AB InBev is struggling to source enough Jonagold apples to keep up with “unprecedented demand” for its new Stella Artois Cidre, as off-trade sales reached an estimated £17m just 10 weeks after its April launch.

Stella Cidre, a 4.5% abv premium cider brewed in Belgium, marked the first move by a lager brand into the fast-growing cider category, and had got off to “a fantastic start” since its 7 April launch, said AB InBev UK chairman and president Stuart MacFarlane.

Over 1.3 million households had purchased an estimated 13 million pint bottles since its launch, initially in Tesco and Asda.

It rolled out to other multiples and wholesalers in May, helping Stella Cidre take an 18% share of the off-trade premium cider market in its first 10 weeks of trading [Nielsen total sales], with “a large proportion incremental to the cider category,” MacFarlane claimed.

But “unprecedented demand surpassing all our expectations,” and an overwhelmingly positive response from consumers, has left the drinks giant scrambling to source enough Jonagold apples, MacFarlane admitted.

“We won’t compromise on quality but we’re running out, so we may need to look at other varieties,” said MacFarlane, adding that the company was also facing constraints in terms of manufacturing, packing and bottling. “We’ve got two cider-making partners in Belgium, and have already upped our capacity with them fivefold so may need to source additional cider makers.”

He added: “To ensure we don’t disappoint consumers we are working with our retail partners to manage stocks carefully.”

Stella Cidre has hit the sweet spot take-home value sales of cider rocketed 15% in the past year to £580m and volume rose 15% to 371 million litres [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 20 March 2011]. And premium cider’s share of the total cider ­­market is almost 20% [SymphonyIRI total sales 2010].

With NPD and brand ­extensions boosting cider sales, UK producers are planting more apples. Somerset-based Thatchers is expanding its orchard to 400 acres next year and predicted a bumper crop this year. “The larger and middle-sized players have done a lot to bring new consumers in from beer and wine through innovation and marketing”, said MD Martin Thatcher. “There is a chance AB InBev is pulling some Stella Artois drinkers to Cidre but that’s good for the cider industry.”

Developing a European-style cider for the UK market, Stella’s approach was refreshing, said branding expert Kate Waddell, MD of consumer brands at Dragon Rouge. “With an ­offer true to the quality and personality of the Stella brand, they are the ‘grown up’ sophisticate.”

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