Stella Artois Gets Into The Cider Game

As you may have noticed, we're slightly obsessed with hard cider. The popular tavern drink in the U.K. and parts of France and Spain is getting big in the U.S., especially with drinkers looking for a change from wine or beer, and with gluten-free drinkers and for me, when I am looking to pair something with a savory crèpe. (Check out our 12 Things You Didn't Know About Hard Cider.) Turns out, we're not alone. Next week, Stella Artois will launch Cidre in the U.S., a European-style cider "made with hand-picked apples," as it says right on the bottle, rolling out in 26 states starting May 13.

Cidre will be available in 4-pack 12-oz. bottles and in 24-oz. bottles, the latter meant to be consumed in restaurants and bars, and the packaging is minimalist, with just the word "Cidre" — French for "cider" — and the Stella Artois logo standing out. It's also pretty low in alcohol, with a 4.5% ABV. (The brand first appeared in the U.K. in 2011.) We spoke with Rick Oleshak, director of Stella Artois in the U.S., to find out why the Belgian beer brand, part of Anheuser-Busch, is getting in the cider game, how it will position itself against craft cider makers and more. (Interview is edited and condensed.)

Why cider and why now for Stella?

It's an interesting time. Ciders are doing really well in the U.S. The cider category is up about 110% in the off-premise (stores, supermarkets, etc) and 70% in the on-promise (bars, restaurants). So there's huge demand for cider right now.

What makes Cidre different?

We think there's an opportunity to differentiate with our palate, which is going to be more of a crisp, dry European-style cider vs. the sweeter domestic ones that consumers are aware of in the U.S. This is really a big moment for us to be able to re-shape the category while it's still in its infancy.

Why is cider getting more popular in the U.S.?

Consumers in the U.S. certainly helped drive the high-end beer market and have served the wine market very well. Consumers are looking for things that are different — new stories. There's been an evolution of craft [beer], of wine, and now cider has certainly fit that sweeter palate type. The timing is right.

How does drinking a Stella Artois Cidre compare to drinking an English hard cider?

We plan to do things differently than you'd experience a cider in the UK — probably in a pint glass, probably with some ice cubes in it. But in the U.S. for Stella Artois Cidre, we're going to go at it with a very unique proposition: targeting those high-end white wine occasions. We want to pour it into a white wine glass unbranded and put that big (24-oz.) bottle right next to it on the table.

Cidre's in a clear bottle with minimal branding. What's the thinking there?

It's cidre, not cider. We're trying to call out that this is not your standard cider. There's something different here, something more powerful, more sophisticated. The second message is to drive home the craftsmanship, and the line is made with hand-picked apples.

That's one of the big selling points here, and with most ciders. The apples.

We're going to be using hand-picked apples from wine-growing regions and if you want to dive a little deeper, we're pulling in Washington State apples, apples from Brazil and Argentina. We've got a great Anheuser-Busch brewery in Baldwinsville, NY that is set up to produce this.

In the American market, so much of the momentum behind cider is from craft cider makers. How does Stella Artois position itself to ward off any backlash?

The important note here is that we're really going for the target of white wine, so it's really being positioned as an alternative to white wine. We've done our research on it, about 72% of our volume in our test will be coming from outside of beer — craft beer, import beer, whatever. So we're talking heavy volume from wine, white wine and then even into the hard liquor and spirits — moreso the white spirits space.

What pairs with Cidre?

It's going to go great with a lighter style of salad, certain cheeses — English cheddars and washed-rind cheeses. But then also chicken and fish do well. That apple tartness can be balanced for things that are spicier, [like] Asian foods. And again, it's a lighter, refreshing type of beverage, but for us we're focusing on that European style, so more the drier taste rather than a sweeter U.S.-style cider.

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