The IWSR reports that cider is in vogue and that in 2018 the UK market recorded another year of volume and value growth.
Cider has, however, not always been in fashion and over the last 50 years the UK industry has had to sail through choppy waters to reach the calmer waters of today. It has often been a tale of feast and famine or boom and bust for the country’s cidermakers.
There were the steep duty rises of 1976 and 1984, which triggered a sharp rise in the price of their product. Then there was the migration of many cider drinkers to the newly established alcopop market in the mid- to late 1990s. Probably the most damaging though was the introduction of strong cheap white ciders which tarnished the reputation of cider to such an extent that Bulmers, the then owners of the UK’s biggest brand Strongbow, stopped marketing the brand as a cider. By the turn of the century, cider had become the drink that dare not speak its name.
With more than 50 years in the industry, John Thatcher navigated one of the country’s largest producers, Thatchers, through these challenging times and laid down the foundations for the company to become a modern-day beverage success story under his son Martin.
John Thatcher deems one of the challenges for the industry – the steep duty rises of the 1970s and 1980s – as being a positive in reality for the category. The subsequent price rises played a valuable part in putting cider on a par with beer in the eyes of consumers. “Cider had traditionally been a very cheap, basic and sometimes unrefined drink in pubs, consumed by those with limited incomes. But the duty rises began the onset for cider becoming as expensive as beer in a pub.”
Higher prices had helped cider become upwardly mobile and this was an important process in broadening the audience from the West Country male that was the cider stalwart of the 1970s and early 1980s. Today, cider is a broad church spanning all social and income demographics and it is contradicting all the old-fashioned stereotypes. It has as broad an appeal among women as it does men, according to the Thatchers. It is this widening appeal of cider that will sustain the longer-term prospects for the category.
It is this widening appeal of cider that will sustain the longer-term prospects for the category.
Both Martin and John credit C&C Group’s Magners for reaching out to this new consumer and ‘awakening’ the market following its arrival from Ireland, 15 or so years ago. “Cider over ice did not just do a good job selling Magners, it did a fabulous job for all of us.”
The Irish brand recalibrated cider’s image and introduced it to new users. Magners raised the drink’s profile, restoring its confidence and giving it a national and even an international appeal. It enabled cider to break out of its West Country heartlands and onto a bigger stage. Cider giant Heineken, who bought the Bulmers cider business in 2003, report that it now sells more than a third of its cider outside of the UK. This territorial expansion bodes well for the drink’s future fortunes.
It was not that long ago that John Thatcher could remember when his cider sales were limited to a few local pubs and shops in the nearby town. Today Thatchers cider is enjoyed all over the UK and as far away as Australia, Canada and Japan. John Thatcher cannot imagine what his grandfather, “a perfectionist and innovator”, would have made of that when he arrived at Myrtle Farm back in 1904 and began experimenting with Champagne cider.
These are halcyon days for Thatchers, and under Martin’s stewardship, the company turnover has ballooned from £1m to £100m in just 20 years. John Thatcher believes that like his great grandfather, Martin is a pioneer who has built the business up through “investment, innovation and good leadership”.
John Thatcher believes that like his great grandfather, Martin is a pioneer who has built the business up through “investment, innovation and good leadership”.
There is plenty of optimism for the future for cider and John points to the emergence of a new wave of artisan and small commercial cider producers, who are the “seed corn of the future”. These entrants are not viewed as added rivals, but more as new ambassadors for the category. Martin explains that the cidermaking community is close-knit and outsiders looking in might find it bizarre, but cidermakers all work together to fly the flag for their drink. They are united by a quest to constantly improve their product because ultimately if somebody orders a pint of cider and it does not deliver a good experience, then they will switch to beer and that affects all cider producers.
Martin thinks that the sheer versatility of cider gives it advantages over other alcoholic alternatives and that will underpin the continued expansion of the category both at home and abroad. You only need to look at the diverse range of ciders listed in the Thatchers portfolio to see how flexible cider can be and it is becoming more so. Their latest introduction, Thatchers Rosé, typifies the spirit of innovation at Thatchers and has proved to be the company’s most successful launch ever. Thatchers Rosé demonstrates how the flexibility of cider can bring new drinkers into the category and fuel its ongoing development.
Thatchers Rosé demonstrates how the flexibility of cider can bring new drinkers into the category and fuel its ongoing development.
The Thatchers’ confidence in the future of cider is borne out by the scale of their investment in recent years. A new £14m cider mill that will double production capacity, while the company’s award-winning apprenticeship scheme will provide the people to take the business forward in the coming decades. More than 50,000 new apple trees were planted last year to yield tomorrow’s fruit. The next generation of Thatchers are also being groomed “to keep the passion going”. Martin’s son planted many of the trees last year, and his daughter has just completed a winemaking season at a winery in Australia. Cider and winemaking are very similar processes.
Martin is more than happy that the investment in the years ahead is more than justified. “The English bittersweet cider is like no other drink anywhere in the world, it is a quintessentially English and beautiful drink. The future for cider is rosy.”