It's always hard to know when to start adding new beverages to the bar mix, but all the signs are right that, if you haven't already, it's time to take on a few ciders.
First, the macro-outlook: in 2009, cider had a $35 million market in the U.S., mostly New England, the Pacific Northwest and around the Great Lakes. Last year, it soared into a $172 million industry, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI. That's almost one hundred percent growth from the year before, and while the growth comes from a very small base, it does mean that the fad is turning into a trend any smart bar operator needs to consider, especially with Big Beer overall flat. And while it might seem that it's the supermarket channel where all the cider action is happening, researcher GuestMetrics, a company that measures drink sales in bars and restaurants, reports that cider sales on-premise rose 49 percent from 2012.
There are the big guys of course - Boston Beer's Angry Orchard has boomed, Stella Artois Cidre line is showing up all over, and well-established brands like Magner's, Woodchuck and other national brands are growing. But small ciders are making headway as well, catching a tail wind from craft brewers, using techniques including dry-hopping, barrel-aging, spontaneous fermentation and mixing in different ingredients - honey, citrus, herbs and spices - to create new sorts of flavors.
Some of these ciders are even opening tap-rooms, as the laws relax, making their local connection strong. In Mass., Bantam Cidery is set to open the first tap room dedicated to cider in their Somerville headquarters. Nine Pin Cider Works, a craft cider company in Albany, New York, has become the first licensed farm cidery in The Empire State.
Cider is even showing up in cocktails. In Chicago, Barrelhouse Flat invited bartenders to create cider cocktails with Virtue’s Mitten cider. Many bars now have cider cocktails on their menus - at Chicago's Longman and Eagle, there's a hopped cider with local aquavit, Aperol and bitters. And also in the Windy City, two bars are soon to open devoted to cider, one with 100 brands, the other with owners that will make their own at a Michigan farm.
The question, as any smart barman asks himself when a new product comes along, is "What do I lose to make room for the new?" That shouldn't be hard to answer: being nimble about what you carry and promote is more important than ever. If you're a malt seller, with loads of whiskey and locally-brewed beer, you've already seen the writing on the wall and have slowly brought ciders in to see how they work. For others with weak beer sales, tossing a few national brands that are underperforming won't likely hurt beer sales, and may add the Millennials or beer-averse females who are the likely consumers of any cider - national brand or local small producer.
Cider, America's real native drink long before the wave of German brewers arrived here changed things in the 19th century, is finally back in vogue.