You’d Be Hard-Pressed to Find a Hotter Alcoholic Beverage Than Hard Cider

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Hard cider has sometimes been portrayed as the old-fashioned “poor cousin to beer.” But unlike the uniformly sweet, fizzy ciders of the past, today’s alcoholic ciders can be dry, bold, fruity, and complex—enough to be interesting long after autumn’s come and gone. And unlike beer, which is mostly considered a “guy’s drink,” today’s ciders are likely to be enjoyed by as many women as men.

Last fall, AdAge noted the impressive sales increase in the hard cider category: For the 12-month period ending October 30, 2011, overall sales were up 25%. Sales had been particularly impressive for the privately held Vermont Hard Cider Co., which boasted 60% of all sales in the category under several brands, including top-selling leading Woodchuck Hard Cider.

Earlier this week, the Ireland-based C&C Group purchased Vermont Hard Cider for $305 million from owner Bret Williams, who bought the company in Middlebury, Vermont, for a mere $2.3 million in 2003. Williams said he’d “left money on the table” by selling without soliciting other bids, but that he accepted the bid quickly in order to best take care of the company’s employees.

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In the alcohol market, craft beers have been getting a lot of the attention lately, and for good reason: As of 2010, there were 1,693 breweries in the U.S., a 2,000% increase from the mid-’80s, and the vast majority of newer brewers are small players. According to the 2012 BeerTAB report from Technomic, craft beer sales in the U.S. rose by 11.2% in 2011, accounting for 5.5% of total beer volume.

While cider is still a much smaller part of the overall market, the report pointed to the category as a “bright spot” that posted the largest gain of all, increasing 31.3%. Some of cider’s success is credited to craft beer, the popularity of which got consumers in the habit of trying new and unusual alcoholic beverages.

Another reason cider is having a moment is that is there’s a good chance women will drink it. Unlike beer, cider is not viewed as an overwhelmingly male drink. “Whereas 80% of beer companies’ consumers are male, cider is gender-neutral, opening up a market in which beer players have struggled,” a 2011 Nomura Equity Research report explained—while also pointing out that a typical case of cider ($35) costs more than craft beer ($33) or imported beer ($29).

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Huge beer companies such as Heineken, Carlsberg, and Anheuser-Busch InBev have taken notice. All are ramping up efforts to expand into the cider market, according to Bloomberg News:

“Cider’s a growth story because of the demographics –it’s sweet, it’s natural, it appeals to the Coke generation,” Stephen Glancey, chief executive officer of Dublin-based C&C Group Plc, which sells two of the world’s biggest brands in Magners and Gaymers, said in an interview. “It’s unisex beer.”

Or is it more like wine? While cider is often seen as an offshoot of the brewing industry—perhaps even calling it the “poor cousin to beer”—wineries are also getting in on cider production. Indiana‘s Oliver Winery, for instance, recently started making and marketing five kinds of Beanblossom Hard Cider, including strawberry and raspberry flavors. Owner Bill Oliver told the Midwest Wine Press:

“I think people are just looking for something new and different and it was cider’s time,” says Oliver. “I’d like to describe it as some sort of moment of truth, but I think as people’s palates evolve they want something more interesting, something different. They’re tired of beer or whatever they’ve been drinking.”

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Because hard cider comes in so many varieties—it might be fruity, sweet, or dry, sometimes a bit like beer and other times akin to sparkling wine—it’s the rare drink that people won’t necessarily get tired of.