Washington State cider study reveals consumer preferences

by Sally Colby
Carla Snyder, Penn State Extension Agriculture Entrepreneurship and Marketing Educator, recently led a cider symposium during which she reviewed current trends in cider and presented the results of a cider marketing study conducted by Washington State University.
“On-site sales rose by 1.2 percent,” said Snyder. “That’s in bars, restaurants and tasting rooms. Off-premises sales fell off by 9.9 percent. Overall, the U.S. cider market is indicating focus on consumer-facing interactive sales tactics. This means it’s more than what’s on your label — it’s what you’re saying to customers.”
Snyder noted although mass-market off-premise sales were down, off-premise sales of craft cider rose. “This segment is growing and it’s exciting,” she said. “It indicates the importance of educating your off-premise wholesalers. You can go in as the product producer and give a staff education session and help them talk about your cider. Otherwise they’re going to speak about your cider however they want to, and it may not be exactly how you want your product to be sold.”
What do consumers appreciate and what are they willing to pay for it? The market base is challenging due to being presented with a growing number of choices. Snyder says the cider industry has very little standardized categorization, which is confusing for consumers. “Maybe you’re a consumer and you know you like dry cider. But if I go to a bottle shop and there’s dry, off-dry and medium dry — which one do I like? If there isn’t a tasting available at the shop, I may choose one based on the label or I may ask a staff person. How dry is dry? Is it bone dry? We have no standardization of these terms in our beverage segment, so it’s really important to make these things as easy as possible for the consumer.” Snyder reminds cider makers that consumers have a lot of choices and they’ll go elsewhere if choosing a cider isn’t easy.
In a marketing research conducted by Washington State University, untrained consumers were recruited to serve on panels for a blind taste testing of commercially available craft ciders. Testers were served two dry ciders and two semi-sweet ciders and given a definition of craft cider which included terms such as orchard, farm-based, local, small scale, independent producer, natural color, flavor and aroma but no other information about cider was provided. “The goal of the study was to cross-reference the sensory information provided by the consumers with the analysis of specific cider characteristics such as tannins, residual sugars, acidity and acid levels of each of the four ciders in relation to their willingness to pay for it,” said Snyder. “Consumers were asked to rate their level of affinity based on appearance, aroma, sweetness, bitterness and flavor. They were then asked how much they’d pay for these qualities.”
The demographics included an average age of 32, and 62 percent were female. Since the study was at a university, 42 percent were graduate students and income averaged less than $30,000/year. Most participants identified as Caucasian and fewer than half were married. Participants were asked “what are your drinking habits,” which turned out to be an important question. “Seventy three of 109 people indicated that they had previously consumed craft cider,” said Snyder. “Ninety two drank wine and 82 drank beer. The majority of the sample indicated that they did not drink craft cider more than once or twice a month and preferred to drink cider at home; which means they’re buying it from an off-premise location and taking it home to drink.”
The participants who previously drank cider indicated their preferences ranged from semi-sweet to semi-dry. “Everybody’s in the middle,” said Snyder. “I think this is indicative of the undefined standards of our beverage category. What is semi-sweet, what is semi-dry? We don’t have a good standard for that.” Snyder says it’s up to cider makers to define these terms and determine where their products fall in these definitions.
After sampling, 20 of the 36 consumers who hadn’t previously tried craft cider indicated they would now drink craft cider as an alternative to beer or wine as a result of participating in the tasting. “This indicates that taste-testing helps bring people in to our beverage segment,” said Snyder. “Be welcoming, encourage new cider drinkers and help them learn what cider is.”
Consumers started with a reference price of $3 for 750 ml of mass-produced cider when comparing samples. “Willingness to pay was directly associated with income level,” said Snyder. “They correlated this with age. We would expect the limit someone would pay to increase as age and income rises. So as age and income rises, people are willing to pay more for cider. However, the study indicated that the age of 34.4, there’s a turning point indicating that younger drinkers are willing to pay more for cider. Researchers interpreted this as younger consumers being willing to try new products and pay for that experience, while older consumers may be more set in their purchasing habits.”
Gender, marital status and education level did not affect willingness to pay. “Think about who you’re marketing your product to and who you’re bringing into our beverage segment,” said Snyder. “Significant sensory factors contributing to willingness to pay were taste, which made the price per bottle rise by $0.21/bottle. Aroma increased willingness to pay by $0.05/bottle and overall ‘liking’ the cider increased willingness to pay by $0.09/bottle.”
Snyder says the takeaways from the consumer taste test sampling include the fact that willingness to pay is also affected by tannin percentage and the ratio of specific gravity to titratable acidity, which testers indicated as balance. “A valuable finding in the study was that overall ‘liking’ of cider flavor and aroma was a key factor in willingness to pay, while sweetness and bitterness did not at all affect willingness to pay,” said Snyder. “When we’re talking about cider with our customers, most people start off talking about sweetness scale — is it dry, semi-dry or sweet. This study indicates that has no bearing on whether people will buy your product.”
This result drives home the importance of designing a label which includes as much information as possible to help the first-time cider consumer determine what to expect. However, Snyder says the fact people didn’t have a preference for dry or sweet may indicate that people are more interested in complexity rather than specifically sweet or bitter ciders.
While consumer testing for cider is still in its early stages, the results of the Washington State study emphasize the importance of considering sensory qualities of various cider styles and how consumers will perceive the product.

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