A Range of Flavors and ABVs Puts Hard Cider in the Spotlight.
By: Kate Bernot
As consumers increasingly reach for flavored, premium products backed by compelling brand stories, one category has been ticking those boxes for years: hard cider. Despite the proliferation of hard seltzers, malt beverages, and canned cocktails, this category continues to hold its own by offering drinkers a more natural source of the flavors they’re seeking. Apples, an already fruity and complex ingredient, form cider’s base, even before brands add spices or other fruits.
“Cider is flavor-forward, period,” says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA) trade group. “It’s also, for the most part, not pretentious and comes in a can and is bubbly, fun, and fruited. That’s what people want.”
McGrath says the industry is catching on to what cider makers have known for years: Cider is an entire category, not just one beverage. From dry to sweet, low-alcohol to Imperial, light and crisp to rich and barrel-aged, cider is finding success when retailers embrace its full spectrum of offerings. In the most recent 52-week period ending Dec. 2, cider’s dollar sales in chain retail were up +2.2%, above the +1.8% growth for all beer/malt products (Nielsen xAOC + liquor + convenience, analyzed by 3 Tier Beverage). That growth rate was topped only by imported beer, flavored malt beverages, and below-premium beers.
The U.S. is home to roughly 1,300 cideries, up from just 150 in 2010. This number encompasses national brands like Angry Orchard, regional players like Woodchuck, and small, local producers who grow their own apples. In addition, imported ciders from the U.K., France, and Spain each offer unique flavors, packages, and styles of cider.
“During the height of the pandemic, people wanted reliability and consistency, but now it seems like people are looking for something unique and different, and cider has a great chance to provide that,” says Beth Demmon, a freelance writer and author of The Beer Lover’s Guide to Cider: American Ciders for Craft Beer Fans to Explore published last year.
Consumers are eager for cider. And those consumers aren’t a monolith: Nielsen CGA reported in 2023 that cider drinkers are 49.7% female and 49.3% male – a nearly even split. Drinkers who consume cider also tend to be younger than drinkers of other types of alcohol. That’s good news at a time when many other categories are struggling to connect with young legal drinking-age customers. Amy Hartranft, a bartender and the director of Philly Cider Week, says demand is clearly there.
“The consumer isn’t the problem. People want to drink cider,” she says.
Cider of All Stripes
As drinkers are becoming more familiar with cider, they’re becoming savvier about the diversity within it. Cider has in the past been oversimplified as a sweet beverage, but dry options are becoming increasingly popular, along with flavored and Imperial ciders.
Imperial ciders – those above 8% ABV – had a particularly explosive year in 2023. These bold products posted roughly 100% growth and now make up about 9% of total U.S. cider sales in chain retail. The vast majority of these Imperial ciders come from regional brands, though Angry Orchard Crisp Imperial launched nationally in November.
Along with the elevated ABV comes premium pricing: The ACA reports that Imperial ciders represent on average a 24% premium over standard cider. And cider shoppers have proven willing to trade up. That may be due to cider drinkers’ above-baseline income and education levels – something McGrath urges retailers to appreciate.
“We know that cider consumers are higher wage earners and more educated. That translates into larger baskets,” she says. “So drawing in cider consumers is good for overall sales of everything.”
Hartranft says that as a bartender, she’s witnessed firsthand how important it is for accounts to offer more than just one cider option. She says customers have lately been excited about the 8% ABV, zero-sugar dry cider she’s had on tap.
“By giving people more options, you sell more overall. Only selling one option is not a litmus test for what cider can do in a space,” Hartranft says. “In the same way that if you only sold one beer, an IPA, and people didn’t buy it, you wouldn’t assume that people don’t like beer.”
While it’s still a very small percentage of the market, low-ABV and non-alcoholic versions of hard cider have also hit the market recently. These new products demonstrate that, like beer or spirits, cider is a broad category with room for broad variety.
Few drinkers today solely consume one type of alcohol. That’s especially true of younger legal drinking-age consumers, for whom the concept of being “a beer guy” or “only into wine” seems foreign. NielsenIQ data shows 63% of drinkers report regularly consuming more than one category of alcohol, a percentage that’s on the rise. With its variety of flavors and ABVs, Hartranft says, cider is frequently in drinkers’ mix alongside beer, wine, and spirits.
“Data shows that millennials and Gen Z are more prone to find choices they like in each category and drink a little bit of everything,” she says. “I’m finding a lot of casual cider drinkers.”
This is a particularly strong opportunity for the on-premise, McGrath notes. Consumers who are looking for something new for their next round often find cider to be a flavor-forward beer alternative, or a lower-ABV alternative to a wine or cocktail. BeerBoard data reported by the ACA shows that draught cider outperforms many draught beer styles, including stouts and pale ales.
Branch Out: Celebrate the Spectrum of Hard Ciders
The popularity of hard cider continues to climb, reflecting evolving tastes and a cultural shift towards diverse and flavorful drinking experiences. Give your customers the cider selection they’re looking for, with a range of flavors and ABVs for every palate.
Crisp Imperial has a bold, crisp apple flavor with a punch of 8% ABV and the perfect level of sweetness for easy drinking. ABV: 8%
Angry Orchard Rosé uses a combination of hibiscus and fresh juice from rare, red-fleshed apples sourced in France. This cider has a floral aroma, is apple forward in taste and complemented by refreshing, light tannins, similar to semi-dry wine. ABV: 5.5%
Woodchuck Amber has a golden color, a medium-light body, mild bitterness and a medium sweetness that is reminiscent of apple cider. It is made from a blend of apples and fermented with champagne yeast to produce a great-tasting and refreshing product. ABV: 5%
Inspired by sparkling wine, this dry pear cider is full of bubbles, with a clean, crisp finish. ABV: 6.1%
Strongbow Original Dry features a distinctive golden color and a crisp, less sweet apple flavor for a balanced, dry finish. ABV: 5%
About the Author: You may know her as the director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers, but Kate Bernot wears many hats. The work of this celebrated journalist and BJCP Certified Beer Judge routinely appears in The New York Times, Washington Post and the online publication Good Beer Hunting – to name a few. Ms. Bernot resides in Missoula, Montana where she enjoys the great outdoors and a good pint of beer made by the area’s skilled local brewers.