With regard to hard cider, America has played the role of a fickle lover. There have been times when we couldn’t get enough of the stuff. And there have been times when the drinking public almost forgot that cider existed.
During the last century, rival beverages like lager beer and soda pops siphoned off much of cider's clientele.
Could the cycle be repeating itself?
After decades of obscurity, an anachronism from Currier and Ives prints, cider reasserted itself in the 1990s, riding the coattails of the craftbrewing movement. Case sales soared from a minuscule 145,000 cases in 1990 to 1.6 million in 1995.
“Another burgeoning beverage craze,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “The long-awaited revival of an honorable American tradition,” proclaimed the New York Times. Joseph Cerniglia, the New York stockbroker who helped spark the cider craze by founding Cerniglia Wineries (later Green Mountain Cidery) in 1986, confidently predicted sales of 50 million cases per annum by 2000. Major players in the beverage industry like E. & J. Gallo, Stroh and Miller scrambled to get their foot in the door.
The icing on the cake came in 1997 when Congress passed a tax relief bill that lowered the excise on ciders under 6 percent alcohol by volume (abv) from a maximum of $1.07 per gallon to a more beer-like 22 cents per gallon.
The good times have yet to roll, however. Growth has slowed from triple digit to double digit to single digit. Cider registered a 1 percent decline for the 13 weeks in mid-summer, according to ACNielsen, a consumer data service that monitors supermarkets and chain stores.
Instead of small cideries sprouting up around the country, the fledgling industry seems to be imploding. H. P. Bulmer, the British giant that turns out Woodpecker and Strongbow, bought the Green Mountain Cidery from the now-defunct Stroh for $14 million in 1998. Late last year, Bulmer snapped up another rival, the American Hard Cider Co. (maker of the Cider Jack brands), for a sum reported to be about $30 million. The transaction was remarkably low key; just imagine the brouhaha if a major British brewer like Whitbread or Scottish Newcastle had absorbed Miller and Coors in the space of two years!
Bulmers America Inc., as the US subsidiary is now known, has centralized its operations in Middlebury, VT, and is set to bring out another line extension, Woodchuck Pear, this fall. Reliable statistics are hard to obtain for cider, but Bulmer, by the most conservative estimates, owns close to 50 percent of the market.
“They wish to dominate the world and I think they’ll achieve it,” said Jeffrey House, founder and president of the much smaller California Hard Cider Co. in Sebastopol, CA.
During the last century, rival beverages like lager beer and soda pops siphoned off much of cider’s clientele. Now, fruity, malt-based drinks are threatening to do the same. Joe Whitney, brand manager for Boston Beer Co.’s HardCore Ciders, calls them “New Age malt-ernatives.” “There are tons of them out there this summer,” he noted in an interview.
The alternative beverages range from Zima to hard lemonades like Hooper’s Hooch and Doc Otis, to fruit coolers like F. X. Matt’s Strawberry Blush, and to Soma, a lemon-and-herb-flavored nonalcoholic beer. These tend to appeal to young drinkers who prefer a sweeter alternative to beer, he says–the same crowd that’s most receptive to cider.
In the long run, Whitney still thinks that cider has a promising future. “People usually go back to more traditional things.” In the short run, HardCore Cider Co. will try to hook more drinkers by introducing a light, refreshing “entry-level” cider made with Golden Delicious apple concentrate. Look for it this September.
Several of the bigger players became disillusioned. When E. & J. Gallo leapt into the market in 1995 with its George Hornsby’s ciders, the nation’s largest winery immediately assumed the number one cider position. But sales have stalled around 1 million cases, and Gallo seems unwilling to devote the money or effort to make Americans more cider-conscious. According to a recent profile in Fortune magazine, Gallo–best known for labels like Thunderbird and Bartles & Jaymes–is more interested in exploiting the high end of the wine market, where cabernets and pinots sell for $15 a bottle and up.
Miller Brewing in the mid-1990s acquired the rights to import Dry Blackthorn, a product of England’s Taunton cidery (later acquired by Matthew Clark Brands Ltd.). Dry Blackthorn once held a third of the US market before a plethora of domestic brands burst onto the scene. But Miller was unable to grow the brand, and in 1997 ceded its rights to Sunshine Imports of Los Angeles. “They did a great job killing the product,” groused Victor Garcia, brand manager for Dry Blackthorn. “We basically had to start from scratch.”
Meanwhile, the tax break has been less of a windfall than some cider makers would have hoped for. The wording of the legislation was quite strict: it applied only to ciders made “primarily from apples or apple concentrate and water, containing no other fruit product.” This left little wiggle room for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which was forced to deny the tax break to popular mixed-fruit ciders.
Consequently, Boston Beer Co. dropped its HardCore Cranberry Cider, replacing it with HardCore Black, a cider made with caramelized apple juice and aged with oak chips for an astringent nip in the finish.
But that wasn’t an option for several West Coast cideries that do most of their business in pear-, peach- and berry-flavored ciders. “On the East Coast, cider is more of a traditional, colonial-type drink, while on the West Coast it’s thought to be more of a new wave beverage,” explained David Cordtz, founder of the Sonoma Cider Mill in Healdsburg, CA (which markets pear and berry ciders). Bill Gibbs, a partner in Oakland, CA-based Wyder’s Ciders, says the limitation is unfair. His own Wyder’s Pear, Peach and Berry Ciders, he notes, are fermented from 100 percent apple juice, to which is added a pinch of fruit essence. That pinch accounts for a fraction of a percent of the entire product.
Wyder’s and several other producers have been lobbying for either a change in the law or a more liberal interpretation on the BATF’s part. “Stay tuned on that one,” added Gibbs.