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Craft brewers, beer makers compete as cider sales soar

Joshua Mott, owner of Her Father's Cider Bar + Kitchen, is pictured on the site of his soon-to-be opened establishment in Toronto on Thursday, May 5, 2016.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This year's third annual craft-cider week in Ontario will include the grand opening of a bar that pays homage to the fruit-based alcoholic beverage by offering more than 80 different types of cider.

This ode to the fermented fruit drink – already popular in Britain – shows cider is clearly having its moment in the spotlight in Canada.

Cider started gaining momentum with Canadian drinkers several years ago and the growing taste for the beer alternative has prompted craft brewers and established beer giants to fight for a share of the profits. "Similar to the way craft beer has carved out a niche for itself, I think craft cider has just as much, if not more, potential," said Joshua Mott, the son of craft-cider brewers who will open an establishment called Her Father's Cider Bar + Kitchen in Toronto in late May.

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Thomas Wilson, who grew up on his family's apple orchard and co-founded the Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon, Ont., in 2009, said he and his wife wanted to continue growing apples and turned to cider to add value and allow the business to run year-round.

In the years leading up to the launch, he studied the potential for selling the drink in Canada.

"We saw the beginning of the uptick in cider," said Mr. Wilson, chairman of the Ontario Craft Cider Association, a relatively new organization that now has 20 members as more people get into the business.

"The market is very hot right now," Mr. Wilson said. "It's open to anyone that's there first."

The Ontario Craft Cider Association considers any locally owned, independent cider producer that brews up to 2.5 million litres annually for domestic consumption qualifies for the craft designation.

As the number of cider makers grows, so do the variations they concoct. The taste ranges from dry to sweet, and ciders tend to fall between 4 per cent and 8 per cent alcohol content.

This year's Great Lakes International Craft and Perry Competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., judged nearly 800 entrants in its commercial division – more than double the 300 competitors in 2013.

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Sales started to spike in 2013, according to Euromonitor International's report on cider trends in Canada.

Overall cider sales jumped 20 per cent to $61-million at stores operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in 2014 and '15, with sales of craft cider up 93 per cent.

Mike Lachelt, co-owner of Salt Spring Wild Cider on British Columbia's Salt Spring Island, said people choose to buy craft ciders partly because of increased interest in local products and because they may trust these companies more than bigger brands.

But it's not just small, craft cideries entering the competition. Major beer manufacturers are also launching cider brands as they search for ways to offset sagging beer sales, according to Euromonitor.

Molson Coors Canada, for example, sells three ciders in Canada – Strongbow apple cider, Molson Canadian cider and the recently launched Wanderoot craft cider. They are only available in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

Wanderoot is Molson's answer to the rising consumer taste for craft cider and is targeted at older, more discerning drinkers who love craft products, said Kristi Knowles, vice-president of insights, innovation and portfolio strategy.

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The company has been eyeing cider's potential for some time. Four years ago, it decided to work try to become the national market leader and, according to internal data, its ciders now account for about 23 per cent of market share, she said.

Molson Coors Canada wants to grow that to more than 40 per cent over the next six years. Ms. Knowles said part of that strategy is getting more of its cider on draft in restaurants and bars, experimenting with new flavours and selling variety packs.

"We have our eyes open to what gaps we have in our portfolio going forward and how we might fill them," said Ms. Knowles, suggesting the company may launch more innovative products or purchase an existing product. But Ms. Knowles said the company believes its three current offerings cover a broad segment of consumer tastes and will continue to invest in them heavily.

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