider] bubble.”
In the end, Hall believes cider can leverage the best of multiple other segments to create an entirely new experience. “We have regions where we grow the apples [and] have a very specific type of cider that’s produced there [like wine], and we can also follow the brewery model, where we just make really great ciders with the best ingredients we can track down from all over the world… I think that is where we have both advantages: We can be local, but we can also be a product of the terroir more than malts and hops.”
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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.