The Cider Blog

Artisan cider makers need to be noticed

As artisan and craft cider makers – smaller cider makers – we have one major preoccupation in marketing: how to get noticed by differentiating our products from those made by the industrial giants of the sector.

We know that, in general, our cider is a far more wholesome, honest and desirable a product. It is so frustrating that so few of the public understand this – how can they be educated?
The past week or so has seen renewed discussion on the internet forums about this, and, as usual, it is centred around the need for an agreed standard for ‘real’ cider and the need for an independent organisation of small cider makers. I totally agree with the objectives, but with the advance of time have become rather cynical that an agreed standard is the best way of promoting our ciders.

Why has this conversation been ongoing for the best part of a decade without significant progress being made?

Firstly, it is very apparent that no two small cider makers agree absolutely about the scope of what the standard should be. Is it 100% juice of cider apples? What about dessert fruit? Is 95% juice more practical? What does nothing added mean? Is it HMO 162 which allows sulphite, sugar and specific sweetener? I know I would not make cider without these.

Secondly, the cider market has been evolving. Many small cider makers are very opposed to the idea of having added fruit – although very many of them actually produce them, sell them and even enter competitions with them.

Another aspect of the evolution is that the on trade as well as the government have been asking for lower alcohol ciders, and many small cider makers have responded with 4.5% ABV ciders. These, by their very nature and mathematical calculation, are very unlikely to be more than 70% Juice. Do we need different approvals for different level of juice content based on final ABV?

Another trend has been for the traditional designation of Dry, Medium and Sweet ciders to defacto have become sweet, very sweet and uber sweet. Very different to traditional farmhouse ciders – do we need standards to measure this?

The respected Andrew Lea contributed to the debate last week by pointing out that accurate measurement of juice content is scientifically virtually impossible on a practical level anyway.

We are all chasing a dream of a standard that is likely to be unachievable.

Is a standard likely to be that effective anyway?

The idea is that if we have a logo the public will be able to believe that those bottles carrying the logo are trustworthy and worth buying – if the bottle does not carry the logo then keep clear.

Are we sure we are not deluding ourselves about the effectiveness of customer assurance schemes?
For a start – who are ‘the public’. I think that slightly under 10% of the alcoholic drinks market is cider. Of this – by volume – probably less than 5% is artisan cider. Or about 0.5% of the drinks market.

The cider drinking public are by and large very pleased with the products they are getting and only a few are driven to seek out the most wholesome versions. In fact, all the industrial makers of cider use, apples, the countryside, tradition and wholesomeness as a key part of their marketing strategy. Companies such as Thatchers spend millions of pounds cultivating and reinforcing this message. The ‘public’ largely trust and believe them. These cider drinkers do not take kindly to being told that what they like is second rate and they are in fact being conned. A simple logo and standard just will not make significant inroads into this attitude.

In fact, most assurance schemes have limited effectiveness. Take the Red Tractor Food standard which by many is rated as one of the more successful. When was the last time you made a purchasing decision based on whether the Red Tractor was displayed? The definition of free range eggs is another. This is actually a standard with a legal definition. However, people find ways around. Do we really believe the multi-storey layer units represent what free range is meant to be about? With the current avian flu crisis, the birds aren’t even allowed to free range! Yet there are many small flock keepers who keep their birds in genuine free range conditions who are not able to claim the tag. And as for Barn Eggs…

Closer to home is the Casque Beer mark promoted by CAMRA. Is the logo the prime driver behind your selection of which beer you should be drinking – it has fallen away from being relevant.

Many sectors of industry have ‘standard’ scheme and by and large they are falling in popularity and effectiveness – especially as there are so many snake oil salesmen willing to sell you a new standard.

Food and cider competitions have been a similar way of gaining recognition and differentiating yourself. How long is this advantage going to continue? An award at a competition like the Farmhouse classes at the Bath and West means something when there is one first, second and third. However, at the highly publicised competitions like The Great Taste awards from the Guild of Fine Foods – or Taste of the West there is no limit to how many Gold, Silver and Bronze awards they give. Basically if you pay your £35 to enter, unless you send in something really awful, you are guaranteed to get one of these awards that you can stick on your packaging. Do not get me wrong – these organisations do great work and need the entry fees to fund their existence. But…

How should small cider makers be differentiating themselves?

I do think an organisation of small cider makers – distancing it somewhat from the National Cider Makers Association – is a good idea. It has been comfortable to hang on to their coat tails and enjoy their general promoting of cider – however most of us would question whether it is doing anything much for our individual businesses.

However, I do not think any new independent organisation should get itself totally bogged down with the futile expense of setting up, administering and trying to police a ‘standard’.

Maybe there should be a standard, but it should be more to do with ‘ethos’ and ‘apples’ rather than juice content and ingredients. – I open up the challenge to come up with a simple standard along these lines. I think scale of production has to be a part of it and being able to identify where the apples have been harvested.

What the organisation should focus on is not identifying the faults of other makers but promoting the wonderful products of small cider makers. It needs to be proactive.

However, we have to admit that we have a long way to go. We are seeing a raising of the quality and consistency but collectively we need to ensure that producers do not let us down with the inferior products that are still ruining our reputation.

Compared to other sectors of the drinks industry – and even the cider industry we need to focus first on giving excellent products to the 0.5% who are already our customers and helping them become the champions to spread the good news. We will not make much progress until we recognise that proactive positivity needs to come from ourselves.

We need to be championing on line customer endorsement.

The organisation needs to promote education about what makes our ciders so good. The on trade needs to be a target for this education to ensure landlords look after our products and their staff know how to sell them.

We need some collateral – such as beer mats – to promote our products

There is a need to encourage client engagement – at shows, markets, meetings, in store tastings, festivals etc. We all need to be doing this all the time.

We need to be encouraging innovation around packaging, presentation and sales outlets.

We probably need to have a few key high profile events as an organisation to generate interest

Many small producers and some or our wholesalers are already active in doing a lot of this – how much more effective it could be if we focused our energy with an independent organisation furthering and co-ordinating these aims.

Yes, it will need a membership and some money – but we all need to be prepared to put in some of our time – I am sure most of us will be willing as long as we have a co-ordinating organisation to ensure that our effort happens effectively.

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