Cheers! The cider house rules, OK

It was once the preserve of down-at-heel men slumped on park benches. But soaring sales of Magners show the apple-based drink is back in fashion. Jonathan Brown reports
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Golden light floods into an autumnal orchard as apples are harvested in the time-honoured tradition. The action switches to an airy, smoke-free pub where young, good-looking drinkers decant bottles of sparkling cider into ice-filled glasses.

Everything from the edgy, psychedelic guitar track to the sexy Irish burr of the voiceover exudes fun, warmth, middle-class solidity, the very spirit of the changing season. The slogan is one everyone can relate to in this busy world: "Time dedicated to you".

It may be a far cry from The Wurzels, but go into a bar or pub and look around. It seems we are all cider drinkers now.

Yesterday, the makers of Magners Irish Cider, whose television adverts are being described as the marketing success of the decade, announced a triumphant set of financial results. The company's share price has more than doubled, sales are up 264 per cent and profits have risen by some 66 per cent.

At the heart of this story is the repackaging of a drink with a centuries-old tradition, but one that came to be regarded in polite society as only safely consumed from the comfort of a park bench. Today - with no trace of irony, apparently - it is being talked about as the "new chardonnay".

What makes Magners' success so surprising is how it has persuaded the drinking public to switch to a long unfashionable product, readily available in the UK, simply by convincing people to pour it into a glass filled with ice.

Yet, such is its success, that Maurice Pratt, the chief executive of Magners' owner C&C, said the company's biggest headache was that it can't produce enough to satisfy demand. At the moment, the group has the capacity to make 250 million litres a year. But much of this is drunk in its home market, where it sells under the Bulmers brand.

However, Magners is currently engaged in a bid for global domination, claiming footholds in 17 international markets, from Austria to Japan. Having grown too big for the 17 varieties grown at its 250-acre orchard in Clonmel in County Tipperary, Magners has become the biggest buyer of Irish apples. It also consumes a substantial portion of Northern Ireland's crop. The group plans to spend some €200m (£135m) on doubling the company's capacity to 500 million litres over the next year.

Although sceptics say the growth is just a fad, Mr Pratt is unfazed. "We heard it all before when we launched in Ireland," He said. "Everyone said it was just a trend, and it wouldn't last. But it has done."

Magners broke out of the Republic when it was launched in Northern Ireland and the United States in 1999. It was already popular in America but largely among the substantial Irish communities of the main cities. The international aspect took off when the brand was promoted under the new name to Scotland in 2003 and then London and the South-east two summers later. C&C invested £20m in the spring and summer campaigns. The latter hit the screens just in time for this summer's heatwave and World Cup. Shot on location in Auckland and Hawkes Bay in New Zealand by the Dublin advertising agency Young Euro RSCG, brand managers said the campaign was so effective that they were receiving up to 40 e-mails a day from people who had seen it but didn't know where they could buy the product.

Perhaps most strikingly, to a British audience at least, was that the adverts presented a new face of Irishness. Though the word Irish is intergral to the brand's name, the marketing is a world away from the tweedy, dew-soaked image long associated with products emanating from the Old Country. But the idea of these young Celtic tigers, relaxing after a day slaving away on their Macs at the design consultancy, proved seductive with British consumers.

According to Shane Whelan, an account director at Young Euro RSCG, the tone of the advertising campaign was dictated by the product rather than the country of origin. "We didn't dial up the Irishness but we didn't dial it down either," he said.

"Ireland has moved on as a result of the Celtic tiger economy. It is a much more cosmopolitan place than it was 15 to 20 years ago. We have much more transient consumers and a more transient workforce, which is great. We are aware of that, but it is really just about understanding the demographic of the market."

Mr Whelan believes the marketing message was a very simple one. "There is no pretence about it. What has happened in Great Britain is that we have given people permission to drink cider again, but in a new way," he said.

The adverts, specially filmed to emulate the four seasons, have been greatly admired within the media industry.

According to the editor of Campaign magazine, Claire Beale: "They are incredibly atmospheric with an arresting soundtrack. The collaboration of imagery and music made them really stand out."

She added: "The time was clearly right for a new refreshing drink, just as people were getting in that summer frame of mind. It is a very gentle advert, not funny, not laddy, not particularly sexy. It is all about adults conversing together in a civilised setting."

Advertisers have faced increasingly strict controls over how they sell alcoholic drinks, particularly how they represent the sexual attractiveness of the drinker and how they should not appear to appeal to young people. However, that has not prevented the emergence of cider-drinking public personalities such as Prince William, the singer Lily Allen and the Arctic Monkeys.

Not everyone is impressed with the success of Magners. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) has declared October to be cider month and will name its Cider Pub of the Year tomorrow. Yet Camra views Magners' success with something approaching suspicion. It fears drinkers are being drawn in by slick advertising and expensive gimmicks rather than taste. To qualify as real cider, or its pear-equivalent perry, the drink must not be pasteurised, micro-filtered or carbonated, says Camra.

While the makers of Magners trumpet the credibility of the production process - the cider is fermented in oak vats, the apples pressed on the traditional "cheese" at their Clonmel vat house much like it was done by the company founder William Magner back in 1935 - it is fizzy.

But the booming demand is benefiting the more traditional draughts too. Overall cider sales are up by 24 per cent, according to Caroline Penney, from the Association of British Cider Makers. "Cider is enjoying the greatest resurgence in sales for a decade," she said.

Perhaps for this reason Gillian Williams, Camra's director of cider and perry campaigns, is reluctant to attack the brand. "I don't want to talk about the march of Magners, but the pirouette of traditional cider and perry, which is a beautiful if limited dance. It doesn't have the massive multi-million advertising campaign behind it, nor is it present in every pub. But it does have a beautiful fragrance, taste and closeness to nature and the orchard," she said.

And there is other good news. While apple trees used to cover great swaths of southern England, the decline in the popularity of cider in the 1970s saw many up them uprooted.

The process was exacerbated when farmers were encouraged by European grants to rip up ancient orchards and sow new crops. Old apple varieties began to disappear as supermarkets stocked up on cheap, but less flavoursome alternatives like French Golden Delicious. Today the problem is being reversed and there are currently not enough apples to keep up with the demand from cider makers.

But change is not an overnight process. It takes a minimum of five years for orchards to bear fruit and often up to eight years before they break even.

However, more than 5,000 acres has been returned to orchard in Britain in recent years. Martin Ridler, an orcharding team leader for Gaymers cider, has been responsible for the planting programme, which has been concentrated in Somerset, Devon and Dorset.

Stewley Orchard, near Taunton in Somerset, is held up as a model of responsible planting with sustainable farming methods and active encouragement of wildlife. Trees take up 32 of the site's 40 acres, with the rest reserved for wild flower meadows, native trees, ponds and eco-friendly extra-wide margins. The orchard has become a sanctuary for toads, beetles, dragonflies, newts, sticklebacks, kingfishers and even otters.

"The more we can encourage birds and insects, the more they can look after the problems and we don't have to spray. It is about getting the balance right; sustainability whilst getting a reasonable crop," said Mr Ridler.