Britons give China a taste for cider

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The Independent Online

The Chinese translate it as the "pecks-wood bird". But zhuo-mu-niao, or Woodpecker, is about to hit the fashionable bars of Peking. Britain's West Country, home of scrumpy and fermenting apples, is poised to give the Chinese a taste of the sweet stuff.

Bulmers, the Hereford-based cider firm, has set up a joint venture with a Chinese company to sell sweet cider to the world's most populous nation. The first apples were laid down for fermentation at the start of March and pioneering bottles of Woodpecker, Chinese-style, will be on sale within two weeks.

The joint venture has involved building China's first cider-making plant in the city of Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, in the eastern province of Shandong. Apples grown in the Shandong province, which produces 40 per cent of the world's crop, will be used to brew a local version of Bulmers' flagship brand. There is no shortage of raw material: China grows 20 million apples a year.

"Goodness knows what they used to do with all the surplus," said Aidan Smith, Asia manager for Bulmers, who admitted his company was in for the long haul. "The key is education. Most people around the world drink beer but they don't know what cider is. As you get wealthier you develop a repertoire of drinks. This won't happen overnight."

Woodpecker will be sold in bottles in Peking and Shanghai, in restaurants, bars and supermarkets. The label will show a woodpecker and its Mandarin equivalent, zhuo-mu-niao, together with "cider" and the Mandarin for apple wine, pinguo jiu.

Woodpecker will target the newly affluent Chinese middle class, aged 18 to 35, who drink in the pricier bars of Peking and Shanghai. At 10 yuan (77p), and three times that of the average Chinese beer, the bar price reflects this. It will also be more sugary and bubbly to appeal to the Chinese sweet tooth.

The company is confident. "Our consumer research shows that Woodpecker will quickly become a favourite, especially among young people," said Bruce Richardson, general manager of the joint venture, the Qufu Bulmer San Kong Cider Company.

Bulmers' move into China was welcomed by the National Association of Cider Makers. "It's good news and it's spreading the word of cider around the globe," said Bob Price, secretary of the association. "The aspiration for wealth in China means that anything Western is acceptable."

Cider is not entirely new to the Chinese. Bulmers' only rival in the UK , Matthew Clark, already exports Diamond Black to China, while other Western brews have gained a foothold. Irish pubs have been selling Guinness in Peking for several years now, a drink which is also sold for its medicinal benefits.

Not all have been success stories. Tennent's, owned by Bass, failed to win over the Chinese even though it was marketed using images of the Loch Ness monster, which the Chinese consider a lucky dragon.

Bulmers' expansion abroad is a sign that the cider industry sees limited opportunities within the UK. Despite enjoying a firm hold in the consciousness of the drinking public, cider remains small beer in retail terms. Fewer than 2,000 people are employed in the British cider industry.

A combination of alcopops, poor weather, duty rises and cheap Channel ferry beer in the 1990s, caused British sales to fall from 510 million litres in 1995 to 480 million in 1998, a drop of six per cent. The slump claimed many victims, wiping out mainstream cider production in Devon when Inch's Cider was taken over by Bulmers.

The picture is a little happier today. Although Britain's cider industry resembles a boxer gingerly picking himself off the canvas it remains the largest in the world, representing 10 per cent of the "long drinks" market in the UK that includes lagers and bitters. Last year, sales rose more than six per cent.

"Cider is a fragile product and very sensitive to price increases," said Mr Price. "Sales can be quite elastic and we are still a small industry."

Quite what Confucius, whose simple tomb lies a mile to the north of the town, would make of it is anyone's guess. Perhaps the sage would point to an unattributed Chinese proverb: "A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in." Twenty-five centuries later it's a Woodpecker that will be sliding down the gullets of the newly affluent Chinese middle class.