Hard Cider to Swallow: What the sale of Crispin Cider means to the craft world

Editor’s Note: For background information on Crispin Ciders read Heavy Table’s interview with Joe Heron or visit Crispin’s website. To find information about the sale of Crispin Cider to MillerCoors, please visit A Perfect Pint

As the US continues to dig itself out of a recession that stretches back to 2008, American companies and small businesses are slowly beginning to turn the corner. The recession affected many industries throughout the nation from financial institutions, construction, and automakers to brewing. The big two brewers in the US, MillerCoors and A-B InBev, have not only seen stagnant growth in some years, but saw domestic premium sales fall by nearly 8%.

While the domestic lagers that dominate the American beer market suffered falling sales during the recession, the craft brewing sector has repeatedly seen growth in volume and sales. In my own estimation and in those of craft brewers I have spoken with over the past year, the increases in craft beer sales are the result of a more discerning public that has greater access to different choices along with the fact that a pint of craft beer is an affordable luxury in times of economic insecurity.

The Big Two have acknowledged the growing trend toward craft beer and in the past ten years have bought their way into the market with the purchases of craft breweries around the nation. The most recent acquisition was the sale of Goose Island Brewing Co. to A-B InBev in 2011, which the Midwest Beer Collective covered in two editorials. Now, Minneapolisbased Crispin Cider has been bought by MillerCoors to tap into the craft cider market.

As a Minnesota native and craft brewing proponent, it was discouraging to read about MillerCoors buying Crispin Cider. The message it sends to craft drinkers and brewers alike is that Crispin isn’t interested in its craft status, nor having a regional pride, but rather growing their market share the fast and lucrative way: joining the ranks of a marketing giant. With the acquisition, MillerCoors now controls one of the major national players in the cider market, rival to Woodchuck Cider, meaning Crispin will have a leg up on independent cider makers with its access to MillerCoors resources.

Of course, questions of quality are at the forefront of this buyout and are not easily addressed. On the one hand, there has not been a decrease in the quality of GooseIsland’s brews: 312 tastes the same now that it’s brewed in New Yorkas it did when it was brewed in its namesake Chicago and their bourbon barrel series are still regarded as some of the best in the country. On the other hand, beers like Hoegaarden and Killian’s Irish Red suffered from becoming a part of the big brewing conglomerates. We can only speculate as to the quality of Crispin Cider in the future, but what we do know is that its fate is ultimately in the hands of MillerCoors and not Crispin.

It may come as a surprise, but I’m not saying that this buyout is such a bad thing. The larger craft breweries that cash in and bulk up with the help of the major players leave behind a niche they can no longer fill. In the craft brewing world, drinkers are drawn to unhampered innovation and they tend towards independent brewers. The breweries that incorporate themselves into the large conglomerates forgo the latter and put the former in the hands of their new owners. While Crispin will supposedly hold much of its former independence, when push comes to shove, marketability of their cider will trump the monetary risk of innovation.

Where Crispin is likely to lose out is the craft drinking segment that takes pride in drinking independent, innovative and truly craft beer and cider. Hopefully, like in the case of Goose Island and the subsequent boom in the Chicago brewing world, the void left by Crispin Cider will allow smaller up and coming cider makers to fill the voids and give cider drinkers a greater variety to choose from and, subsequently, a tastier experience.

Have something to add to the discussion? Let’s hear it! Leave a comment, tweet @MidwestBeer or send us angry e-mails at mwbeercollective@gmail.com

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Hard Cider to Swallow: What the sale of Crispin Cider means to the craft world

  1. The Miller-Coors purchase of Krispen highlights the difference between Macro or “Corporate” ciders and what we artisan cidermakers term “real cider”. Cider enthusiasts should ask, “Does the producer use apples to produce cider? What about cider apples, as opposed to Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and other dessert fruit that lack tannins needed for fine cider? Does the producer chaptalize, that is, add sugar to raise the alcohol level to 14% then dilute with water to 7%, thus reducing fruit costs by half (and necessitating flavorings that seem popular now in the mass cider market)?” Real cider is real simple—cider apples fermenting. Let’s hope the Krispen purchase inspires more real cider and cider apple orchards!

  2. Brian Kaufenberg

    Great point, Diane. We hope this sale gets people talking about what differentiates artisanal ciders from the macro competition. According to the Crispin website, “Crispin Hard Ciders naturally fermented in the USA use fresh pressed apple-juice, not from apple juice concentrate, from a premium blend of US West Coast apples, with no added malt, grape wine or spirit alcohol. Crispin’s unique USA produced ciders are smoothed with pure apple juice or from natural sugar sources like organic honey or organic maple syrup, and contain no added colorants, sorbate or benzoate preservatives.”

    While Joe Heron, Crispin’s founder, is confident the company will maintain its quality and methods of cider making, one thing is for sure: they’ve lost their identity as an independent cider maker. Hopefully, the sale will spread the word about cider and will result in craft drinkers looking for artisan ciders in place of mass marketed options.

    Thanks for the comment and keep carrying the fire for independent cider makers.

    Brian

  3. Zak Morris

    Diane, You are spot on. Crispin’s sale to Miller Coors was not about money. The Cider category itself is half the size of New Belgium, and Woodchuck (Vermont Cider Company) makes up half of the Cider category. Crispin was 3rd, behind Hornsby’s so we’re not talking huge finacial gains by either side. We’re talking %.5 of the whole market, thats behind N/As even. It was more about giving the cider category some muscle. There are a ton of out dated laws regarding cider. This country was actually founded on a rich Cider history. Prohibition killed it, much like other alchoholic drinks, because apples are(or were, I’m sure raw materials for craft beer are going up) more expensive to make and store when compared to grains and malts. The reason many Macro Cider Companies ferment concentrate is because its cheap and availible all year. Theres only one apple harvest a year. If you look at a lot of the responses from competing Cider companies they are happy and excited. The catagory has a chance to grow and it gives smaller independant Cider companies like, Sutliff in Iowa, a chance to grow their market base as the category grows and reduce taxes/costs on an already expensive fermenting process. I also garauntee Miller Coors people are reading these articles and social media responses. You’d be hard pressed to find someone saying “Awesome! I hope MC turns Crispin into a cheap, sugary FMB!” It’d be a bad business move to change the product and to stiffle the craft side of Crispin. That being said, in the end we can only speculate and wait to see just how loud money talks. I for one hope they never change it and keep coming out with new and innovative ciders.

  4. Brian Kaufenberg

    Zach, you make a number of great points about the market share of cider in the overall scheme of the craft world, as well as the low probability that MillerCoors will tamper with the recipe of Crispin ciders. However, don’t you agree that, while MillerCoors isn’t seeing an immediate and substantial monetary gain from the deal, they are bolstering their portfolio so that when cider begins to take off in the US, they will be reaping the benefits?

    It seems to me that cider is a market that is set to expand in the next ten years as the craft movement continues to grow and MillerCoors is getting ahead of the game by buying a major player in the cider game. Likewise Crispin is using the sale to expand their operations and get atop the cider mountain so to speak.

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  6. cdiddy

    Crisipin was NEVER craft cider, they just had the image of it. They use concentrate and back sweeten the hell out of their swill.

    • Brian Kaufenberg

      Carson, this is a valid point depending on your definition of craft. While I have yet to find a really good working definition of “craft” cider, I think we can look to the definition of craft beer as a guide. The three major requirements that make a beer a craft beer are the following: 1) Small – under the annual production limit; 2) Independent – Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer; 3) Traditional – the brewer’s practices are in line with traditional methods of brewing (or in this case, cider making).

      I can certainly see how Crispin’s use of apple concentrate could be considered a contradiction to the “Traditional” requirement, but I do not fully know where the line is between using non-traditional ingredients (i.e. artificial sweeteners) and using an apple product to, in the words of Joe Heron, “smooth out” the end product. Do you have a specific definition you are working with that we should hold to be the standard?

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  8. BradTom

    Just went to Bushwacker cider bar in Portland, OR. It is amazing to experience all of the different styles and flavors. My mind was racing at all of the food pairing options. I think Cider in the Pacific Northwest is poised to be very successful very soon. Getting the word out is all it takes. Sales like the Crispin one have a great potential to get people out to sample something new.

  9. Tim

    If this isnt too late – apologies for commenting on a dead thread – but I have to agree with cdiddy.

    The definition of traditional cider is very simple: It is fermented apple juice. Full stop. Concentrate: not traditional. “Smoothing out” means backsweetening, which either means your dry cider isn’t good enough to be drinkable or you are targeting the market that thinks cider has to be sweet (confusing juice with cider); either way, not a traditional cider.

    Crispin cider tastes to me of “natural flavors” (not natural at all, being usually derived from something other than apple juice) and is completely unlike a traditional cider, imho. (The marketing description avoids mentioning whether any flavorings are added.)

    Traditional cider in North America is dry. Traditional ciders from other regions can be off-dry or even sweet (Normandy), but the traditional methods of achieving those are probably too finicky for a large-scale commercial product.

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