Often caught in the crossfire between beer and wine, how should cider be merchandised? Cider expert Jane Peyton finds out
What is cider? It’s an easy question to ask but not an easy one to answer.
The Campaign for Real Ale, which also lobbies for cider and perry, defines it as a fermented drink from the whole juice of freshly pressed apples or pears, without the use of concentrated or chaptalised juices. In the absence of a legal definition of cider, it is also an apple-flavoured beverage made from a minimum amount of juice concentrate where water and sugar are the primary ingredients.
What cider is not, however, is apple beer, because it is pressed like wine rather than being brewed. But because of cider’s serving size – pints in the pub; 33cl, 44cl cans, and 50cl bottles in the shop – and its reputation as a casual drink, it is often categorised with beer. Some cider is made by artisans using specific apple varieties for acidity, tannins and natural sweetness, then fermented slowly and aged for months, but worldwide the majority of cider is produced in a factory in a few days from unspecified apple blends.
Dining with cider can be one of the greatest food-matching experiences a person can have, or cider can be necked at a summer music festival and cause the greatest hangover. This polarised personality means the merchandising of cider can be tricky, not least because the person who enjoys sweet, carbonated, tropical fruit-flavoured ciders is unlikely to purchase an ultra-dry acidic single variety barrel-aged still cider in a 75cl glass bottle. But then it is unlikely the same shop would market both types of cider because they are as opposite to each other as it is possible to be.
With cider having similarities to both beer and wine, what’s the best way to merchandise it? Jules Grey, who owns Sheffield’s Hop Hideout, a former winner of this magazine’s Independent Beer Retailer of the Year award, also sells artisan cider and she treats it as a drink in its own right.
Hop Hideout serves draught cider on the premises, which itself is a merchandising tool because, as Jules says: “It’s chilled, perfectly served and people can try before buying.”
For her, meet-the-producer events are effective, especially as customers are able to test the goods and then purchase them. “We find providing background information about the producer, the way of making, and ingredients/flavour notes very helpful when recommending ciders to customer. We also have cider books in-store, which are great visual and reference aids.”
The first alcoholic drink I ever had was Woodpecker cider. It was sweet, bubbly and delicious. For years I assumed all cider tasted like that, so as an adult I was surprised to sample something dry, tannic and still. By then I was accredited through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust so I started to explore real cider from the apple wine point of view.
Yes, cider is its own drink category, but I find it helps to talk about real cider in wine terms for the majority who, like I did, have an expectation of all cider being sweet and fizzy. Many people now have basic knowledge of wine and beer and recognise what beer styles and wine grapes they enjoy. They have the confidence to make purchases even when not familiar with a particular brand.
But cider is different, and it is not helpful that there are no defined styles, and the characteristics of apple varieties are largely a mystery in a way the well-known wine grapes are not. That’s why it is so helpful for drinks retailers to have some learning so they can upsell to customers.
Susannah Mansfield, accredited pommelier, is co-owner of Durham’s Fram Ferment bottle shop and markets cider with dedicated shelves, informative labels, and staff recommendations. She uses comparisons to other drinks when required and chats to customers and makes recommendations based on their likes.
Despite that, when she or other conversant staff are absent, cider sales decrease. “Even some of our most ardent converts can lack confidence when buying. Nothing comes close to the conversations we have with customers.”
And what of convenience stores and supermarkets that sell mainstream cider alongside beer? Engaging with customers is less likely to happen and purchasing decisions will vary, often depending on price and familiarity with brands.
Elise Hockridge, Kopparberg customer marketing manager, says: “Cider should certainly have adjacencies with beer but should be merchandised separately to make it clear for the shopper to navigate.”
Just as there is no one answer to the question “what is cider?” there is no one answer to how to merchandise it, although what is clear is the importance of providing understanding to help customers make an informed purchasing decision.
Jane Peyton was the UK’s first accredited pommelier and is the founder of the School of Booze, drinks training, events, and consultancy.