A reliable punchline in the American craft beer industry is that premium craft lagers are just about to catch on. “Next year is going to be the year of the lager,” Sam Calagione proclaimed with a knowing laugh at the annual gathering of the North American Guild of Beer Writers during the 2023 Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville last April. It wasn’t and it never is, at least not in the way true believers envision it. That’s the joke.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that hard cider is just another joke to the craft brewing industry. There’s a collegial enough relationship between the two segments thanks to some shared values, techniques, and workforces. And cider has enjoyed some buzz over the years, rising on the tide of craft beer’s second boom, and stepping forward as an alternative to malt-based beverages as gluten became protein non grata in trendier #wellness milieus last decade. But even with far deeper roots in American history, the nation’s 1,000-plus cidermakers have never managed to find equal footing to their fermenting brethren on American store shelves, tap towers, or distributors’ trucks. Cider is no punchline, but it simply doesn’t punch at the same weight as the United States’ mainstream beverage-alcohol categories.

2023 was no breakout for the fourth-category comer, either. Cider was up 1.9 percent in off-premise dollars year-over-year in 2023, but down 2.7 percent in volume, according to scan data from NielsenIQ (NIQ) analyzed by industry consulting firm 3Tier Beverages. (Beer was +1.4 percent / -3 percent.) On-premise was uglier: The segment finished down over 12 percent in bars and restaurants, per CGA, the on-premise tracker owned by Nielsen.

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2024, though, man? 2024 really could be cider’s year, and not in the craft lager sense. I mean it! The planets are aligning, the signals are encouraging, and the country’s apple-brained acolytes are all abuzz — even as big obstacles still separate the beverage from bona fide mainstream success.

“Cider could not possibly be better positioned to capitalize on where the market trends are going,” Colin Schilling, the chief executive and co-founder of Seattle’s Schilling Hard Cider, tells Hop Take in a recent phone interview. “We are a beyond-beer, full-flavored beverage that has by far the most authentic story. … That being said, I think it’s our opportunity to lose.”

It’s a sentiment I heard again and again from cidermakers and boosters last week in Portland, Ore., at CiderCon 2024, the American Cider Association’s (ACA) 14th annual conference. I buy it: This could be the year that cider shrugs off its reputation as craft beer’s kid brother and becomes a contender for national fridge space in its own right. But Marlon Brando coulda been a contender, too. We all know how that turned out.

(Disclosure: The ACA and the Northwest Cider Association, a regional trade group, comped my ticket to the event, my lodging, and a portion of my airfare to CiderCon. This coverage was produced independently of any editorial oversight from any of the organizations or firms mentioned here — and unmentioned, for that matter.)

The opportunity is considerable. You already probably know this from simply strolling down the supermarket aisle, but just to put a finer point on it: You see a lot less cider in a lot fewer places than beer or wine. To wit: Under 7 percent of the American drinking public bought cider in the off-premise in 2023, 3Tier consultant Mary Mills told CiderCon attendees last week. In the same period, more than 72 percent of shoppers bought beer, despite that category’s doozy of a year. (Wine and spirits clock similar penetration levels.) Cider, argued Mills, has “a huge opportunity to reach consumers that are in a very adjacent category that are drinking alcohol.”

Those consumers are already branching out from the traditional beer/wine/spirits triptych to find other flavorful beverages. Hard seltzer’s deflation and hard kombucha’s stagnation suggests they haven’t yet found what they’re looking for. Zoomers crave authenticity and sustainability and all that good shit (or at least claim to), and cider has it in spades.

These tailwinds and more are blowing through the orchard, reader. But lord, are there headwinds. Angry Orchard, widely considered to have played a similar gateway role for cider as Blue Moon did for craft beer, has left plenty of drinkers with a literal bad taste in their mouths over the years. The American palate is sweet, but not without limit. Boston Beer Company’s once-rising cider now boasts the hemorrhaging sales to prove it. Because of the brand’s sheer size relative to the rest of the pack, it’s dragging the entire category down — another reason those flat-to-down topline stats I mentioned above don’t signal doom for cider writ large.

Still, Angry Orchard’s struggles are old news. Here’s some new news that highlights another major impediment to cider’s apple-based ascendancy. Last week, Congressmen Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania introduced a bipartisan bill to address a wonky system of taxation-by-carbonation that has cider getting hosed by Uncle Sam. “Cider has always struggled because we are taxed as wine, but yet we sell much more like beer in a lot of ways,” says Schilling. (Beer is taxed by volume and tiered to different production levels and other factors, not carbonation.) The Bubble Tax Modernization Act of 2024 would reduce the tax rate for carbonated ciders under 8.5 percent alcohol by volume to match that for similarly carbonated wines below that same strength, and still wines up to 16 percent ABV. That lower levy is $1.07 per gallon, instead of the $3.30 to $3.40 that many ciders pay. If the feds are dinging, say, BeatBox (no carbonation, 11.1 percent ABV) for just over a buck a jug, it only seems fair to take the same rake from ciders, no?

Nobody ever said the American booze business was fair, but while we’re on the subject, we may as well talk about the other big drag on cider’s big year. Cidermakers can’t package product above 7 percent ABV in 16- or 19.2-ounce cans — two of the hottest containers on the market right now — due to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) current standards of fill for wine, under which cider falls. “FMBs [flavored malt beverages] and Imperial IPAs, they have access to those can sizes, but wine and cider don’t,” says Michelle McGrath, the chief executive of the ACA. “It’s just completely pulling that whole opportunity” off the table for the category.

Voodoo Ranger et al. have proven again and again that drinkers, particularly in the increasingly important-to-craft-beverage convenience store channel, love a high-ABV stovepipe. Imperial ciders, like Schilling’s Excelsior line, can’t capitalize. Updated standards of fill would allow cider to “play against craft beer and FMBs on a level playing field,” says Schilling, “which is really all I ask, as a capitalist.” The ACA petitioned the TTB in 2022 to approve 16- and 19.2-ounce fill standards, and the issue has made it to the agency’s unified agenda, but nothing doing so far.

The last obstacle cider faces on its road to real and lasting relevance is, I think, itself. The category has long struggled to find a consensus on where it belongs on the spectrum between craft-focused specialty and consumer-focused commodity. This is a tough needle to thread, especially in an industry growing so fast on such a small base that CiderCon 2024’s 1,100 attendees represented a 20-percent increase over last year. Craft brewing is both a triumphant tale about how ideological rigor can align and empower a small category, and a cautionary tale of how that can quickly turn into internecine distraction that saps resources and scares off drinkers once the boom hits.

Schilling, whose eponymous firm skews commercial compared to its peers, insists that craft brewing is a model for collaboration, innovation, and growth that cider would do well to follow. (The connective tissue is developing: Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson attended CiderCon 2024, and Schilling is slated to speak at CBC this April.) How, then, does he square that segment’s struggles over the past few years with his contention that 2024 is cider’s breakout year?

“I think the challenge with craft beer is sometimes you know, they don’t want to listen to the consumer as much,” Schilling tells me. (Agreed.) “I think cider is in a very similar situation. If your idea of what cider is doesn’t jive with other people in the industry, or quite frankly, what the consumer is looking for, that’s fine, but don’t get in the way, either.”

All jokes aside, for an industry full of true believers, that’s always easier said than done.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Florida man/governor Ron Desantis has finally dropped out of the Republican presidential primary after spending more per vote than almost any other loser to ever do it. Before slinking back to the swamp, the “Pied Piper of Covid” (who took conservatives’ red-assed bigotry toward Dylan Mulvaney’s Bud Light cameo last year as an opportunity to double down on his own sneering transphobia for political gain) recorded a concession speech to presumptive nominee Donald Trump, complete with a quote from Winston Churchill. Only, according to BBC fact-checker Shayan Sardarizadeh, it wasn’t Churchill who said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it’s the courage to continue that counts” — it was a Budweiser ad from 1938.

📈 Ups…

CiderCon broke its previous attendance record by 20 percent Smuttynose parent company Finestkind Brewing acquired Wachusett Brewing Co…. Athletic Brewing Co. notched five of the top 25 growth brands last year in Nielsen scan data for the craft segment… Anchor Brewing Co.’s new owner could be announced by month’s end, and one of the bidding parties includes former owner/industry icon Fritz Maytag

📉 …and downs

Speaker of the House and noted weirdo about checking accounts Mike Johnson (R-La.) once crusaded against booze in small-town Louisiana Coors Light is already out of Super Bowl ad ideas… ABI shut down Wynwood Brewing Co. in Florida, plus Golden Road’s Sacramento taproom… Just in time for the Super Bowl (?), Truly launched a branded hot wing sauce hard seltzer (??) that’s only available at its Los Angeles taproom or online in five states (???)…

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