PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Unless you were on the East Coast, in a dart league or reading an Irish newspaper at a pub, chances are you weren't drinking hard cider five to 10 years ago.
Apart from Northeast college seniors sipping Woodchuck and Boston locals having Magners on ice, there weren't a whole lot of folks drinking hard cider instead of beer, wine or spirits until just recently. In 2009, cider was a $35 million market in the U.S. that wasn't spreading past core markets in the Northeast, Northwest and Great Lakes. Last year, it exploded into a $172 million industry, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI Group.
That's up from $90 million a year before and is way ahead of the 15% growth of the craft beer segment and the 0.9% uptick overall beer sales just a year earlier. With SymphonyIRI's research excluding sales at liquor stores and discount stores such as Wal-Mart, even that impressive growth may be underestimating cider's impact. GuestMetrics, which measures drink sales in bars and restaurants, notes that cider sales in those establishments rose 49% from 2012.
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 6% or more alcohol by volume. That's similar to craft beer and, like beer, can have its alcohol levels reduced to a more drinkable brew below 4% ABV or a potent, wine-like concoction closer to 12% ABV.
Nonetheless, hard cider sales still get tossed into the overall beer market and account for less than 1% of sales, according to a report by Nomura Research, which doesn't even keep pace with the 1.3% market share held by Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer. 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 1.8% in 2012.
It helps that cider's sweetness doesn't discriminate. Roughly half of cider's consumer base is made up of women, compared with about 28% for beer, according to Nielsen. It's also gaining momentum with younger drinkers. While baby boomers and World War II-era beer drinkers are 41% to 69% less likely to pick a cider than the average drinker, Generation X is 1% more likely to choose a cider and drinking-age millennials are more than twice as likely to go with a cider. Women have no problem picking up cider but are 38% to 46% less likely to pick up domestic, imported or craft beers than their male counterparts.
Cider not only invites everyone to the party, but it gets them to shell out a lot more for the privilege. As Nomura points out, cider sells for an average $35 a case. That's a impressive jump from the $29 per case paid for imported beers and $33 for craft beer.
In the past few years, brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, MolsonCoors, SABMiller and the Craft Brew Alliance have taken on big cider brewers such as Ireland's C&C and even Boston Beer by producing cider lines of their own. While locally based cider producers still thrive and places such as Portland boast cider bars, brewpubs and happy hours, here are the five ciders that are changing the way cider is sold to the U.S. and the world.