By: Briana Tomkinson
The craft cider industry in Canada is small but growing. Consumers in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, are increasingly turning to cider when selecting alcoholic beverages, and the drink is trending upward in other provinces as well.
Yet as one Quebec cider producer found, it’s harder than it seems for Canadian cider houses to expand sales into other provinces, even when their production facilities are virtually next door.
Sarah Cole Cider was founded almost five years ago by Pierre Bissonnette and wife Nathalie Laurin in small-town Lachute, just over an hour’s drive from Montreal. Bissonnette’s back-ground was in the textile industry, but he was ready to make a career change and set his sights on entering the craft beverage industry.
Bissonnette considered opening up a microbrewery but decided there was too much competi-tion in the beer industry. He flirted with the idea of making wine but decided in the end to ex-plore the emerging cider market. It didn’t hurt that he already owned an established orchard.
For 23 years, Bissonnette had lived with his family on a sprawling equestrian ranch in St.-André-d’Argenteuil, just outside of Lachute, and he had always dreamed that it could be more than just a beautiful place to ride horses. The property features a sugarbush and a small vine-yard, but in the end, it was the orchard that inspired Bissonnette to reinvent himself as a craft cider producer. The cidery’s name comes from two of Bissonnette’s horses: Sarah and Cole.
Contrary to some other Canadian cider producers, who have followed the craft beer trend of developing a large variety of creatively flavored products, Bissonnetted decided to zero in on perfecting a limited selection of distinctive dry ciders. He narrowed the recipes down to three: Whip, a European-style dry cider, Snaffle, which he likened to a Prosecco, and a non-alcoholic option cheekily dubbed Mountie, the nickname of Canada’s Royal Mounted Police.
“Dry cider was missing in the market. Customers found most ciders too sweet,” he said. “The ciders on the market that were dry were tasteless.”
Initially, Bissonnette focused on selling bottled cider in grocery stores and dépanneurs (what Quebecers call the convenience stores that sell alcohol), but quickly realized the difficulty of standing out on crowded shelves as a still-unknown brand. He decided to switch gears and concentrate on getting his cider into Montreal bars and pubs, and getting customers to try Sa-rah Cole’s distinctive taste.
“Our strength is taste,” Bissonnette said.
Montreal’s bar and pub owners are a chummy bunch, and Bissonnette said he found once he was able to place his cider in a few top-flight locations like the Burgundy Lion pub and Bier-Market, and hotels like the Fairmont and Sheraton, it became easy to get Sarah Cole on tap in other local hot spots. “It’s a small world. Once one pub discovers us, a whole bunch follow,” he said.
When Bissonnette submitted Sarah Cole’s flagship Whip cider to judges at the World Cider Awards in 2017, he didn’t expect much to come of it. When he won the Canada Sparkling Dry Award, it turned out to be a game-changer. Doors began to open for Sarah Cole, and Bis-sonnette began to set his sights on growth beyond Quebec. In particular, he hoped to break into Ontario, where sales of locally made craft cider grew 54% between 2015 and 2016. How-ever, cross-border distribution of his cider would be more challenging than expected.
“If you have a vision to sell outside your own province, it is tough,” he said. “It’s the provinces that make the barriers.”
One of those barriers was taxes. When he did the math, Bissonnette found that factoring the cost of paying taxes in both provinces would require him to increase the price of Sarah Cole cider beyond what the Ontario market would bear.
In Ontario, Sarah Cole cider would be primarily distributed through the provincial Liquor Con-trol Board of Ontario, which regularly spotlights homegrown products. Although Lachute is less than a half-hour from the Ontario border, being on the wrong side of that line would exclude Sarah Cole from being featured alongside the locals.
Strategically, Bissonnette decided there was an advantage in entering the Ontario market as an Ontario cider house, as opposed to a Quebec import.
That’s how Sarah Cole came to be in the unique position of having not one but two cider hous-es, making it a “local” producer in both Ontario and Quebec. It’s been one year since Bis-sonnette took the leap and opened an Ontario production facility in Vankleek Hill, right across the street from craft beer heavyweight Beau’s Brewing, and he said the risk has paid off.
“Cider sales are just not comparable between Quebec and Ontario. Here in Ontario, the people already love cider; you don’t need to convince them,” Bissonnette said. “In Quebec bars, there is often only one cider on tap. In Ontario, there can be up to four or five.”
Bissonnette said there is also a noticeable difference in culture among Quebec cider-makers compared to Ontario. In Quebec, he said, the cider industry is very competitive and tends to be marketed like wine. In Ontario, more cider producers are taking their cue from craft beer.
According to information on the cider industry released by the provincial government, there are now 70 businesses producing cider in Ontario. The craft cider industry is now estimated to contribute $12.7 million to the provincial GDP. Cider sales at the LCBO in 2017-2018 were over $11.5 million, an increase of 42% from the previous year.
According to the latest data from Statistics Canada (from 2016-2017), while beer remains the booze of choice for Canadians, representing 40% of total alcohol sales—$9.1 billion annually—the market share of other beverages is growing. Wine sales are growing, and now represent 32% of total alcohol sales.
On a per-capita basis, Canadians of legal drinking age drink an average of just over 200 cans of beer per year, compared to only 20 cans of cider. While the market share of ciders, coolers and similar beverages remains tiny in Canada, this segment of the alcoholic beverage market is dynamic and growing.
Tastes have been gradually trending toward cider and coolers over the past decade, with an average annual sales growth rate of 6.4% in this category since 2007. Growth of imported beverages in this category was stronger than Canadian products, increasing 13.9% annually compared to 4.6% for domestic brands.
Sales of ciders, coolers and other refreshment beverages in Canada totaled $0.9 billion in 2017, an increase of 8% year-over-year. Ciders and coolers are most popular in the Yukon, with 7.2% market share, and least popular in Quebec, representing just 1.2% of alcohol sales.
In May, the governments of Canada and Ontario announced a joint investment in Ontario craft cider production through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership to support cideries to expand into new markets and increase productivity.
Canadian consumers’ growing interest in cider is now drawing attention from larger beer manufacturers, Bissonnette said, which is increasing competition in the industry. Canadian beer giant Labatt bought Quebec’s Lacroix cider last fall and is using its marketing muscle to edge out smaller players like Sarah Cole.
Although Bissonnette has lost some market share to Lacroix since the acquisition, he said there is a silver lining: in promoting Lacroix, Labatt must convince Canadians to consider cider as a beer alternative, which could ultimately increase the number of consumers willing to give other ciders a try as well.
“The cider industry has been sleeping,” he said. “No cider house has the money to put cider on the map like Labatt does.”