As the cider apple harvest enters full swing in the West Country, with reports of a bumper crop on the cards, it has emerged that the UK cider market is in decline. My advice to this news, and to quote Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army, is ‘Don’t Panic!’
Cider in the UK has achieved such unprecedented growth over the last decade that it was inevitable that at some stage it would become a victim of its own success. That time has come following a report from IRI showing a £35 million loss of value in the off trade. On paper this sounds like a hefty blow to the category. But let’s put it in context: this is now a £1 billion industry which has just reported a 50% increase in the number of medium and large scale producers over the last 5 years. How many industries, drinks or otherwise, could boast volume and value growth during the recession as cider did? And all the while, investment in cider making infrastructure and orcharding continues apace.
What is clear, however, is that the dynamics of the industry are in a constant state of flux and that consumers are highly trend dominated. For example, drinkers watching the football world cup in 2014, during one of the hottest summers on record, resorted to beer rather than cider. This was the perfect setting for cider, yet consumers opted for other options. Was it the quality of the (English) football that made the difference? Or does this simply demonstrate the lack of loyalty to cider by consumers?
Cider with fruit, effectively non-existent 10 years ago, is currently king of the castle in terms of growth, capitalising on the popularity for sweet and highly aromatised drinks amongst the key 18-24 demographic. This trend is amply demonstrated by Kopparberg now being the second best selling cider in the country. Meanwhile, once small, regional producers of heritage style ciders, such as Aspalls, Thatchers and Westons, continue to march on. These independent, family-owned companies have undergone rapid growth in recent years, built upon authentic products with quality presentation, allayed to enhanced distribution and new routes to market. To highlight this, just this week, Westons reported another increase in value, pre-tax profit and UK market share.
Squeezed in the middle is what was once the bastion of English cider: mainstream brands such as Strongbow and Blackthorn. Despite the squeeze, and the fact that these types of cider are often derided, this sector still accounts for huge volume and is the backbone of the industry. Say what you want about them, but they account for the majority of the cider apple orchards that are planted in Herefordshire and Somerset, contributing greatly to the community and rural economy.
So what will happen next in this highly dynamic industry? I predict that the consumer’s appetite for cider with fruit will wane, however. These younger drinkers have little brand loyalty, constantly wishing to innovate and be at the forefront of new styles and trends. They will simply move onto the next drink. What we will be left with is good old fashioned apple cider; or as I like to call it: cider.
We will continue to see strong sustainable growth occurring amongst the heritage producers, and mainstream will continue to innovate to ensure that is remains a viable proposition. But I think the great opportunity lies with ‘craft’ cider. It’s only a matter of time before a host of producers allay themselves to the incredibly popular and progressive craft beer movement. Establishing authenticity around the ‘craft’ tag could be challenging for larger cider makers, as ‘craft’ in the beer context normally applies to smaller producers with an anti-establishment attitude and ethos.
As we have seen, however, cider is a highly dynamic category, continually altering in response to consumer demand. This is precisely why the industry will continue to succeed and prosper: it’s big enough to roll with the punches but small enough to adapt at speed to changing trends. So everybody, keep calm and drink cider.