Premium ciders are keeping the category lively and encouraging consumers to try different styles.

"The introduction of premium bottled cider has helped position it as more fashionable and desirable," says Matthew Showering, MD at Brothers Drinks.

Martin Thatcher, MD of Thatchers Cider, also says the activity in premium is overshadowing any previously negative stereo­types. "Over the past 12 months there has been a dramatic change in the customer perception of cider."

Thatcher says the company had been looking at innovation in single varietal ciders, which has suited the premium end of the market. "Thatchers Katy has undoubtedly been an influencing factor, selling more than one million bottles in the past year."

Meanwhile, Gaymer Cider Company, a branch of Constellation Wines, has been active this year with a range of launches and a £24m investment, which includes developments within the single varietal sector. In February the company launched Gaymers Orchard Reserve, and just last month added two new single orchard varieties, Stonesbrook and Newton's Vale, to the existing Stewley Orchard. Also in February, Gaymers, which already owns the Blackthorn cider brand and Diamond White, launched Gaymer's Olde English and Addlestone's bottled ciders.

Although the barrage of NPD in cider is encouraging, some fear cheaper, gimmicky brands could flood the market and bring down the value of the sector. "There is the potential for more players, but only if there is a genuine reason for them to be there," says Thatcher. He notes some producers are beginning to adopt a 'copycat' approach. "This might bring short-term gain," he says. "But the industry needs high quality, long-term innovation to secure its growth."

Showering says there is room for more players in the market but they would need to offer something different. "The customer is buying into the image and brand association when purchasing the drink and those that don't understand the importance of branding are unlikely to succeed."

The Somerset-based Brothers Drinks, which has traditionally served its range of ciders at the Glastonbury festival, launched its bottled cider range into the off-trade last year. These include strawberry and pear ciders.

Simon Russell at the National Association of Cider Makers says there has always been a lot of innovation in cider. He adds that ciders from overseas should not necessarily be seen as a threat to UK brands.

Other launches in the past year include Scottish & Newcastle's Belgium-style fruity Jacques brand, the Spanish Es Sidra and the South African Savanna Dry.looking back What we said in 1996

In 1996 The Grocer split the beer cate­gory in two, with individual focuses on premium lager (13 April) and premium beer (24 February).

Ten years ago and despite price pressure, premium lager was the most profitable category in the take-home market, with 400 brands vying for market share. Brands were also showing their muscle in the cate­gory, and we reported that the sector accounted for 33% of adver­tising expenditure within total beer, compared with a market share of 20%.

Many of the issues that are facing brewers today were already apparent ten years ago. Pressure on shelf space was coming from premium cider, which was increasing its profile, although RTDs were also creating merchandising pressures that are unseen today.

Stewart Gilliland, director of Whitbread take-home, said premium lagers were instrumental in growing the value of the category, despite the supermarkets' pricing strategies. He said: "Premium lager is a key driver in increasing the value of beer sales. Last year value outperformed the volume rise among retailers. This is helping to build value at a time when take-home pricing is being undermined by the impact of cross-Channel trading." Demand for premium ales was also on the increase, although Gilliland questioned brewers' use of the term 'premium' when describing their products. "The term 'premium' must be one of the most over-used words in the drinks market," he said. "Almost every brand uses it. Does it mean bigger, better, stronger, got a widget, more expensive or more exclusive or is it a combination of all these things?"

Despite this, regional brewers were recording sales increases, with consumers willing to make the switch from lagers to ales. As Mark McJennet, sales director at Shepherd Neame, said: "People are are finding regional brewers' products are good avenues to explore."