Day two of Cider Con has been perhaps even more energetic than day one, with general positive enthusiasm leading into some intense discussion of issues, problem solving, and networking. One of the major themes I’ve encountered today has been the Beer vrs Wine issue. While in the UK, cider has a culturally recognized place as a distinctive and individual drink (relatively speaking here – I know the same issues do still apply), here in America, people are dealing the issue that hard cider is essentially a non-entity, and many discussions today have revolved around how to fit your product into the appropriate beer and wine markets, how to communicate with distributors in those markets, and how to speak to them in a language they understand while educating them about the character of the drink you want to create. Britons, you’ve probably dealt with all this too, but the thing that I can’t help but notice here is that AMERICANS LOVE TO SELL STUFF. That’s right, I’ve come back home to the land of the aggressive, enthusiastic, and self-assured entrepreneur. Americans love to sell stuff, and they know how to do it well. The challenge I see people tackling here is not just developing product identity and creating markets to fit – which I am sure will happen in the long term – but rather harnessing the strengths of the wine and beer markets that already exist and channeling cider through those markets in the ways most beneficial to individual businesses and their products. The strength of the distinction between the wine and beer markets, and the approaches to these markets in the United States was very striking, perhaps the more so because of the muscular approach these American cider makers have towards using and manipulating the markets to their best advantage, something I had not experienced in England. This is possibly attributable to both the difference in cider culture itself between the countries, but also to the cultural differences in the approach to business practice and marketing.
Below, I include a rough transcript following an exchange during one of the workshops led by representatives from Virtue Cider, based in Chicago and run by folks with a successful history in the craft beer industry, and Farnum Hill Cider of New Hampshire, with a background in orcharding and a more wine market approach. This is not an exact transcript – but an approximation of some interesting exchanges on these topics, with me typing as fast as possible while listening and trying to get as much of the words and the gist of it as possible:
What to say when you don’t know how to sell cider?
- Farnum Hill Ciders: We are more wine-like in our behavior than beer like – we don’t want a sales associate to think if we run out of something that there will be more soon. We want to create the sense that scarcity is good. Beer reps find this difficult to understand
- Virtue Ciders: We looked at cider within the craft beer market of Chicago. We were able to use the momentum of craft beer here and in other regions, also with the craft beer expertise of me and Greg from Goose Island. We needed to educate our audience when we started with craft beer. How to do this with cider? With Virtue, we use a lot of beer yeasts and barrel age our ciders in wine, raw oak, and bourbon barrels. For me, with the products that we have, we have been able to penetrate the craft beer business with cider. I’m still learning the production side, so that we can put it out in the market. I have to let accounts know what is coming up next in production, and explain it to the consumers. I do tastings in Chicago, not just as a rep for Virtue Cider, but to educate the public in general about styles of cider.
Audience Question: What are the styles of cider? Dick Dunn has created styles for use in the Great Lakes competition.
- Farnum Hill Ciders: I think that is a pile of horsefeathers, as there aren’t any defined styles now. I don’t think we want to predefine styles by region too early – it took a long time to do in Europe, and it will take a long time to do here. Same with single variety cider. I think what is happening now happened in the American Wine market in the 50s 60s an 70s.
- Audience Question: Dick Dunn is trying to satisfy the beer geek crowd –
- Farnum: But you shouldn’t have to do that to satisfy people who don’t know anything about your product
- Audience comment: let the consumers choose – tell them what is in the product and let them decide what they want out of it.
- Virtue: If we are educating people about the variety of ciders in general, than we should have things to satisfy different parts of the market.
- Farnum Hill: You have to get rid of the preconceptions the consumers might have about cider before they get the product in their mouths
- Farnum Hill: The challenge of dealing with the beer market – they always expect something new ie Christmas beer etc? And we don’t do that. We make the same thing every year. Like wine, our strength is terroir.
- Virtue: with my experience in beer, we still have the flagship products, like the Redstreak. Also we have accounts who are more interested in local than in new. We are relaunching, in a sense, the 2012 harvest of the Redstreak to get a bit of hype about this year’s product.
- Farnum: Wine people aren’t about what is new, but what is continuous. The culture of the beer world is hard on cider makers, and you have to decide what you want to take from the beer world and what you want to stamp out of your representatives.
- Farnum: As to styles: I’m against regional styles that tie styles to cultures that no longer exist and need to regenerate (idea of a New England style based on historical cider making to which there is little continuity). As we become better cider makers, and establish orcharding traditions for cider, these styles will emerge. In the meantime let’s talk about sensory style, so that people know what kind of taste experience we are going to take them through.
Stay tuned – I’ll post some more on other issues from today later on.