Hard cider makes a comeback

Bret Williams, CEO of The Vermont Hard Cider Company in Middlebury, Vt. The U.S. cider market is still tiny -- less than 1 percent of the beer industry -- but it is making something of a comeback.

Sarah Gardner: Whatever your feelings about locally produced food, you probably also have an opinion or two about beer. Well, turns out mainstream beer sales are down. But sales of hard cider are growing nearly 20 percent a year. Cider -- sort of like fruity beer -- makes up just a tiny fraction of the alcohol industry in this country. But big beer companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have recently jumped into the market. Small craft producers are cropping up all over the country too.

Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck has the story.


Nina Keck: Hard cider isn't new -- if John Adams or another founding father got thirsty, it was usually cider they'd order at the local pub. But as German immigrants brought their beer-making skills to America, cider fell out of fashion.

Yeah, Prohibition didn't help much either. But today, hard cider is making a comeback.

Bob Caloutti: This is where I keep the Woodchuck, you know, right here, through here.

Bob Caloutti sells beer and wine in Rutland, Vt. Walking into his store's cooler, he points out several brands of cider.

Caloutti: I usually maintain about four to five SKUs or different packages of it at any given time.

It's a small niche market, he says, but sales are growing fast among both men and women.

Caloutti: Oh I definitely think the potential is there -- cider has been around forever. And then if you throw in the whole gluten-free aspect -- there's a lot of people who can't have gluten, which is obviously a common factor in beer -- so I think cider is here to stay.

The best-selling cider in America? Woodchuck Amber. It's been made in Vermont since 1991. Bret Williams heads The Vermont Hard Cider Company, which makes Woodchuck and handles three other brands of cider.

Bret Williams: When I started with the company way back when, all we heard was, 'No.' People didn't know what hard cider was. Now I'm worried about whether we can keep up with demand and make enough product.

Woodchuck's popularity helped spur an explosion of small craft cider producers across the country. And even the big boys hope for a piece of the action. MillerCoors recently purchased the Crispin Cider Company of Minnesota, while Anheuser-Busch just launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider. Paul Chibe is vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch.

Paul Chibe: When the major, larger players get involved in a category, we're going to bring a lot of interest to the segment.

The U.S. cider market is still tiny -- less than 1 percent of the beer industry. That's nothing compared to Great Britain, where cider makes up over 15 percent of their beer market. Chibe says it's unlikely the U.S. cider market will ever grow as big as the U.K.'s, but he says there's still tremendous potential.

Chibe: When you look at the profiles, you think about consumers' interest in variety. You see how big the white wine segment is in the U.S. and its broad appeal; there's no reason why cider can't be significantly larger in our market.

That growth is something the Vermont Hard Cider Company is both counting on and struggling with. At the company's bottling plant in Middlebury, Bret Williams just added a third shift, and can still barely keep up with demand.

Williams: The product that you see on the conveyor right here is going to go on that pallet. The fork truck is going to pick it up and it's going to go right on a truck and it's out the door.

Williams says next summer they expect to be shipping out lots more cider. Construction just started on a new $24 million headquarters that he says will double the company's output.

In Middlebury, Vt., I'm Nina Keck for Marketplace.

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