Sales of drier ciders are growing and so is appreciation of this often overlooked category.
If you’ve ever had cider in the United States, you’ve almost inevitably ended up with something fizzy and sweet. The modern American cider market is extremely small (just one percent the size of the beer market, according to Angry Orchard, the country’s largest cider brand) and has long been positioned as an alternative to a cold brew. The reasons are literally in your face: Both beer and cider are mostly golden in color and are typically well-carbonated. Cider also has an ABV that can easily land right around a lager’s usual five percent. So for those who don’t like the flavor of beer, cider works as a logical sweet and fruity alternative.
Except that American cider has another similarity to beer: Like the beer industry of the 1990s, the cider industry is starting to evolve. Just as big name brands like Budweiser didn’t tell beer’s whole story, those fizzy and sweet ciders sold at every bar and grocery store across the country are only one example of what cider can be.
For instance, like wine, many great ciders are not sparkling at all, but still. (In many ways, cider is actually more akin to wine than beer since both cider and wine are fermented fruit juices.) And, yes, many of the world’s most highly-regarded ciders are not sweet, but actually somewhere in the range from medium-dry to dry.
“Sweet and medium sweet ciders are still most popular in the U.S.,” explains Ryan Burk, head cider maker at Angry Orchard, “and these types of ciders are great introductory ciders – bright, crisp and apple forward – so I see them retaining their popularity for the near term. However, once drinkers learn more about cider, we see them expanding their palates to explore the whole spectrum from very sweet to very dry, with different people preferring different styles for different occasions.”
Though some cider diehards may consider repeatedly comparing cider to beer as sacrilege, the cider market really would seem positioned to broaden its range of popular styles the way the beer market has. Driven both by the emergence of small cider brands taking a more traditional, drier approach to cider production and evolving portfolios from larger cider companies, an increasing number of dry ciders have been showing up on store shelves in recent years. According to Nielsen data cited by Heineken USA, producers of the cider brand Strongbow, sales of “semi-sweet” and “dry” ciders grew double digits last year.
“The ‘dry’ category of cider is developing the way the IPA category did in beer. When people started shifting away from larger mass-produced light lagers, they shifted to a style of beer that was typically produced by microbreweries – the IPA,” says Luke Schmuecker, director of business development at Shacksbury Cider, a craft cider brand launched in Vermont in 2013 focusing on a drier, more traditional approach. Now, beer lovers may gravitate towards a specific variety of hops – like Mosaic or Citra or Simcoe – but when the IPA started to become popular, that wasn’t the case. Schmuecker believes cider finds itself in a similar place. “There isn't as much brand recognition for different apples, so consumers are gravitating toward a style of cider production instead. ‘Dry’ gives them a baseline to start with – something they can recognize.”
Acknowledging this growth in that baseline, Strongbow – America’s second best-selling cider brand according to 2016 Statista data – recently decided to relaunch the brand’s Strongbow Original Dry which had been pulled from the U.S. market just four years ago. “Dry has always been a favorite of the die-hard cider fans – but what we’re seeing now is that consumers are seeking more balance and crisp refreshment in addition to sweeter flavors, and craving a wider range of options – from sweet to dry,” Paul van der Aar, master brewer and director of quality and NPI management at Heineken USA, told us. “People are looking for more complex and natural flavor profiles that offer a pleasant balance between acidity and sourness with a hidden touch of sweetness.”
Van der Aar suggests this shift of the American palate away from sweet goes far beyond cider. Specifically, he cites market research company Mintel’s Flavor Trends 2018 report, which suggests that even desserts are becoming less sweet. Though an increased desire for more tart and tangy flavors is part of what’s driving the trend, a health component exists as well, with consumers looking to lower their sugar intake and gravitating towards more natural options.
Shacksbury has noticed a similar phenomenon. “It's definitely hip to want your cider dry,” says Alex Consalvo, the company’s director of sales in New York and Texas. “But it might have less to do with how it tastes and more to do with a growing awareness of sugar intake.”
Still, the taste component shouldn’t be overlooked. Beyond less sugar, dry ciders also leave more room for other characteristics to shine, like the complexity of tannins and acidity. “Personally, I think it is the only way to drink cider and really reveals all the character I expect,” explains Tom Oliver, the legendary British cider maker behind Oliver’s Cider and Perry. “The experience of both tannin dry – so a degree of astringency and bitterness that makes the cider both tea bag drying or cheese cracker drying – plus hints of bitterness and maybe a perceived sourness, coupled with no sugar sweetness – only perceived apple sweetness – can be a shock. For some, it is too much, but for a few, it is something their palate has craved for, and they love it.”
Oliver recently collaborated with Burk on Understood in Motion 03, one of Angry Orchard’s drier, more complex ciders. Despite being one of America’s largest sellers of sweet cider—if only because the brand has such a massive market share—Angry Orchard has been working to continue to broaden the way consumers think about cider. “Much like with wine, as drinkers become more exposed to cider varieties, they will lean toward finding and enjoying complexity within their beverage,” Burk believes. “When drinkers visit [our cidery in Walden, New York], we begin tastings with dry styles, such as single-varietal Newton Pippin, [and] advise ending with crisp, refreshing and apple-forward ciders, such as Angry Orchard’s flagship Crisp Apple. We see people coming back with friends and family and taking home some of our drier, funkier ciders that they’ve now grown to love and appreciate.”