PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- No, hard cider drinkers don't want a beer, thank you. They want cider and, as they want more of it, surprisingly large beer companies are starting to give it to them.
According to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group, hard cider sales at supermarkets and other stores hit about $90 million for the 12 months ending Oct. 30. That's up more than 65% from a year earlier and outpaces the 5.6% growth of wine, 13% growth of the craft beer segment and 1.4% decline in overall beer sales just a year earlier. Considering that SymphonyIRI's research excludes sales at liquor stores discount stores such as Wal-Mart (WMT), it may be shortchanging cider's growth a bit.
Part of cider's appeal is that it has roughly the same low alcohol content of beer, but a sweeter flavor for those put off by hop or grain bitterness. Hard cider makers press apples for their juice, add yeast and let the mixture ferment in a process similar to winemaking. The yeast chows down on the sugars in the juice and produces a concoction with 5% to 6% alcohol by volume. That's similar to beer and, like beer, can have its alcohol levels reduced to a more drinkable brew below 4% ABV or raised to a potent, wine-like concoction closer to 12% ABV.
Nonetheless, hard cider sales still get tossed into the overall beer market and account for 0.2% of of sales, according to a report by Nomura Research, which is a sixth of the 1.2% market share held by Samuel Adams Brewer Boston Beer (SAM - Get Report). Yet Americans are developing a taste for sweeter alcohol such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, which helped parent company Mark Anthony Group's sales grow 16.2% in 2011.That sweetness gets cider just about everywhere. Roughly half of cider's consumer base is made up of women, compared with only 20% for beer. It also sells for an average of $35 a case, according to Nomura. That's well above the $29-a-case paid for imported beers and $33 brought in by craft beer. Since last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), MolsonCoors (TAP - Get Report) and SABMiller have also developed a taste for cider and have taken on big cider brewers such as Ireland-based C&C and even Boston Beer. While there are still locally based cider producers throughout the United States, drinkers should know that some big brewers are hiding behind small labels. We found five examples of ciders that aren't quite the little local picks they appear to be: