Temperatures are dropping, leaves are changing color, and apple-picking season is in full swing. With fall officially here, it’s the perfect time for hard ciders to shine. In recent years, hard cider retail sales experienced fluctuation, but 2020 is seeing something different. With an emphasis on quality products and the farm-to-table movement, hard cider brands are attracting more consumers than ever.
“In the fall, in addition to our regulars, we have a completely different set of customers whose interest in cider is piqued because of the season’s weather, says Paige Flori, co-owner of Boutique Wines, Spirits & Ciders in Fishkill, New York. “This includes local residents as well as folks who are traveling to the Hudson Valley to go apple or pumpkin picking, hiking, or leaf peeping.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed hard cider marketing activities this year; opportunities like in-store tastings aren’t an option. Retailers, though, remain upbeat. “Usually, this time of year there are huge promotional pieces, cider events, and big marketing around cider in Minnesota,” says Melissa Waskiewicz, manager at France 44 in Minneapolis. “There isn’t any of that this year, but we are still selling good amounts of cider.”
At Boutique, the public health crisis has indeed changed how the store is able to showcase new styles, products, and subcategories of cider. Gennaro Flori, Boutique’s co-owner and Paige’s brother, hopes that events might be possible in the near future, “As restrictions lift, there will be a resurgence of event-driven sales, as customers are itching to be able to try cider,” he says. “We also see more wineries beginning to produce cider.”
Since opening in 2017, Boutique’s cider SKUs have quadrupled to more than 220. The store boasts an upscale growler and tasting station with 13 ciders on tap. Led by sales of Sidney, New York’s Awestruck Ginger Hibiscus cider ($13 a 32-ounce growler), 25% of Boutique’s cider sales are via growler. Overall, the stores top-three selling ciders are King’s Highway Fine cider ($6 a 16-ounce can), 1911 cider ($4 a 12-ounce can), and Citizen cider ($5 a 12-ounce can).
France 44, meanwhile, stocks 206 cider SKUs. Sales leaders are Milk and Honey Heirloom cider ($15 a 4-pack of 12-ounce bottles), Loon Juice cider ($10 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans), and Wild State Dry cider ($10 a 4-pack of 12-ounce cans). “We’re a high-end wine store, which helps bring in customers because we can get stuff other people can’t,” Waskiewicz says, noting that more and more customers are starting to favor local ciders over national brands.
Both Boutique and France 44 have been promoting their hard cider offerings via myriad channels. Boutique utilizes its social media presence and updated website, and also turns to local print, television, and radio campaigns, along with podcast appearances. France 44, meanwhile, promotes its cider offerings mostly through its blog, email newsletters, and happy hour events.
Ciders are not immune from current beverage alcohol trends. To appeal to spirits connoisseurs, some ciders are opting for unique barrel aging techniques, and they’re capturing attention at retail. Paige Flori states that Patriots’ Heritage Cider has gained a fan base at Boutique, with their St. Paddy’s Delay cider ($17 a 750-ml.) a top seller. The cider is aged in Irish whiskey barrels, and exhibits notes of the liquor up front, Paige adds. Patriots’ Smoky Dody cider ($17), aged in Laphroaig single malt Scotch barrels, is also popular. “It tastes like you’re drinking cider next to a smoky campfire,” Paige says.
The cider category is also attracting beer drinkers. “We are starting to see consumers asking about ciders to pair with food, and those customers are more willing to purchase larger formats, like 750-mls. or 1.5-liter packages—like how they purchase wine,” Genarro Flori says. “Beer drinkers are also reaching for cider, either because they have to be gluten-free, or because they find beer to be too heavy or filling.” He adds that beer aficionados are especially interested in hopped, sour, and Belgian ciders.
Wine drinkers are also starting to gravitate toward the cider space, with particular interest in single varietals, according to Gennaro. “Wine drinkers are used to seeing single varietal wines, and that is translating over to the cider category, especially those sold in 750-ml. format,” he explains, adding that wine consumers are increasingly basing their cider preferences off of their knowledge of growing regions. “Terroir plays an important role in this, and consumers are starting to ask for specific apples from various regions to explore the differences.”
Some consumers are choosing cider as a healthier substitute to other beverages. “It’s low-alcohol and gluten-free features are enticing, and with more and more no-sugar or low-sugar options, we’re seeing customers reach for it as a healthier alternative to other alcoholic beverages,” Paige Flori says. “The new cider seltzers or light ciders made with apples are a good alternative to conventional hard seltzers, and the base is apple, which consumers seem to understand better than malt beverage.”
Ice ciders are also developing a niche following from health- and wellness-minded consumers. Milk and Honey Alchemy ice cider ($20 a 375-ml.) is the subcategory’s biggest seller at France 44. “It’s amazing,” Waskiewicz enthuses. “It’s an experience that can be used as an after-dinner drink instead of brandy.”