For years, brewers have been trying to convince women to drink more beer. Now, as hard cider gains momentum in the U.S., they’re facing the reverse challenge: Marketing a category with a strong female fan base to All-American dudes.
"Men like the taste of cider as much as women do," says Wilson Barr, CEO of T.W Pitchers’ Snake Bite, a fledgling beer-cider hybrid adapted from a drink popular in the U.K. "Previously they may have looked 'soft' drinking cider, but that’s changing."
U.S. brewers are investing in the apple trend, even as skeptics raise a wary eyebrow ("Is it okay for men to drink cider?" Esquire recently asked its readers). In March mega-brewer MillerCoors launched Smith & Forge, a hard cider that oozes testosterone, and last year it spent $30 million to launch Redd's Apple Ale, a golden ale with "natural apple flavor."
"There's a huge opportunity to bring millennial males into cider," says Anup Shah, MillerCoors director of innovation for new products. Smith & Forge, with black and orange packaging evocative of old-fashioned blacksmith shops, has been focused on "communicating that this is distinctly designed for men," from its moderately sweet flavor to its Funny or Die-compatible social media presence. (The cider's "men made strong" marketing campaign even features a custom-made arm-wrestling machine that dispenses samples at live events.) Five months in, Shah says, men comprise 80% of the brand's volume, with Smith & Forge now available at 3,000 distribution outlets, including on draft at sports bar chains like Buffalo Wild Wings.
The overall growth of the category, as well as anecdotal evidence cited by cider makers and industry analysts, suggests that male-oriented ciders are indeed hitting their target. Five years ago, in 2009, U.S. consumers spent $109 million on hard cider, barely a blip in the radar alongside the beer category, then worth $42.7 billion, according to market research firm Euromonitor. By 2013, that spending had jumped to $448 million, a growth rate of more than 300% versus beer's steady 6% growth. With hard cider still just a fraction of the market share it boasts in the U.K., domestic devotees are confident there is still room for growth.
"Cider has had a lot of success among women," says Jared Koerten, an industry analyst for Euromonitor, noting the drink's sweeter flavor. But millennials' love of novelty and experimentation, first a boon for craft beer, has paved the way for a new generation of cider fans, he says. "People don’t want to drink what their parents are drinking. It’s about individuality, self-expression. Microbrews are something unique, and cider fits nicely into that narrative."
As for Snake Bite, Barr and cofounder Tommy Hester took care in designing the packaging to stand out on shelves in a way that would appeal to men. Instead of a paper wrapper, the logo is painted directly onto the glass, with a sharp-toothed, yellow-eyed snake encircling the bottle. The result is more expensive to produce but also more tactile, giving the raised scales a sinister verisimilitude. "We went with more of an aggressive label because we wanted a cider that guys could drink," Hester says.
Barr points to competitor Angry Orchard, another relatively recent entrant, as another example of brewers' interest in branding cider as "hard-core" enough to resonate with male drinkers. "They’re aiming at a masculine market," he says. Angry Orchard's tagline reinforces the message: "Refreshing hard cider with attitude."
Barr and Hester delivered the first four-packs of Snake Bite to shelves in northern California last summer, after raising $300,000 from friends and family and contracting with a Wisconsin microbrewery that blends beer and cider according to Snake Bite’s recipe. They wouldn't share figures, but say sales have been encouraging.
The pair hope to develop a range of hybrid brews in the style of a shandy (any drink that mixes beer with lemonade, juice, or soda), but competition for shelf space will be stiff. Angry Orchard has been expanding its footprint at a rapid clip, Koerten says, thanks to the distribution networks of parent company Boston Beer. At the same time, leading microbreweries have been experimenting with shandy drinks, like Sixpoint’s RAD.
Snake Bite’s young founders are unfazed, as they keep their heads down while working out of a 1975 Airstream trailer, remodeled to function as company headquarters, complete with beer tap. "We want to stay on the path of light and refreshing, but unique," says Barr, a millennial in step with his peers. "At the end of the day we want to make something we want to drink."