In the United States the most commonly encountered ciders are sweet, adulterated bottlings that tend to be light, breezy drinks in beer-like packaging most often showcasing the technical expertise of mass producers and machinery, rather than the intrinsic nature of unique apple varieties.
And Americans seem to have a taste for it. Though no figures exist, this writer would bet his house that mass, commercial ciders from large brewers and cideries account for more than 90% of all cider sold in the U.S.
So, it should be no surprise that Americans have also expressed a strong preference for light beer, Diet Pepsi, sweet red wine and glazed doughnut flavored vodka. Yet despite these commercial, largely sugar and water-driven beverages capturing the lions share of the alcohol beverage market, there appears to be an audience for craft beers, terroir-driven wine, small-batch craft whisky…and artisan ciders that show little resemblance to their commercial cousins.
In most cases the craft cideries are regional affairs, not large enough in volume to serve a national market and small enough to concentrate on hand-made quality. Some level of direct shipping allows these regional ciders to travel to eager cider enthusiasts across the country. A few small cideries have sought out distributors many states away in key markets to expand their exposure. But no matter where they are, these craft ciders must compete with tap handles and shelf space dedicated to mainly multinational beer producers who have jumped into the cider market with an approximation of cider and large ad campaign to help push it.
Can craft cideries and the passionate cider makers behind them survive this competition? Or down the road, will the very idea of cider and its place in the consciousness of American drinkers be coated almost entirely in apple juice concentrate and sugary sweetness?
I’m are betting on the artisans, but not overestimating most American palates.
While there is no doubt that a large component of the increase in ciders sales over the past five years is a contrived attempt by marketers and brand managers to capitalize on a growing taste for the strange and different in alcohol, this can’t describe what most small, artisan cideries are producing, nor what is propelling their growth. There exists a sizable contingent of folks who seek authentic craftsmanship in what they consume.
This became clear first in the realm of alcoholic beverages in the 1960’s and 1970’s when smaller producers of wine, mainly in Northern California, began popping up and crafting small batch bottlings inspired by the French estate model. The result was a significantly better bottle of American-made wine than had before been available. The media, the trade and, most importantly, the consumer took notice. The rise of small, artisan-oriented wineries has not abated. More than 8,000 wineries are strewn across the country.
Then came craft beer. Small brewers competed with the big boys by producing high quality bottlings that were sold on a regional basis. Their success has changed the beer industry and forced big brewers to change the way they sell and market their beer. More recently, the craft distilling movement has resulted in small distilleries popping up across the country, again selling mainly regionally, and producing whiskeys, gins, botanticals and vodkas of extraordinary quality.
That cider should follow the same path as wine, beer and spirits is no surprise.
The problem that cider faces, however, is that there is no real agreement among drinkers what “cider” should taste like. Wine, beer and spirits all have a long history in America. Although drinkers in the 1960’s may not have been familiar with carefully crafted wine, they at least had a pretty good idea what wine should taste like. Not so among American cider drinkers of just a decade ago or even today.
So the issue before the cidermaking community, including both its large and small members, is how will cider be defined and what expectations will arise among American cider consumers as to what it ought to taste like?
The best American ciders produced today are dry to off dry, exhibit an array of tertiary flavors and aromas, tend to have quite noticeable amounts of acid and tannins (or both), exhibit little to only mild carbonation, and do not taste like Jolly Rancher Green Apple Candy. Yet, the greatest volume of cider sold in the U.S. does in fact resemble Jolly Rancher Green Apple Candy with its sugary and tart elements and extreme carbonation to offset the sugar.
There is no reason to believe this currently dominant style of cider won’t continue to dominate the American palate 20 years down the road. The vast majority of wine sold in the U.S. is simple, somewhat sweet stuff. The vast majority of beer sold is a light and airy affair. The vast majority of spirits sold is watered down and sweet. And yet the craft producers of these beverage continue to grow. As will the craft cider producers.
The key for craft cider makers is exposing far more of the artisan-inclined palates across the country to their product. This means looking for these enthusiasts in the right places:
– Cider-centric events, tastings and festivals
-In fine dining establishments
-In accessible cider tasting rooms in cider producing regions
-In the wine and beer magazines that are published for enthusiasts
-At cider education events
-In upscale bars
-On the shelves of the of the wine and beer shops
Exposing folks interested in these well crafted ciders being made across the county won’t happen by focusing on grocery store or chain drugstore sales, exhibiting at beer festivals, or by trying to sell them in restaurants like TGIF, Applebee’s or other similar venues. This is not where adventurous palates shop, drink and dine.
The most magnificent ciders made in America sell for less than $20 a bottle. There is not very much margin for a cider producers who sells to a wholesaler at a 50% reduction off the cidery’s retail price. And one thing is certain: for the craft industry to thrive, they must get everything they can out of their efforts. This can only be accomplished by selling at full retail prices directly to the consumers.
Small wineries, with their wine clubs, limited allocations, mailing lists and tasting rooms have shown the way. They’ve discovered that consumers want a personal and intimate connection with the makers of artisan wines for which they are paying a premium. Cider enthusiasts will too. In any given region the market for craft cider is relatively small. But sell and ship to craft cider enthusiasts across the country and the size of their market grows exponentially. This is starting to happen among many of the smarter cider producers.
Finally, the craft cideries in America have something that adventurous palates are seeking: a connection to the land. Most small, craft cideries procure their apples from the region surrounding their cidery. The large commercial brands of cider don’t. This is a distinct advantage, and an essential element of the recent success of craft cider. This connection to the land must and likely will be maintained by the craft cideries.
For all these reasons, and particularly due to what seems a continuing increase in interest by consumers in authentic and local products, there is every reason to believe that the craft sector of the rising cider industry will not only survive but flourish, despite the vast majority of cider sold in American going forward likely to be of the sweet and sugary and concocted variety.
But…America’s growing team of great craft cideries will have to keep their marketing hats on to stay in the game. They must tell their stories to the right people. And they must tell those stories in an up close and personal way.