They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. While true enough, a cover can often give the browsing buyer an indication of its content. Is it sporting an image of a couple swept up in a passionate kiss? Probably a romance. A bloody red thumbprint on a black background? Likely a novel of murderous suspense. The visual tips supplied by the publisher can quickly help a buyer sort through a store full of possibilities.
Beverage packaging serves much the same function, giving consumers valuable clues to the nature of the liquid inside. In the world of wine and beer, for example, consumers have become accustomed to a relatively narrow range of packaging sizes and shapes, so even if they don’t recognize a particular brand, they’ll still have some idea of what they’re getting. Cider companies have largely looked to these same packaging styles, generally using industry-standard beer bottles or cans for lighter, more sessionable ciders intended to compete with brews, and 750 mL wine-style bottles for premium vintage ciders. This approach has worked well for the sessionable-cider end of the spectrum, less so for companies using larger formats.
Cider consumers, both serious and casual, are generally eager to try brands they’ve not come across before. Their enthusiasm to experiment is part of the driving force behind continued double-digit growth in the market, but the flipside is a lack of brand loyalty. On premise, the urge to try new things within the cider category propels the sale of small-volume tasting flights and by-the-glass pours. Even a bar or restaurant with a significant commitment to cider can be reluctant to have more than a handful of ciders in 750s available by-the-glass, lest they be left with an unacceptable amount of opened, unsold product. On- and off-premise, many consumers opt for a smaller bottle size even though the price per ounce of cider is likely to be higher. There’s also pressure from distributors, many of whom have beer-focused portfolios. All these factors result in overall slower sales for ciders in 750s.
In an effort to bump up the bottom line, an increasing number of cider companies are abandoning the larger format. Some have dropped bottles altogether in favor of cans; others are sticking to a wine-style bottle but in 375 or 500 mLs sizes. And, perhaps in an effort to increase visibility on a crowded shelf, a third group is moving to downsized bottles in styles that might be reminiscent of a beer (think Red Stripe, for example).
What will consumers make of this? Will they make snap judgments based on packaging and conflate premium with sessionable ciders? And if they do, will they then balk at paying a (comparatively) premium price?
Asked for her take on the subject, Ellen Cavalli of Sonoma County’s Tilted Shed Ciderworks had this to say: “After experimenting with a handful of bottle styles and sizes early on, we’re now fully committed to a wine-like bottle in a 750 mL format. It’s a straightforward way to tell consumers just what we’re about: ciders driven by respect for the fruit and all it has to offer. We may sell a little less, but anything else does a disservice to our vision.”
Time will tell if this commitment will pay off.