NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Hard cider has evolved from that potent pint of Cider Jack at the college pub or that syrup-sweet bottle of Woodpecker someone left in your beer fridge in the mid-'90s.
Too often dismissed as the wimpy little stepbrother of macro and craft beer, cider has come into its own and broken up the boys' club around the tap handle. Cider sales skyrocketed 25%, to $49.6 million, during the 12 months ending Oct. 30, according to research firm SymphonyIRI. That outpaces the 2% growth of wine, the 5% growth of the craft beer segment and the 1% 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, that number's likely still a little light.
That's still fairly small, considering cider makes up only 0.2% of the overall U.S. beer market, according to a report by Nomura Research. Compare that with Boston Beer (SAM), which holds just about 1% of the U.S. beer market and still brought in $138 million in the third quarter of 2011 alone. Yet cider's growth is hardly surprising considering the upticks in craft beer and wine sales and the increased popularity of products such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, which helped parent company Mark Anthony Group's sales grow 23% in 2010.There's a segment of the drinking population that likes their drink of choice a bit sweeter. Roughly half of cider's consumer base is made up of women, compared with only 20% for beer. As if that's not enough incentive for brewers to build their cider base, cider sells for an average of $35 a case, according to Nomura. That provides a dramatically larger cut that the $29-a-case commanded by imported beers and $33 brought in by craft beer. Though Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), MolsonCoors (TAP - Get Report) and SAB Miller haven't caught on to the U.S. cider market as of yet, there are still big players involved. Boston Beer is best known for its Samuel Adams beers, but its Hard Core cider sales grew 21% last year. Heineken International, meanwhile, imports England's H.P. Bulmers Stongbow cider to the U.S. and watched sales spike 34.7% in 2011. Those heavy hitters are hardly the only cider options on the shelves or stick. Whether you're a cider sipper who contributed to last year's surge and wanted to try something different or an insecure beer stalwart who secretly wants to taste some apple or pear in your pint, here are five strong cider suggestions worth sampling: