At first glance, the growth the hard cider industry is experiencing now seems similar and poised to mirror the craft beer movement’s explosive expansion over the past 20 years.
After all, it is a highly concentrated industry controlled by major corporate producers. And just like in the craft beer market, there is a growing base of cider consumers craving a more artisanal and authentic drink.
Sonoma County producers stand to benefit, especially as they can source local apples such as the Gravenstein and tap into the area’s craft ethos that has made national and international names of breweries such as Lagunitas, Bear Republic and Russian River.
The trend has continued into 2015. Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg expects to more than double its production this year from its first year of operation of 65,000 cases and will open up its cider pub later this summer. Devoto Orchard Cider in Sebastopol has introduced a new sister brand, Golden State Cider, which is expected to triple from the 10,000 gallons it did since August. Tilted Shed Ciderworks opened up its tasting room in Windsor this fall for more people to experience its unique ciders, which have included those aged in bourbon barrels or apples smoked over wood flames.
And as the popularity of fermented apple juice continues to swell, Sebastopol cider maker Jeffrey House plans to ride it out even though he is unsure how the market — estimated at more than $500 million — will eventually segment and mature. Most analysts also are uncertain if the cider industry, and the craft segment in particular, can gain the same foothold similar to the craft beer movement, which has become a $14.3 billion industry with an estimated 10 percent of the national beer market and growing rapidly.
“The growth of craft beer has taken place over a long time. It’s taken craft beer over 30 years,” said Tom Wark, author of the CiderJournal.com blog and a public relations consultant for wineries. “It’s impossible to say for cider.”
As the owner of California Cider Co. in Sebastopol, which produces the Ace Cider brand, House is in a unique position in the marketplace after 21 years in business.
“What my goal would be is to be like the Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas of cider,” said House, a 64-year-old British native with unruly mop of blond hair and wry sense of humor that would be at home in a Monty Python skit.
With nearly $10 million in annual sales and distribution in 46 states, Ace cider is not comparable to its much smaller local competitors, some of whom pride themselves on using only locally sourced apples and a processing technique where they press their own fruit.
But Ace also is not in the same league as the national and global brands that dominate the market. For example, the Angry Orchard brand, manufactured by Boston Beer Co., had a mouth-dropping 57 percent of the retail markets surveyed in the last year, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The remaining companies that had at least 1 percent of the market represented major brewing companies such as C&C Group, Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors and Heineken USA Inc., with Ace having 0.6 percent of the market. House estimates that Ace’s overall share is 3 percent of the market when considering all retail establishments, such as Whole Foods Market, where Ace’s brands are prominently placed, and pubs and restaurants.