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How the Craft Brew Alliance's Joe Casey Is Hopping Up Cider

Stocks in this article: BREW

Since then, Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) has been pushing Michelob Ultra Light Cider as it tries to wriggle its way into cider. Meanwhile, Irish cider superpower C&C Group -- which owns the Magners cider brand and bought California-based Hornsby's in 2011 -- made a big push into the U.S. market by buying Vermont Hard Cider, its Woodchuck brand and nearly 50% of the U.S. cider market in October for $350 million. Not to be left out, Heineken bought Vermont Hard Cider's U.S. rights to the Strongbow brand last year as well. In February 2012, MolsonCoors (TAP) and SABMiller joint U.S. venture Miller Coors bought Minnesota-based craft cider producer Crispin for a reported $40 million and have nosed into the cider section even further by offering Redd's Apple Lager. Even the folks behind Mike's Hard Lemonade have begun offering a cider options.

So what's leading the Craft Brew Alliance to believe Square Mile can succeed not only in the California, Oregon and Washington markets where it's sold, but potentially nationwide? The launch party the company held for Square Mile at Bushwhacker Cider, a Portland-based cider maker that is also the city's only cider-specific bar and bottle shop, offers some clues. While growing, the cider market as a whole is far from saturated and still fits itself into about four of Bushwhacker's coolers with plenty of room for imports. Boston Beer's Angry Orchard entered the market only last year and is already the most popular cider in the country.

It's also a market of huge niches just waiting to be filled. In Philadelphia, for example, Philadelphia Brewing's line of Commonwealth Ciders with hints of ginger and raspberry were so successful that they were spun off into their own entity. While Square Mile's Original recipe is a simple mix of Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious and Jonagold apples with lager yeast, the Alliance's cider maker may have hit on its company's own mix by adding a hefty portion of Galaxy hops to its Spur & Vine variety.

While it's a blend that's already been tried in Square Mile's native Oregon by Wandering Aengus (Anthem Hop Cider) and Reverend Nat's (Hallelujah Hopricot) and in nearby Washington by Finn River (Dry Hopped) and Tieton (Yakima Valley Dry Hopped), Square Mile's is far more subtle. It give the cider a tart, sour apple finish without being off-puttingly bitter. With Square Mile being made in Milton-Freewater, Ore., within spitting range of hop country, it's a natural choice and a great way to tap a potential craft beer drinking base ordinarily put off by cider.

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