There is a word that sums up pear cider. That word is "perry". For reasons that may or may not become apparent, cider-makers share a collective embarrassment about the P-word, perhaps assuming consumers will confuse their finely-crafted products with a sticky drink favoured by Billericay girls on a budget.
So pear cider it is, and its arrival has given an already athletic category a shot of nandrolone. It is without doubt the flavour of the month, with a rush of new launches aiming to give Kopparberg and St Helier a run for their money. But can this sub-sector last the course?
Paul Burton, joint managing director of St Helier producer Inter-Continental Brands, has no doubts.
"Two years ago when we were just about to launch pear, my guess was it would be a short-lived phenomenon," he admits. "But I think we now have a very big opportunity to establish a sub-category with some longevity. The first two players into the category, Kopparberg and ourselves, have got high-quality products that consumers like.
"I'm not denigrating Bulmers' and Gaymer's pear offerings, but I don't think they're necessarily sufficiently differentiated from their apple offerings - whereas I think our products are a quite radically different proposition."
National TV ads will appear in the autumn. "Now is the time from a brand perspective for us to punch our weight," Burton says.
Joining the bandwagon
Gaymer managing director John Mills is confident consumers will not share Burton's appraisal of his brand, which he believes has across-the-board appeal and is dry enough to be an alternative to beer.
"Our pear cider has just been phenomenal," he says. "We came in very late, but we were the first cider brand to hit 60% distribution in the first 12 weeks. We have a fantastic rate of sale.
"The reason we were late was we couldn't find a liquid that we really thought offered both refreshment and taste, and was also sessionable.Kopparberg is extremely sweet in our view. I think it's a real FAB product - I can't see it lasting."
Thatchers managing director Martin Thatcher says: "Pear cider has struck a certain chord with the consumer. It has been good for the category and rekindled a lot of interest in what is essentially perry. In the long term 'perry' will probably come back into vogue." (It needs to - ironically, the perry sector is experiencing a sales decline.)
Helen McIlveen is brand marketing executive for Westons, which has joined the pear parade.
"To us there is a gap in the pear cider market," she says. "We are the first to bring out an organic variant to go into the category. But it is very different to the mainstream pear ciders that are out there.
"It doesn't have that confection
ary, artificial pear drop flavour. It's very fresh, it's very floral."
She admits that "consumers are very confused between perry and pear cider" and that the two are one and the same thing. These are perplexing times for cider purists, and perhaps for Magners too, which has yet to launch a pear cider.
"We continue to look at the market and what consumers are interested in," says marketing manager Scott Fairbairn. "Pear is growing fast but from an incredibly small base. It's been around for a long time [as perry] so there are opportunities, but it's quite a polarising taste."
It's not just pear cider launches that are keeping the sector busy. Producers are working on a range of brand extensions and marketing activity designed to keep the category in growth as the autumn wears on.
Fairbairn of Magners warns against innovation for innovation's sake.
"If consumers are telling us they're after innovation then we'll deliver on that," he says. "We've introduced Magners Light, which is doing extremely well and has a very clear proposition, and in the on-trade Magners Draught has been successful as well.
"There's a lot of other innovation in the market which really isn't delivering on any basis and is taking up valuable space."
Fairbairn is reluctantly drawn into the subject of the many Magners lookalikes which have appeared . He brushes it off as "flattery", but admits legal action is "always an avenue that's open to us".
"We focus on what we do well, which is making fantastic cider," he says. "We can't influence what other people do. There are times when we're not happy with some of the packaging. Some of our problems don't just come from own-labels, but our big competitors that have got extremely close to us, but
passing off is extremely difficult to prove."
Brand activity to watch out for
Merrydown is promising a more aggressive promotional strategy to drive consumer trial. Managing director Chris Carr does not rule out a packaging rethink: "I don't want to mimic anyone, but I'm also conscious that our labels aren't fantastically aspirational so if I'm looking at refreshing anything it's that."
St Helier is keen on more multipacks. "Different pack formats are going to come to the fore over the next 12 months, rather than new entrants," says ICB boss Paul Burton. "Our mixed pack of pear cider and the two flavours have done well in the multiples and the independent trade and we're looking at variations on that theme." A new fruit flavour may emerge in the New Year.
Brothers Drinks will produce its Toffee Apple pear cider again this autumn, but due to strong demand will continue to distribute it throughout the year, it has confirmed.
Cider of Sweden says it has options for more UK launches. "We already produce many other variants and flavours, mainly for the Finnish market where the fruity and sweeter styles are more established," it says. "This does give Kopparberg the opportunity to develop its portfolio, but at the moment we still feel our focus is on Pear and Mixed Fruit." Kopparberg will experiment with larger pack sizes later this summer.
Bulmers - now part of Heineken - is keeping its cards close to its chest. "Our focus remains on investing in our new brand extensions to ensure they enjoy long-term success and deliver value," says Carol Saunders, head of off-trade customer marketing for S&N UK. "We are doing this through a variety of above and below-the-line activities
should also be delivered in activity beyond NPD and deliver alternative ways of enhancing the shopping experience."
Thatchers has had a busy year of launches and repackaging but says it is not yet finished for the year. "We've got one or two other things we're working on, probably for the autumn now," says Martin Thatcher. "We're quite driven by seasonality."