It's official: the cider boom is over. Statistics show volumes falling in the on-trade, down 0.4 per cent, and value up just 1.7 per cent*. This flat market is a far cry from the growth levels of four and five per cent experienced just a few years ago.
Perhaps this is no surprise. Competition has emerged via the likes of craft beer, RTD cocktails and fruit-flavoured wines and beers, all of which have taken a slice from a category that has relied on little other than launching ever more exotic fruit flavours in the name of innovation.
As Angela Ham, customer marketing controller at Magners owner C&C Brands, puts it: "As we see growth in the flavoured cider category begin to slow, it would appear consumers are beginning to tire of them in the same way they moved away from alcopops in recent years."
That's not to say there aren't opportunities, of course. "We anticipate a renewed interest in the apple cider segment in 2016 and draught is also continuing its
resurgence in the on-trade, up in both volume and value on last year," says Angela.
"We're paying attention to this particular trend and will be introducing Magners Original in this format for cider drinkers to enjoy (replacing Magners Golden Draught)."
But why don't suppliers look further afield? Tap into craft; make cider appealing to the late night crowd; look at the with-food opportunity, or even create a new super-premium cider sector?
Perhaps they are doing that? Let's start with craft.
Hop into craft cider
"It's an exciting time for cider as awareness of craft styles grows and suppliers continue to innovate within the sector," comments David Scott, Carlsberg UK's marketing director.
"The craft boom has been felt across all sectors — from beer and cider to spirits and wine — and we expect to see big developments throughout 2016 as producers and licensees continue to embrace the craft revolution."
Indeed, Brothers Cider, for example, has been looking so closely at the craft beer scene it has developed a hop-flavoured cider. "This year we will launch our new Brothers Hop Cider exclusively to the on-trade," confirmed sales and marketing manager Gerry Doyle.
"It is a gorgeous blend of apple and pear cider, flavoured with natural Hersbruker hop extract. Served in a 330ml bottle, it taps into current craft trends and creates a new category within flavoured cider."
Westons has already had some success in the craft cider category with the launch of its Caple Rd brand last year, and head of on-trade Martyn Jones believes there is more scope for growth.
"We've just launched Caple Rd Dry, the first extension to the brand, and initial feedback has been phenomenal. With craft cider predicted to be the second-largest trend this year, according to CGA, the consumer movement to craft looks set to continue."
However, this won't happen if suppliers don't talk more to consumers about how cider is made, Martyn claims.
"There is a job to be done to educate consumers about the different apple varieties as well as how cider is made, there's a definite thirst for this."
Variety is the spice of cider
Fellow cider maker Martin Thatcher, managing director of Thatchers, agrees.
"At Thatchers we've been talking about apple varieties for many years. After all, we first started producing our Katy Cider, a single-variety cider, 20 years ago."
The family firm has also been looking at food and cider matching for some time and says this is another opportunity for the category.
"Pairing cider with food is a great way to extend the cider occasion from the bar and into the restaurant. Cider naturally enhances many different types of food, from spicy and aromatic curries, pasta and pizza, through to fish & chips," he says.
The sentiments are echoed by David Sheppy of Sheppy's, who says: "Food pairing is key and will continue to be so. We have certainly done much to establish the Sheppy's brand by matching different cider styles with food — cheese for
He is also keen to highlight some as-yet unexploited methods of cider production, which could reinvigorate the category.
"Still ciders, full bittersweet apples, sharp apples, sweet apples and old techniques such as keeving (a method of making sparkling cider commonly used in France) or bottle fermenting, are all ideas that could be used to create new interesting cider products," he says.
Many of these would be found at the premium end of the market where Suffolk producer Aspall positions itself and where the company's Henry Chevallier Guild believes there is further opportunity.
"Cider is hampered by a definition that makes genuine and premium innovation easy to copy badly," he claims.
"Terroir [the concept that the land where crops are grown imparts unique qualities
to them] is a gap I believe cider has ignored completely for nearly three centuries
now, and should be considered at the premium end."
Strongbow and Bulmers owner Heineken entered this end of the market last year with the launch of Symonds Founders Reserve.
The brand has done well for the company, so much so, that there are ambitious plans to go even more upmarket and create an entirely new sector — super-premium cider.
"We are looking to bring Stassen, a Belgian cider, to the UK," explains category and trade marketing manager Andrew Turner. "It is one of our own brands and is completely authentic. It's a sparkling cider in 750ml Champagne-style bottles aimed at restaurants and top food venues."
Blind Pigs and dark fruits
Of course the UK's biggest cider producer isn't just focusing on one area of the market. It will also have a go at the late-night sector with a re-jig of its Blind Pig brand.
"This was originally developed to play in that late-night drinking area where cider currently doesn't have a huge role," explains Andrew."We feel we haven't got it quite right so are planning on tweaking that offer this year to make the most of the opportunity."
Whatever the Heineken bods come up with they'll have a hard job surpassing the success of 2014's launch, Strongbow Dark Fruit.
This modern take on cider & black contributed an astonishing 74 per cent of the growth in the draught cider category last year — and is set to become the second-biggest draught cider brand by volume, behind Strongbow Original.
The figures prove that even in this slowing market, there remain big rewards for
cider-makers who get it right.
Why don't we talk about apple varieties?
The wine boom of the 1990s happened when producers began to put the names of grape varieties on labels, and we see the same effect in craft beer as brewers begin to educate drinkers about hops.
But it is rare to hear cider-makers talk about apple varieties — why?
"Cider is made in a slightly different way, blending juices based on bitterness, colour and sweetness," explains Andy Atkinson, founder of Cornish Orchards (now owned by Fuller's).
"As a result, the process may involve a whole range of apple varieties, but a limited range of styles of apple. Perhaps it is something we could communicate better but historically this the main reason why we've not tended to market cider in that way."
Check out more about the cider bubble bursting in our Category Insight feature on cider here.