Lager brand Carling is following in the footsteps of arch rival Stella Artois by launching a cider.

Brewer Molson Coors is rolling out Carling British Cider, a 4.5% abv premium drink, exclusively into the off-trade in March. Described as a modern cider offering a “crisp taste with a hint of sweetness”, it will be sold in 500ml and 275ml bottles and supported with a £4.5m marketing push including TV advertising.

The company has spent 12 months developing its first cider, working with Herefordshire-based supplier Bevisol to “make sure every element of the liquid was right”.

“The key motivator for drinking cider is refreshment, and this is the most refreshing-tasting cider in the market,” said Carling brand director Jeremy Gibson.

Molson Coors wanted the brand to be as British as possible and would be using British apples “when this was sustainable”, he added.

The brewer is entering the branded cider market at a time when growth has come to a standstill. Overall volume sales of cider brands - which were growing at 18% two years ago - have risen just 0.2% in the past year [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 8 July 2012].

However, Gibson said ciders that could offer drinkers something different were continuing to grow, adding that “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe it would add incrementally to the cider market”.

There was no reason why Carling British Cider couldn’t be extended into fruit flavours - the fastest-growing part of the market, he added.

The company will be hoping the launch emulates the success AB InBev has enjoyed since it extended Stella Artois into cider two years ago. Sales of Stella Artois Cidre, which was expanded with a pear version last year, have doubled year-on-year to £58.8m [Nielsen 52w/e 13 October 2012]. The brand is now the second biggest cider after Strongbow.

Carling won’t have it easy, warned one supermarket buyer. “You have some fantastic brands in the market - Cidre, Magners and Bulmers - all of which invest heavily above the line.”