Stella Artois is set for a dramatic move into cider, The Grocer can reveal – the first time a leading lager brand has crossed the category divide.

Stella Cidre, a 4.5% abv premium cider, will be brewed exclusively for the UK market in Belgium using Jonagold apples and aims to tap into continuing growth in the UK cider category.

More than half the world’s cider is drunk in the UK and after double-digit sales growth in recent years, 2010 saw another impressive performance, with value up 7.7% and volumes rising 5.1%, according to the latest figures [Nielsen, 52 w/e 2 October].

But for Stella Artois and its parent company, AB InBev, the launch marks a radical departure. The first move by AB InBev into cider, it also extends the scope of Stella – the UK’s number-one alcoholic drinks brand – to a category that rivals thought was inaccessible for a lager brand.

UK chairman and president Stuart MacFarlane said that in 20 years at AB InBev, this was the most excited he had ever been about a launch.

“Stella Cidre will prove once and for all that Stella, as a brand, is right up there with other leading fmcg brands, such as Coca-Cola, in its ability to reach new customers in new categories.”

On the decision to use Stella as the vehicle, MacFarlane said it could bring “premium, craft, heritage and quality to the cider category mix – the same skills that have brought success in lager.”

MacFarlane claimed the Stella launch would double the cider market’s current growth trajectory. “We can accelerate cider growth,” he said. “It will provide the flywheel for the next phase in the UK cider category’s growth. It’s what the market has been waiting for.

“We can source from core as well as premium cider drinkers. A core cider drinker will look to Stella to upweight to premium. But we also believe core lager drinkers might use Stella Cidre to move to cider for the first time. I would hope rivals would be happy that the UK’s number-one alcoholic drinks brand is moving into this market to bring increased attention to the cider category.”

AB InBev had worked with a number of partners to develop a taste profile that met consumer needs for a sweeter drink, but also a higher quality one, and for a different occasion, said MacFarlane. Consumer panel testing suggested that Stella Cidre was “significantly outperforming” premium cider rivals such as Bulmers and Magners, he added.

In terms of performance, he claimed that scores were more in keeping with super-premium ciders such as Westons and Aspalls, which are “delicious but not accessible and not with scale. That’s what Stella brings to the party: top quality, but with scale.”

The cider will be available in 568ml bottles and 440ml cans. With the first shipments not due to arrive on shelves until Easter, pack ranges are still being developed for key customers, but MacFarlane said the top-level response of the industry had been “outstanding”.

The launch will be accompanied by a “double-digit” million-pound 360-degree marketing campaign. Advertising for the core Stella Artois brand, including the ‘She’s a Thing of Beauty’ campaign, will continue and was likely to complement the cider’s messaging.

The launch of Stella Cidre continues a pattern of innovation undertaken by AB InBev to launch off-trade focused range extensions in recent years, including Becks Vier, Stella 4% and Bud 66. Stella Cidre will also be available in the on-trade, although not in draught form.

See this weekend’s issue of The Grocer for comment, industry reaction and other details of the biggest grocery launch of the year.

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Focus On Beer & Cider (10 July 2010)