Over the past year, Boston Beer Co.’s hottest brand was not Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Boston Ale, or even a seasonal offering like Octoberfest. In fact, it wasn’t even beer.
Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard cider has taken off like a rocket since its introduction last year, quickly becoming the country’s most popular brand of hard cider and capturing roughly 40 percent of the small but rapidly growing US market. Some 15 years in development, Angry Orchard has displaced Magners Irish Cider and other European stalwarts that have dominated the hard cider market.
“We timed it out pretty well, with a market demand for ciders and curiosity and interest in the drink,” said David Sipes, who as Angry Orchard’s cider master creates recipes and buys apples.
Hard cider, a niche product, accounts for less than 1 percent of the nearly $100 billion US beer market, but some analysts project that sales will grow to about 3 percent of the beer market over the next few years.
Hard cider production jumped last year nearly 70 percent, to 690,000 barrels, from 408,000 in 2011. (A barrel contains 31 gallons, enough to fill about 330 bottles of 12 ounces each.)
This rapid growth is attracting the beer industry’s biggest players.
Anheuser–Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, in May began distributing its cider line, Stella Artois Cidre. Last year, MillerCoors LLC, the country’s second-largest brewer, bought Crispin Hard Cider Co., based in California, and Magner’s owner, C&C Group PLC of Dublin, bought Vermont Hard Cider Co. LLC, of Middlebury, Vt., the maker of Woodchuck Cider.
“All the big brewers are getting involved with new drinks and new alternatives to reach more customers,” said Thomas Mullarkey, a beer industry analyst at the investment research firm Morningstar.
Boston Beer Co. has dabbled in cider for more than a decade. In 1997, as part of a push to expand beyond craft beers, HardCore Cider was born, but the company had more success with Twisted Tea, a hard iced tea it launched in 2000.
Boston Beer Co. retired HardCore last year, changed the recipe, and developed Angry Orchard.
Sipes, who studied fermentation science at the University of California Davis, travels to Italy, France, and the Pacific Northwest to find the right apples to produce sweet, tart, and bitter flavors.
Many of Angry Orchard’s apples come from the South Tyrol mountain region of Italy, where “long daylight, abundant sunshine, and cool nights” allow for apples to mature with different acidity levels than American fruit, Sipes said.
Those apples are then paired with those from orchards in Normandy and Brittany in France, where the apples have been “bred and selected for centuries, specifically for cider.”
Beyond taste, perhaps nearly as important for sales have been names, packaging, and distinctive taps, say Sipes and local bartenders. Advertising and labels showing gnarled trees and imperfect apples have helped make the brand stand out, they said.
“Some guys that are getting a cider, they want it to be angry,” said Jeff Reddington, a bartender at YardHouse in Boston. “The name and the handle stand out.”
Angry Orchard also distinguishes itself by offering a variety of ciders: two mainstays and a rotating selection of seasonal flavors.
Traditional Dry, Sipes said, is more like an English cider, dry and stringent, “like a Sauvignon blanc” wine. The Crisp Apple variety, Angry Orchard’s number one seller, is fruitier and “a little bit sweet.”
Seasonal offerings, such as the summer’s Elderflower, are also popular.
“It was awesome,” said Chris Salton, a customer at YardHouse who tried the Elderflower cider. “It tasted like a Fruit Roll-Up.”
Though beer typically skews toward male customers, about half of Angry Orchard’s customers are women, Sipes said.
At 5 percent alcohol by volume, Angry Orchard’s alcohol content is less than in most wines and on par with beer’s.
Boston Beer does not break out sales by brand, but cider sales have played a major part in boosting the company’s revenues by 21 percent since the beginning of the year. Analysts estimate that Angry Orchard will comprise 20 percent of Boston Beer’s sales volume by the end of 2015.
“If you look in terms of the overall US marketplace, cider only makes up about 1 to 2 percent,” said Mullarkey, the Morningstar analyst, “but clearly it’s a much bigger deal for Boston Beer.”
At Conor Larkin’s Grill and Tap in Boston, which kept Magners on tap for two years, management originally switched the cider to Angry Orchard because it was cheaper, said Matthew Pian, the bar’s general manager. Soon, though, Angry Orchard was outselling Magners, which had been the bar’s most popular cider.
“The results were ridiculous,” he said. “People loved it.”
Sipes, Boston Beer’s cider master, said the company’s strategy is to expand the appeal of hard cider beyond those who have an occasional pint in a pub, through increased distribution and marketing.
“There are more opportunities to drink it,” he said. “It’s coming into its own.”