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Monday, November 17, 2014

What We Can Learn From Mass Market Ciders

Imagine the beer market as a large celestial body with dense gravity.  At the core of that weighty market are drinkers who love love love beer and wouldn't think of drinking something that tasted only beer-esque.  They want the genuine article.  Further out toward the fringes, you have people who dabble in other alcoholic drinks and are amenable to beer-esque drinks. Like me, they may choose from time to time to have a glass of cider, wine, or dram of whisky instead of a beer. Finally, way out on the fringes are people constantly drifting over to cross-over beverages; beer that tastes like margaritas or clams or iced tea. 

The markets flow with the currents.  If the beer market is down, it starts trying to appeal to drinkers beyond the core.  That's what's happening now, as Americans, bored with mass market lagers, drink less and less beer each year.  It can have very positive effects, though; that's the reason people have turned to craft beer.  It can drive breweries to make bad decisions, too, as when they begin to put more and more emphasis on alco-pops, which further undermines the interest in their core products.  (The hard lemonades and shandies are crack to the big companies--easy, short term highs that fall off the cliff after a few years.)

Into this environment comes cider, a beast that is, from the brewer's perspective, neither fish nor fowl.  Cider's an ancient beverage that has national traditions and a distinctly artisanal vein--but it's also an easily-manufactured product that can appeal to those hugely fringey players.  Brewing companies can co-opt the market, but they have to ask themselves: which market?  Will they make an alco-pop, or try to appeal to the core cider drinker and slowly build a market that they might come to dominate in a decade or two?  Is cider good for beer, or will it ultimately become a stiff competitor?  These are not idle questions.  Cider has become a big-ass deal:
As Symphony IRI points out, if hard cider were in the craft beer category, it would rank as the third-largest style behind IPA and seasonal. It also notes that 84% of cider drinkers also drink beer, which means a cider that could appeal equally to both cider drinkers and beer lovers could be a very powerful product in the right hands.
Whether beer guys like it or not, cider has become part of their landscape, and they're going to have to contend with it one way or another. In my constant effort to read the tea leaves, I decided to do a round-up of recent major supermarket-cider releases to see which way the wind was blowing.  Keeping in mind that big drinks companies have millions to spend on R&D and market research, one would think that a theme would be emerging.  It's a testament to the weirdness of cider that they seem to all be headed in different directions.  Here's what I found.

General Word About Mass Market Ciders
Johnny Appleseed
For the past few decades, as ciders have constituted a tiny segment of the drinks market, supermarket cider has been keyed to the flavor notes of soda and aimed squarely at soda drinkers.  It is an engineered product composed of apple juice concentrate (and sometimes, though rarely, a portion of whole juice), sugar, water, malic acid, and natural flavors and aromas.  It generally has no more than 50% actual juice; the rest is flavorings and sugar-water.  It is characterized by sweetness and an artificial candy-like aroma, and usually flavored to make it taste like fresh supermarket apple juice.  (Interestingly, the intense, Jolly-Rancher smell and flavor comes from distillates of apples that are added back in--natural but artificial-tasting.)  Many times I find a chemical quality to these ciders that I assume is the unfortunate side-effect of using such a heavily industrial process. 

That's the baseline drink, one that has had decent success in Britain but been ignored in the US.  Now that cider is growing in popularity here, how are the big breweries responding?

Mass Market, Sure, But Real Cider
The gigantic borg that owns Strongbow (if you trace it back far enough, you come to Heineken) has decided to tempt the market with ciders that actually taste sort of ciderish.  This may not be entirely shocking, because Strongbow is a Bulmers brand, and Bulmers has long had massive contracts with farmers growing proper cider fruit throughout Herefordshire in England.  Strongbow recently introduced two products for the American market, Gold Apple and Honey and Apple. They have the classic sweet hallmarks of traditional mass market ciders, but also contain a fair amount of tannin, presumably from the vast acres in Hereford.  Honey and Apple is made for the soda fans (I think "honey" is a signifier for "sweet").  It has a strange, heavy scent of flowers and over-ripe fruit and has an unpleasant chemical flavor.  Still, the tannins are appreciable and remind you that actual cider is the benchmark here.

Gold Apple is actually kind of pleasant.  It is very pale and has that damnable Jolly Rancher aroma (fortunately, it's volatile, and will dissipate after five minutes or so).  But it has some nice body, a crisp effervescence, a touch of stone-fruit complexity, and is decently balanced thanks to the tannins.  If you're thinking of Ross-on-Wye or Oliver's Ciders, it's pretty dispiriting.  But if you're the kind of person who develops a taste for Gold Apple, you're probably also the kind of person who might find yourself drifting toward more real ciders down the road. 

Doubling Down on Soda Cider
Anheuser-Busch's lunge at the cider money comes in the form of Johnny Appleseed, a name clearly the result of at least two minutes of deep Googling over in the marketing department.  It is pretty much exactly what you would expect, only worse.  It's the most pure reproduction of liquid Jolly Rancher I've ever encountered, from the artificial aroma to the intense candy sweetness (limned by a tiny touch of balancing acidity, same as in the candy).  It's even has the same pale translucence of a candy.  But A-B didn't stop there--it threw in a dash of chemical harshness for good measure.  As I was trying to choke down two swallows for the review, I was prepared to call it the worst cider on the market.  But then I cracked a Smith & Forge and realized that MilerCoors wasn't about to accept second fiddle that easily.

The Malt Liquor Segment of the Cider Market?
I guess MillerCoors decided to carve out a different segment--and they have.  I'm just not sure it's a segment anyone wants to own.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that Smith & Forge was an evocation of the old "New England" ciders that were fortified with brown sugar. I do know better, and I think this is serious over-interpretation.  Smith and Forge is both "made strong" (6%, a tad higher than the others) but also made dark.  There's not a drop of acid or tannin in the cider; instead we are offered the unpleasant cooked aroma and flavor of prunes by way of balance.  The character of sweetness is not candy but molasses.  It is heavy and listless, with almost no fizz.  Appalling and undrinkable.  Choosing between this cider and Johnny Appleseed for the title of "worst" is a real challenge.

In sum: A-B and MillerCoors are peddling an alco-pop they plainly don't expect to survive five years on the market (and neither do I).  The companies made throwaway products for throwaway brands.  If cider ends up getting a decent share of the beer market, Bud and Coors don't plan on participating in it long term.  (And keep in mind they came to the opposite conclusion with beer.  Shock Top and Blue Moon are brands designed to stick around and grow.)  Heineken's calculation seems to be the reverse: cider will be a popular segment in the drinks market, and they want a piece of it along with Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and the like.  Indeed, they really seem to be appropriating the Angry Orchard model whole cloth.  Establishing Strongbow as a line means they can adapt to the changes in the market.  Honey and Apple may be appealing to the same alco-pop market as Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, but they can also release other products, including, presumably, a traditional cider if that's the way the market goes. 

Big beer is happy to cash in on the trend of cider, but for the most part, it doesn't yet seem to think that trend will turn into something substantial.  That could be a pricey assumption.  My guess is that once we've long forgotten about Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, A-B and MillerCoors (or AB MC InBev or whatever) will be back with something new to try to crack the market.


  1. Doesn't Miller Coors also own Crispin? That tends to be less sweet/not the alco-pop model. For a while out here in the Chicago area, they even had a still cider sold in a wine box-- it was acidic and could fool you into thinking you were drinking a German riesling. Their bottles mimic wine bottle in both the shape and label. It suggests that "big beer" understand types of cider can appeal to different markets.


  2. Wow, please pardon my grammar! Thanks!


  3. Hmm, that's interesting. I drink a fair amount of cider as well as beer over here in Scotland (not classic cider country admittedly). Every supermarket has an own label cider, usually sold in large bottles and pretty cheap (say $4-5 for 2 litres). They will be at least a bit appley and drinkable enough and generally dry. Most shops will also have a range of proper ciders available as well as Irish "cooking cider" (ie Magner's) and its copies. And in addition extremely cheap ciders and also extra strong tramp juice. And pear ciders (and occasionally proper perry).

    And also some Swedish-derived fruit ciders which are mostly sweet and sometimes verge on the alcopoppy. None of which, I think, will taste anything like the abominations you have described. In fact, the only thing I can think of, available over here, is the drink launched last year called Hornsby's. Classic American cider. It's revolting. No wonder cider has been unpopular.