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Best of British

Published:  23 July, 2008

A decade ago, cider had hit rock bottom. A new drinks category had emerged: the alcopop. Brands like Two Dogs and Hooch quickly made inroads into the market, and cider was the main casualty. By the turn of the millennium, alcopop sales had overtaken cider for the first time.

Cider's problem was mainly one of image. In some quarters, it had long been seen as a potent drink for youngsters seeking a quick fix of alcohol for not very much money - or the chosen tipple of your average park-bench tenant. As cider sales fell, the alcopop brands moved in - Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer, Metz, WKD, to name but a few - and took control.

But fast-forward to 2006, and cider sales have now overtaken alcopops once more, and with double-digit annual growth, cider is the fastest-growing category in the country. The total UK market is up 6% by volume and 14% by value. This growth is being led by the on-trade, where the increases are 11% by volume and 16% by value (4% and 9% respectively in the off-trade). So, how did cider reach its current position, and what's changed?

John Mills, managing director of Gaymer Cider Company, believes drinkers simply became fed up with RTDs and wanted something different. He says: There is a new generation coming in who are starting to drink new things; they don't want to drink what their older brother has been drinking. That's really opened the door. There's a genuine consumer trend away from fabricated, confected, "I'm not sure if there's any rum/vodka in that"-type drinks.'

Simon Russell, who represents the National Association of Cider Makers (NACM), describes the modern-day cider drinker as part of the maturing alcopop generation', and says there's a cross-section of the drinking public who think about quality and provenance': Cider's got a strong story,' he says. People know it's very natural, they know it's made from apples, and most of the innovation is from within the category.'

Another key contributor to cider's revival has been the Magners brand, owned by the C&C Group. A spokeswoman for Magners modestly claims that the brand has helped to deliver a rebirth' for the cider category, but there's no doubting its impact, not least due to its advertising and its (now much-copied) suggestion to serve the product in a pint glass over ice.

Volume sales of Magners increased by 130% last year, and the brand currently enjoys a 1.3% market share in London and 3% in Scotland. The company also claims that financial analysts have predicted that the brand will gain a 10% overall UK market share within the next 10 years. For the uninitiated, Magners is an Irish cider that is called Bulmers in Ireland, but was rebranded in the UK to avoid confusion with the UK Bulmers brand, which is owned by Scottish & Newcastle (S&N). C&C says that by offering Magners to the UK, it is offering something new' to UK drinkers, and that it is made with a higher percentage of fresh apple juice than other ciders.

Opinion is divided among C&C's rivals regarding the over-ice concept, but it is interesting to note that S&N is now recommending serving its Strongbow Sirrus brand and its revamped Bulmers Original cider over ice in a pint glass. Chris Carr,

MD of Merrydown, believes it would be churlish' to criticise the concept, and also admits he wished he'd thought of it himself, but he does say: As a cider maker, I think it's better to have it nice and cold from the fridge, instead of over ice - ice dilutes it, and it begins to get a bit watery.'

John Mills thinks the ice option is a little faddish', and points out that one of its own new brands, Gaymer's Original, is packaged in a green bottle, which he feels is more appealing to women, as opposed to an ale-brown bottle'. He is, however, very complimentary about Magners, and he praises its superbly effective' advertising, and the alcohol level of 4.5%. Gaymer's Original is one of three new premium brands for the company, alongside Orchard Reserve and Addlestones, launched as part of a 24 million promotional campaign from Gaymer.

Food for thought

One aspect of the cider industry now that contrasts enormously with 10-20 years ago is the efforts of producers to convince the consumer of how well it goes with food. While it's true that, as yet, there is no equivalent to The Beer To Dine For, the packaging of cider, at least, has moved closer to that of wine, with plenty of 750ml bottles on the shelves, and suggested food matches on back labels. Gaymer's Orchard Reserve range is packaged in 750ml bottles, while the Thatcher's range looks far more at home in the wine aisles of a supermarket than it does dumped next to the beers.

One sommelier at a top London restaurant I spoke to recently said she could never envisage adding cider to her wine list; nor could she imagine customers choosing a cider, no matter how expensive, instead of wine to accompany a meal at her restaurant. But Simon Russell of the NACM believes that there are many parallels between wine and cider: Cider has quite a lot in common with the winemaking process, unlike beer, which is, dare I say it, a rather bizarre cooking process. With a staple raw ingredient of more than 365 cider apple varieties, each with different levels of astringency, bitterness, sweetness and tannin, we've got a very broad palate of flavours - anything from light, fruity drinks that work well on a summer's day, to others with real depth and body. Single varietals help to illustrate the point that cider is not just medium-sweet or dry any more. There's more to it than that.'

The Thatcher's company is perhaps the best-known proponent of single-varietal ciders, and MD Martin Thatcher says the company made a conscious decision to position its products to go with food. He says that cider's low alcohol level, in comparison with wine, makes it a good alternative: The concept of a single-varietal cider, where just one type of apple is used in the production, allows the consumer to select the style of cider to suit their menu choice - just as they would do with their wine. We also looked carefully at the design of the packaging for our Single Varietal range - the sleek, contemporary design of the bottle and label was purposefully created to set them apart from other ciders. The elegant style sits easily on a dining table - and the 75cl bottle for Katy and Coxs lends itself to sharing.'

Merrydown's Chris Carr remains unconvinced, and thinks the comparatively low cost of cider will put diners off ordering a bottle to accompany their meal. Moreover, he thinks that cider is inherently more quaffable', and somehow doesn't feel quite right' in a dining context.

Another area of innovation can be found with the Brothers range of ciders, which were launched nationwide following public demand. Brothers Pear Cider has been served at the Glastonbury Festival for the past 10 years, and the company says it was overwhelmed' by telephone enquiries from punters who wanted to know where they could buy the product. Brothers now produces 140 million bottles a year, including pear, apple, and pear and strawberry ciders, and has continued its musical origins through one of its websites - - which provides gig reviews and tips on new bands.

Thatcher's is also experimenting with new concepts. The company already sells a cider aged in rum barrels, and has an exhibition orchard in which more than

400 varieties of apple tree are grown for research into cultivation. This year will see the pressing of a new variety - the Prince William - and Thatcher's also has an orchard of Falstaff trees trained along wires, in a similar way to vines. Martin Thatcher describes their progress as highly encouraging'. In addition, the company has decided to bottle all its 750ml ciders under Stelvin closure, and has spent 350,000 on a new carbonator, which will, it is claimed, improve quality and aid shelf life.

Whiter than white?

The only underperforming area in the category at the moment is white cider. But this isn't all bad news, as many producers feel it is this style that gives the rest of the category a bad name. Read between the lines and it's clear that the big companies are doing little to promote these high-alcohol (and, let's be honest, low-taste) ciders, and it also seems pretty clear that the current 15% of the UK cider market that white ciders represent is on the wane.

Gaymer's John Mills admits that sales of White Lightning are down by 55%, and Diamond White by 20%, but says that there will always be a place for that style of product'. S&N says that there are plenty of consumers who enjoy white cider for all the right reasons', but stresses that the selling of such a product brings with it a backdrop of responsibility'. The company has already got rid of extra-free promotions from all its ciders, which it claims has resulted in improved value for the category and moved it away from its rather commoditised image'.

Chris Carr describes the decline in white cider (overall, by around 10%) as great', because he feels that it's done more to harm the industry than anything else in the past 15 years, while Simon Russell feels that although it's in decline, considering that it represents such a small proportion of the category, it still attracts a disproportionately high level of interest'.

To conclude, it should be pointed out how refreshing it is to write about a category that's doing so well in the UK, in contrast to the doom-and-gloom stories so often heard in the UK market - particularly from some of the wine regions. Cider is a (predominantly) British product, it's growing by more than 10% a year, works well with food and is available in a myriad of styles. Let's hope that producers continue to innovate and ensure that cider does not suffer a repeat performance of 10 years ago. As John Mills puts it: Cider is selling faster than Champagne, wine and vodka. I'm really delighted with the way it's going, and I think this growth can continue for the next 10 years, because it's built on better foundations, branding and advertising - and it's working.'