According to Nielsen data supplied by the United States Association of Cider Makers, the cider beverage category continues to expand, with off-premise sales up 9.4 percent in the third quarter of 2018 versus the prior year. Customers also are buying local: Regional cider sales are growing four times as fast as national cider brands. That’s good news for members of the Michigan Cider Association, which is under new leadership for the first time in its four-year history. Newly appointed President John Behrens, co-founder of Hudsonville-based Farmhaus Cider Co., talked with MiBiz about the state’s leading role in this growing segment of the craft beverage industry and changing consumer mindsets. The annual Grand Rapids Cider Week, which includes the world’s largest cider competition, takes place this week.
Why is the Michigan Cider Association critical?
Cider is probably the most agricultural-based of any of the predominant alcoholic beverages that you drink in Michigan. There’s a big need for bringing producers and farmers together. There’s also a big need from the legislative front. As we know, Lansing changes the rules frequently.
Why do you think you were chosen to lead?
(Farmhaus) has been a part of the organization from the start, so we know what the issues are to be dealt with, we know where we need to go, and we have some fresh ideas. I also have a willingness to step up and lead and put in the time to really grow this for everybody.
What is your first step to stimulate growth?
Getting cider the recognition that it deserves. Sometimes, I feel like cider gets positioned as the awkward stepchild to wine and spirits. We’re doing a lot of things here that I think people will look back on and be very proud of.
Is there a lack of pride among people in the cider industry?
A lot of people are coming from an agricultural background and are very, very humble types of people — which is great. But, at the same time, we’re doing something that’s very cool, very unique, and that isn’t happening in many other parts of the world. Instilling that pride in these people that are producing and recognizing them for the work helps give them the confidence to go out and really push this product and get excited about it.
We’ve seen a lot of new brands and flavors of cider come to market in the past few years.
People are starting to wake up to the diversity of cider. In the past, it’s always been thought of as this sweet drink you only drink in the fall, but people have started to realize there are a lot of different types of cider out there, different farm-based cideries, and different ingredients used in cider. Cider is just as diverse as any other alcohol category. A lot of people say cider is kind of where craft beer was 20 years ago.
We’re still doing the hard work when it comes to individual accounts. Your neighborhood bar might think if they have one cider on draft, they’re good. That’s sort of how craft beer was 20 years ago. If they had one craft beer on tap, they had that area covered. Well, no, there are dry ciders, there are sweet ciders, there are all the different categories like fruited, (or made with) hops. You need a little bit more diversity.
Are you open to sharing your knowledge and experience?
We’re very open. If people continue to drink more and more cider in New Mexico, for example, then that benefits everybody. If everybody is talking and thinking about cider, it doesn’t matter what cider they’re drinking. They’re going to drink more of it than they did the year before and that’s a good thing. I think every person in the craft beverage industry is realizing we’re all in this together, no matter the product.
If the consumers are more willing to experiment, does that mean that producers are freer to experiment, too?
Yes. That’s one area where cider has a big advantage, by being a young category. With beer and certainly with wine, you’re seeing there’s a big history component to it and there are certain things to be respected about the history. With cider, even though it was once the most popular drink in America, there really isn’t a public knowledge about categories of cider, so it’s really a blank canvas for cider producers.
Is a blank canvas a good thing?
It’s nice to have a clean slate, because you can do whatever you want from a creative standpoint, but it also makes the choice a bit overwhelming for the consumer. They don’t know or recognize what they will like, or they just think historically cider is a sweet drink.
Because the categories aren’t as well known as a Cabernet or an IPA.
Exactly. Those give you a starting point. If you’re a producer of Cabernet, you will likely sell a fair amount of it without having to educate anybody because people know what a Cabernet is. Cider’s a bit opposite. There is zero pressure to compare Farmhaus’ cucumber cider to anybody else’s because there isn’t anyone else to compare it to — but there’s also no basis for consumers to start with.
What are some tactics that your company uses to educate consumers about cider?
Tastings. That’s not a very exciting one, but they work and that’s why everybody does them. … Anything you can do that gets a group of people together, I think, is great.
Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young.
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