Summer is the season for lighter beverages. Mainstream domestic lagers and their low calorie/carb variants come into their own when the weather warms, as do imported counterparts.
What new brands are brewers launching to catch the eye of the customer about to load a 12-pack of their usual selection into the shopping cart? For the beer drinker who may not want the fuller flavor of craft styles, what are the alternatives? And how strong is the challenge from cider?
The big brewers are offering some variety, while staying firmly in the customer’s comfort zone.
At Anheuser-Busch InBev, Andy Goeler, VP of Bud Light, described a new seasonal flavored beer to join year-rounder Bud Light Lime for summer. “We developed Bud Light Orange and a refreshed Bud Light Lime because we know Millennial drinkers are variety seekers. They, along with many others within our Bud Light consumer base, are looking for a range of easy-drinking options in the light lager category, especially during the summer months.”
Both beers are brewed with real citrus peels. “Expanding this citrus portfolio made sense for us, and we feel it answers the call for the perfect light lager for summer occasions,” he says.
Parent brand Bud Light had a rough year in 2017, suffering a 5.7% drop in sales by volume, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights. “These beers are not intended to compete with core Bud Light, but rather to complement them by offering our consumers more variety,” Goeler explains. “They help us keep consumers in the Bud Light family and introduce new drinkers to the portfolio.”
With summer activities in mind, Boston Beer is also offering something new alongside the familiar. “Sam ‘76 is our newest release and is perfect for summer occasions, from a round of golf to a backyard barbecue,” says brewer Jennifer Glanville. “It’s equal parts flavorful and refreshing. With an ABV of 4.7%, it’s easy to enjoy throughout long summer days.” This session-strength beer is brewed with both lager and ale yeasts, in the manner of a cream ale, combining the fruity character of an ale with the smoothness of a lager.
The brewery has a thick portfolio of Sam Adams seasonal beers to draw upon for the summer. “Drinkers have come to know and love our seasonal beers, especially Summer Ale. What it may lack in newness, it makes up for in refreshment and quality, and frankly is a summer staple. Drinkers know when they purchase Summer Ale, they’re going to have an amazing summer beer year after year,” Glanville says. Summer Ale is an American wheat beer flavored with lemon peel and grains of paradise.
One of her favorites is Porch Rocker, a golden helles lager brewed with a blend of lemons, resembling a radler. “It was inspired by German cyclists [radler means ‘cyclist] who first drank beer with lemonade to quench their thirst on a hot summer day and is sunshine in a bottle” Glanville says. “Every time I drink it, I’m reminded of being in Germany with Jim Koch to meet with hop growers and finishing the day with this style of beer in a bier garden.”
Two variety packs—the Beers of Summer can variety pack, with three types of beer; and American Summer bottle variety pack, with six—will offer choices from a range of lighter-character beers.
Meanwhile, Heineken has modified its packaging, not its beverage. “This summer, Heineken is bringing back the innovative CoolerPack, an engineered 18-pack cardboard packaging innovation that allows consumers to chill their Heineken by simply removing the top of the case and adding ice, bringing convenience and occasion-based purchase choice to beer drinkers everywhere,” says Katharine Preville, Brand Manager at Heineken USA.
The CoolerPack has been popular with consumers. “The CoolerPack was recently named 2018 ‘Product of the Year’ in the beer category, in a competition that surveys 40,000 shoppers,” Preville says. Shoppers will be able to buy both Heineken and Heineken Light in the special pack.
Light, refreshing, low in alcohol—all attributes we look for in our summer beer selections. But the terms apply equally to another beverage found on adjacent shelves: cider.
With a heritage as old as beer’s, a wholesome, natural image and the appeal of being gluten free, cider—or “hard cider—has been poised for years to follow the success of craft beer. But this predicted feat seemed to be indefinitely blocked, as long as consumers’ experience of cider was limited to a few sweet varieties. The challenge, as one maker put it, is to move drinkers beyond the perception that all cider “tastes like a Jolly Rancher.”
In the past decade, a proliferation of local cideries has alerted consumers to the drink’s farmhouse origins and variety. Today, cider is one of the fastest-growing drinks categories. Despite a slowing in the past two years, growth among small producers is in the double digits (the total market, however, is about 1.3% as big as beer).
The United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) reports 820 producers as of this year, a doubling since 2014. Regional and local ciders make up one quarter of the market; national beer-owned brands make up three quarters.
The debut of Angry Orchard six years ago (from Boston Beer’s cider enterprise) helped to change consumer perceptions, and the brand has captured about 60% of the U.S. cider market. The edgy name challenged cider’s tame image. And although the flagship Angry Orchard cider is fairly conventional, the brand also has specialty and seasonal ciders that appeal to craft beer sensibilities, including potent barrel-aged ciders in cork-and-cage 750-ml. bottles.
“I don’t know if we are or are not like craft beer,” says head cider maker Ryan Burk, “but I do know that craft beer certainly opened up a lot of people’s minds and palates to new drinks. We’ve been able to latch on to some of that. It doesn’t hurt that people are in touch with local and what that means to them. Cider sort of fits into that space really well, especially with local producers in every state making cider from apples grown in the backyard.”
“The general public (not the educated cider drinkers) doesn’t necessarily know what cider is, where it comes from, how it’s made, or in many cases that it’s even made with apples,” Burk says. “There’s a big opportunity to grow the category through education, and that’s reflected in our current advertising, which is all about teaching people what cider is and showing orchards and apples and cider-making and barrels and fermentation. Real people, that kind of thing.”
When a cider maker like Burk creates a new cider, he selects apples for a balance of sweetness, tannin level and acidity. “So there are three things that I have to work with at a very basic level,” he says. “Then throw in the fact that the most interesting apples have all kinds of aromatic compounds, volatiles that will carry over post-fermentation. That, with a range of 6,000 known apple varieties, and many more that nobody knows about—there’s an endless aromatic composition. We only work with so many apples, but we’re always looking at new things to bring in a whole other dynamic.”
Ridge Cider in Grant, Michigan, operates on a smaller scale than Angry Orchard. But following the acquisition of a majority stake by an investment group in 2017, it’s planning to distribute beyond the region.
Matt DeLong founded the company only two years before, taking advantage of the location in Western Michigan’s orchard country. “We are using real apples, whole apples, from the Ridge area for all of the cider that we make. We are never substituting juice or concentrate, but always whole apples,” he says.
Cider manufacturers are divided—sometimes fiercely—between those who use whole apples or fresh juice and those who rely on juice concentrate (mainly larger producers). The heating and filtering that turn fresh juice into concentrate result in a starting base with little apple character or aroma. Manufacturers then add flavoring, sugars and coloring.
In years past, concentrate was the best way to produce cider year-round. That is no longer the case, meaning that interesting cider can be untethered from fall drinking.
“At our facility, we’ve got a great capacity to hold liquid, which allows us to store a reserve for a good portion of the year,” DeLong says. “Also, the growers in the Ridge area have what’s called controlled atmosphere that allows them to store whole apples during the off-season. That allows us to use whole apples all the time, never substituting even during the off-season.”
These storage methods mean cider is now a year-round beverage, and the connections to local and craft trends are ushering in a variety of styles and ciders for different occasions.
DeLong is in agreement with Ryan Burk that educating consumers about the diversity of cider will be key to its growth. For example, the industry is exploring uniform style guidelines, akin to formal beer styles, that would give the consumer a better idea of what to expect from a particular cider. USACM guidelines define Standard Styles (modern cider, heritage cider, modern perry, heritage perry), as well as Specialty Styles (fruit, spiced, hopped, wood-aged, sour and ice ciders).
In addition, “a lot of hard cider makers are sticking a dry-to-sweet scale on the label. That is being developed amongst the entire category so we’ll all be on the same page,” DeLong says.
“The intention of local or craft cider makers is to share that education with our customers and retailers, the different varieties of apples that go into hard cider, that make for more interesting and complex flavor profiles—much like a wine using different varieties of grape.”
Heineken’s Strongbow, the world’s largest-selling cider brand, sees the affinity with wine as a source of new drinkers. “Cider plays an important role in reaching consumers and playing in specific occasions where beer cannot,” says Eric Markus, Brand Director, Strongbow Hard Ciders. “In 2018, Strongbow is focused on recruiting wine drinkers into the cider category and will capitalize on the fact that nearly two-thirds of wine drinkers who try cider become cider drinkers.”
This summer’s cider trend borrows very specifically from the wine world. For 2018, more than a dozen producers have released rosé ciders. The source of the pink tint varies and, with it, the leading flavors: Strongbow Rosé Apple is made with red-fleshed apples. Crispin Rosé (owned by MillerCoors) incorporates hibiscus and rose petals. Angry Orchard Rosé Cider draws its color and fruit-forward character from a red-fleshed apple variety from France and hibiscus. Virtue Cider, now owned entirely by Anheuser-Busch InBev, features a rosé cider from Michigan apples and “a botanical blend.” Other choices rely on grape skins, strawberries or blueberries. All are pink and very popular.
Is cider the consumer’s alternative to beer or to wine? The lower price point, prevalent six-pack bottle- or can-format and lower alcohol content recommend it to beer lovers. Its popularity with female drinkers—who enjoy it in equal numbers with men, its flavor profile that balances sweetness with tartness rather than bitterness, and the growing numbers of ciders presented in large-format bottles may draw more drinkers from the wine aisles. Regardless, new production methods and growing popularity guarantee it will be an attractive option all year round.
Julie Johnson was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws.