Hard Cider – An Ap-Peeling Addition to Big Beer?

Hard cider has become one of the most visible segments of the craft brewing industry and has a marked appeal (or should that be ap-peel?) with both men and women. Hard cider offers quite a lot, from a taste that differs immensely from beer to historical roots deep in American culture. With those benefits, cider is also gaining a lot of notice from Big Beer these days and the purchase of Crispin Cider Company by MillerCoors shows just how attractive big brewers are finding the fermented apple beverage. What’s to know about hard cider?

A Look at Hard Cider

If you are one of the few who has never tried hard cider, you’re in for a real treat. Even confirmed beer lovers find a lot to enjoy with this beverage. The beverage is made from apple juice and differs from unfermented cider significantly (and not just because it contains alcohol). 

Within the US, hard cider has enjoyed significant history. In fact, it predates beer as one of the preferred alcoholic beverages. During Colonial times, it was far more common to find hard cider at the table than beer and cider was usually served because there was no good source of clean drinking water nearby.

In the past, there was a considerable need for distinction to be made between hard and nonalcoholic cider varieties. Hard cider was usually just called “cider”, while nonalcoholic beverages were marked with the phrase “nonalcoholic cider”. 

Cider remained immensely popular in the US until Prohibition was enacted. During prohibition those cider producers who did not close their doors turned to producing juice and nonalcoholic cider instead. After Prohibition was repealed, few cider manufacturers remained and the beverage dwindled in popularity, eventually becoming almost impossible to find except in specific regions from very small producers.

The Rise of Hard Cider

Cider once again began to come to popularity during the 2000s when the craft brewing industry in the US really began to take off. Many producers took their cues from British cider producers, where the popularity of the beverage never really waned.

Today, you’ll find a tremendous range of breweries producing various types of hard cider. Some of the top breweries today include:

  • Woodchuck
  • Pete’s Wicked
  • Hornsby’s
  • Crispin
  • Why Are Big Beer Companies Interested?

Even given the increased popularity of fermented apple juice, what is there to tempt major breweries into getting into the act? Actually, there’s a lot to be gained for Big Beer, particularly in a time when their sales in other areas are flat. For instance, an increase in profitability is certainly their ultimate goal (as major breweries like MillerCoors can’t really be said to have altruistic motives like giving their customers something better to drink). 

Another reason that cider is so appealing to big breweries is the profit margin. There seems to be more money to be made in cider than in traditional beers, thanks in large part to the fact that there’s little need for anything more than apples, water and yeast. Cider also has cross-gender appeal – both men and women enjoy the beverage. Beer, on the other hand, is still largely a man’s drink despite breweries around the world attempting to draw female drinkers to their products with variations on brewing recipes, packaging and marketing methods.

As evidence of the appeal here, consider the fact that hard cider sales in the US grew to almost $50 million from 2010 to 2011 (that’s an increase of 26%). As such, cider represents the fastest growing segment within the craft beer scene. While $50 million might be a drop in the bucket compared to the revenue that most big breweries rake in every year, it’s an appealing drop to add to their particular bucket. MillerCoors has done just that by announcing the acquisition of 3rd nationally rated hard cider producer Crispin Cider Company. 

Tenth and Blake Takes a Bite Out of Cider

Tenth and Blake is MillerCoors’ “craft brew arm” and is responsible for managing the mega-corporation’s possessions in that area. This list includes brands like Blue Moon and now Crispin. Other beers managed by Tenth and Blake include the following:

  • Leinenkugel
  • AC Golden
  • Birra Peroni
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Killian’s Irish Red
  • Grolsch
  • Sandlot

Henry Weinhard’s

MillerCoors will now be adding Crispin to that rather esteemed list, though the company will still operate as an independent division within the massive conglomerate. Thus far, there are no plans to change the brewery’s methods, product lineup or even their staffing. In fact, Crispin sees this as a good thing, as the financial backing from MillerCoors will provide Crispin with the means to ramp up their production and increase the size of their facilities. That would be difficult and very costly had the brewery done it on its own. 

Of course, MillerCoors stands to reap some rather substantial benefits in terms of profitability and greater visibility within the world of craft beers. It also gives MillerCoors an existing entry point into the market. Rather than having to start from scratch, they get an established brand with a loyal clientele and they only need to make minor alterations to things rather than investing tons of money to start a new project.

Not the Only One

If you think that MillerCoors is the only global beer company looking to make hard cider part of its lineup, think again. Anheuser-Busch is getting into the act as well. However, AB is not going the “craft” route. Instead of following in the wake of MillerCoors, AB is going to add a new product to its Michelob line, dubbed Michelob Ultra Light Cider (in keeping with the rest of the Ultra products within that particular segment). It’s supposed to be low-alcohol, low-sugar and less sweet than other ciders and is geared for the more discerning palate, according to AB.

Cider Is Here to Stay

All things considered, the news about MillerCoors’ most recent purchase really only confirms what many have already known. That is, hard cider is here to stay.

Posted on September 1, 2012 and filed under Beer Styles and Trends, 2012.