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Sonoma County hard ciders shift to aluminum cans in race to capture market share

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Five years ago, founders of Golden State Cider took a risk on instinct by putting their craft alcohol beverage into aluminum cans. They even doubled down and bought a canning line.

At the time, the move went against conventional wisdom as many cidermakers thought 750-milliliter bottles used throughout the wine industry would be the better route for a better return on investment. There was a hesitancy over cans across the alcohol beverage sector. Even many craft beermakers hadn’t jumped on the bandwagon despite embracing portable take-home growlers.

“Cans are fun. They are adventurous. They are approachable. Approachability is a key tenant of our brand on how we want people to feel,” said Jolie Devoto, who founded the cidery along with her husband, Hunter Wade, in 2012 by selling at local farmers markets.

“People bought the product because it was in a can. Awesome craft cider in a can didn’t exist,” Devoto said. “A can goes so many more places than glass.”

The can gambit paid off as Sonoma County consumers embraced Golden State — especially millennials who were attracted to the design on the cans.

Steady annual sales have propelled the cidery to a produce about 25,000 barrels this year being fermented at a new plant in Healdsburg that will serve the entire state of California. In August, the couple opened a cider taproom in Sebastopol’s Barlow shopping, eatery and retail complex.

Other local cider producers have joined the glass-to-aluminum trend to capitalize on the $500 million annual U.S. hard cider market that’s skyrocketed since 2008 when sales were $44 million, according to Nielsen. However, It’s still a sliver of the $114 billion annual beer market nationwide.

The biggest example was Ace Cider, the largest producer in Sonoma County with about 1 million cases of annual production, installing a $600,000 canning line this summer. Founder Jeffrey House said he’s still somewhat skeptical of cans, noting “most people who prefer to drink it like it in a bottle because they think it tastes better.”

But the marketplace realities cannot be ignored as Nielsen data released earlier this year showed 30% of hard cider is sold in cans, a staggering increase from about 8% of the market the last year.

“Whole Foods is a great place for us to build a brand. They certainly like cans,” House said. “It’s quite extraordinary how much more interest there is in cider.”

House thinks that the market eventually will settle on about 50% with cans and the other half bottles of different sizes.

In Sonoma County, it’s not just larger cideries adding cans to their lineups. Small boutique brands that staked a claim on the 750 milliliter bottles — for which they can charge $15 to $20 — also have started selling cans. That includes such local cidermakers as Tilted Shed of Windsor, which introduced a special 16-ounce can, and Ethic Cider of Petaluma that will have its can version available early next year.

“We struggle with that a bit as we are a small organic manufacturer and we are trying to give this idea of a special product,” said Ned Lawton, founder of Ethic Cider, which sources fruit from its own orchard in Sebastopol as well as buying some from other local growers.

Yet, Lawton conceded the market is definitely moving toward cans.

As the can trend plays out, consumers are favoring local and regional cidermakers in a sector that is still dominated by large brands such as Angry Orchard, owned by Boston Beer Co., and Crispin, a part of MillerCoors. The nationally distributed brands have about 60% of the market in retail outlets, according to Nielsen, but their annual growth was only about 4% during the past year.

In contrast, local and regional hard cidermakers had an annual growth rate of 23% in 2018. There are roughly a dozen such purveyors in Sonoma County even with the closing of Sonoma Cider in Healdsburg earlier this year.

The local angle is a major asset for Sonoma County as cidermakers seek to leverage the Gravenstein apple, which is known across the world thanks to Luther Burbank. The thought is to mimic what is done in the wine sector and have local cidermakers promote the tart fruit to educate consumers across the country why it is a great apple variety for hard cider and why they should buy Sonoma County craft ciders.

That would be a boon to the local apple industry, too, that over the last decade has decreased production, from almost 35,000 tons in 2007 to 9,007 tons last year. More than 90% of the apples grown here go to the Manzana Products apple-processing plant in Graton to be made into applesauce and apple cider vinegar, Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar said.

“If we didn’t have Manzana, we probably wouldn’t have an apple industry,” Linegar said. Acreage has remained relatively stable at 2,166 bearing acres last year compared to 2,190 acres in 2017.

The cider market is still a niche market locally, he said, but added “there is still some room for growth.”

That could be welcome news for apple grower Eric Marshall, who noted that it has been “a tough go” with the tight labor market. Marshall said he sells all of his crop to Manzana. There have been reports this harvest season, which runs from about the middle of July through November, of an oversupply.

Lawton of Ethic Cider, who manages 7.5 acres of apple orchards, said he has sensed that, too. “We couldn’t take all the apples people were offering us,” he said, which included free offers if he went and picked the crop himself.

The issue is personal for Devoto of Golden State Cider because as a child, she delivered apples with her father, Sebastopol grower Stan Devoto, at the apple-processing plant where The Barlow’s complex now stands. Golden State buys about 40% of her father’s crop while the rest goes to farmers markets and retail establishments, Jolie Devoto said.

“We are finding there is cider terroir just like there is wine terroir,” she said, referring to the French term that gives grapes their taste as a result of the particular climate, soil and terrain where they are grown.

Golden State sources fruit from Oregon because northwest orchards can produce more tonnage per acre than local growers and there is not enough cold storage space in California to store apples that have been picked and juiced later, she said.

“The ciders that come from Sonoma County are going to be way more expensive than our core ciders,” Devoto said. The flagship labels retail at $11 for a four-pack while the local harvest ones are from $16 to $20.

But she expects more growth in sourcing California apples throughout the state. The question on whether Sonoma County could play a bigger role is more uncertain.

“I’m hopeful we will sell more of the harvest series year after year as people become more educated where their fruit comes from,” Golden State’s Devoto said. “I’m not necessarily hopeful of more apples being grown hyperlocally just because of the price of land is prohibitive for planting an apple orchard at this point of time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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