Hope for Britain's apple orchards as cider loses its 'park-bench' image

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The Independent Online

A boom in cider sales may help to preserve England's ancient apple orchards. Makers are reporting strong demand for cider this year after the introduction of trendy "ice" versions and intensive marketing to give the drink a more refined image.

Consumers are also said to be becoming more sophisticated in their appreciation, seeking out single-variety or single-orchard ciders. A research study helped by suggesting that cider is as rich as wine in antioxidants.

The industry hopes that the developments will change the "park bench" stereotype of cider as a cheap strong brew consumed outside by teenagers and drunks barred from pubs.

These days even the son of the heir to the throne knocks back cider: Prince William declared on his 21st birthday that he prefers the taste of fermented apples to beer.

Cider's resurgence in the past 18 months reverses a decade-long decline in sales, and is a glimmer of hope for England's beleaguered apple growers.

Domestic eating apples have been suffering in a battle with blander but cheaper and bigger imports from New Zealand and South Africa. About three-quarters of apple orchards in England and Wales have been lost in the past 40 years.

But the number of orchards producing cider apples has actually been rising since the early 1990s. Almost half of apples grown in England's orchards - 45 per cent - are now destined for cider making.

Britain's two big cider makers, Bulmers and Gaymers, have encouraged the planting in the past seven years of 8,000 acres of orchards in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset.

The big brewers prefer the high-yielding dwarf trees of newer "bush" orchards, but the rising interest in cider may also save some of the traditional "standard" orchards.

Simon Russell, of the National Association of Cider Makers, said: "A couple of years ago the major brands were heavily discounting, and that seemed to be the only promotion of cider they were doing. The two big companies now seem to have moved away from that approach. That has prompted the retailers to take cider more seriously, because there is more margin in it.

"There's also been quite a lot of innovation with single-variety ciders and single orchard products, and consumers are taking it more seriously and starting to match it to food."

The brewer Scottish & Newcastle stopped offering 50 per cent extra free on big bottles of White Lightning, even though it lost sales, "because we felt that the pricing was encouraging the wrong people into the brand," said a spokesman for S&N, which took over Bulmers in 2003. "There were too many under-age drinkers and people who wanted to get it down their necks quickly."

This summer Bulmers launched a stronger and smoother cider, Strongbow Sirrus, and Dry Blackthorn is promoting a new "ice-filtered" version.

The reinvention of cider as a cool drink seems to be working. This year sales of draught cider have risen by 8 per cent for Bulmers, and sales are also rising for the Gaymer Cider Company, which owns Dry Blackthorn.

An advertising campaign promoting the natural origins of the Irish cider Magners, whose owners reported a 27 per cent sales rise in October, also seems to have rubbed off.