To many people the image of typical cider drinkers is sweat-drenched middle-aged men in tight-fitting shirts and threadbare trousers, with a propensity to make suggestive remarks about women and burst into song. But enough about The Wurzels.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the emergence of white cider had dragged cider's reputation literally into the gutter and made it the beverage of choice for street drinkers.
What started out as a niche product to bring a new generation of drinkers into the category fell into disrepute through ludicrous pricing, over-generous extra-free offers and brain-arresting alcohol levels.
As Merrydown managing director Chris Carr says: "White cider was pretty much the undoing of the industry in terms of people's perceptions of cider."
The past couple of years have seen major cider producers begin to take responsibility for their previous actions, led by Scottish & Newcastle, the new owner of Bulmers and Britain's biggest cider brand.
It has taken a responsible approach to marketing white cider by raising prices, culling PET and putting the mockers on excessive extra-fill.
But where does that leave the legions of convenience retailers who see white cider as a regular route to putting cash in the till? Should they risk throwing in their lot with the premium cider revolution, or stick to what they know best?
Less is more
Two factors suggest that retailers should consider moving towards premium brands.
Although the stunning arrival of Magners on the market somewhat distorts the figures, AC Nielsen figures that show premium brands ahead by 62% in the year to the end of 2005 are hard to argue with. That compares with a 5% rise in mainstream brands and 9% decline in sales for white and strong ciders.
The second factor is that by definition premium brands put more money in the till - Magners' positioning is based on maintaining a genuine premium price position and that has done nothing to harm its sales so far.
The combined growth in premium brands and the moving up of prices on white cider have helped to increase the average price per litre of cider in the off trade by 5% in 12 months, according to AC Nielsen.
In the same period, to the end of 2005, total off trade sales were ahead by 3%, yet the signs are that it's the multiples who are taking the best advantage of cider's changing fortunes.
Multiple grocers increased their sales by 4% over the year, but independents saw their cider sales decline by 2%.
Gaymer managing director John Mills says: "The potential for independent retailers is evident by the experience in Scotland where the balance between the impulse sector and the multiple grocers is more even and cider growth is 16% in volume and 30% in value."
Carr adds: "Independents have not put in a bad performance but are not really taking full opportunity. The one thing independents could do is recognise there's no point in having four white ciders on the shelf and look instead at giving consumers a better range."
Strongbow supplier S&N UK has been at the forefront of trying to raise white cider prices as a deterrent to excessive consumption, but acknowledges that it is a market that's here to stay.
S&N trade marketing manager Craig Clarkson says: "We understand there's still a market there for white cider, but we've got to change the perception of the cider category as a whole. We've made our choice and said which brands we want to grow. We're not saying we don't want people to buy White Lightning, but we do want it to be a responsibly priced brand."
The rub-off, of course, is that although it no longer achieves the volumes it used to - White Lightning sales dropped by almost half last year - it does make the supplier and retailer a better margin.
Carr says: "S&N has pushed the price up to a point where the alcohol per unit is about the same as Strongbow or other brands. While they've moved away from the feeling of being irresponsible in supplying it, they're also now making some money from it, so I don't think they'll pull out but I don't think they'll chase own-label business either."
The brand that S&N UK really wants to see grow is Strongbow, the clear number one in the market, largely because it's had consistent levels of marketing investment through the 1990s and 2000s, when rival brands were pulling away from above-the-line support.
Among mainstream brands, Strongbow outsells its nearest rival Gaymer Olde English by more than five to one. Of the leading mainstream cider brands, Strongbow was the only one to achieve growth last year, up 14%, as rivals - principally from Gaymer - continued to play catch-up.
Clarkson admits that there's still work to do to make Strongbow perform as well as it could for the take-home market. "We're working to provide more smaller, value packs for the convenience market and make sure they're well-executed," he says. "We're getting better at targeting packs by channel. We've introduced eight-packs with pricemarking, which is something retailers have been asking us for."
Raising the profile
Only retailers who've been in the business for 15 years or more will remember a round of new product development in cider quite like that seen in the past 12 months.
The emergence of Magners has shocked leading cider players into reassessing their ranges, while the decline of the RTD market has provided new opportunities for cider to mop up disgruntled RTD drinkers.
Magners at C&C International marketing manager for GB Joanne Hayden says the success of the brand was partly down to people turning their backs on gimmicky "youth" brands and looking for a level of authenticity instead: "Our advertising is really different to any cider advertising we've seen in the past few years. It goes back to the naturalness and heritage of cider, which other brands don't do.
"We've also put in a lot of year-round investment in the advertising and as a result consumers are reappraising cider."
Hayden says Magners relishes the challenge laid down by rivals. "There is a lot of NPD and a lot of competitors coming on to the market," she said. "It's great news because it's raising the profile of cider among consumers and the pie is getting bigger."
What has confounded many in the trade is how Magners has achieved such huge overnight success with a product that carries a high premium.
Hayden says: "We are a premium product and you never see us discounted in the trade. We don't want to go down that route. We never have and we never will.
"We justify the price because of the amount of investment we put into the brand and into supporting the trade in getting the customer to make a purchase."
hot on its heels
Market leader S&N UK's response to Magners was first to launch Strongbow Sirrus, and then Bulmers Original, a brand that has been sold in Northern Ireland since 2001.
"We expected it to be launched here, to be honest, when it launched Sirrus," Hayden at Magners says.
That Sirrus has ended up as a two-for-one in some cash and carries has led some in the category to doubt its long-term future. But Clarkson insists Sirrus is here to stay. He says Sirrus sales are "picking up and starting to motor" although he admits "we gave it a hard start by launching it through the winter months".
S&N UK's latest launch is Jacques, an imported fruit cider from Belgium, positioned as a wine alternative and sold in 75cl bottles, at 5.5% abv. It will have an rrp of £3.99 when it arrives in independents later in the year.
Clarkson says the company would be pushing for secondary siting within the wine aisles of multiples that listed it, though space could conceivably prohibit this in the convenience sector.
Thatchers has long been positioning its varietal ciders as alternatives to wine, and Martin Thatcher says it could be a good route to go down. He says: "We're taking a reasonable amount of business from wine as well as beer. We've been pairing cider up with food and putting suggestions for what people could drink it with on the labels."
Gaymer is also seeking to take sales from wine with its Gaymers Orchard Reserve range of single orchard ciders.
It's also launched Gaymers Original, an amber cider being pitched at the 'maturing alcopop' generation, and a packaged version of the company's draught cloudy cider brand, Addlestone's.
Mills says: "Not only are young people looking for something new to drink but they're also looking for something with authentic cues. They want quality and they're not prepared to put up with confected drinks.
"Convenience retailers need to have a balance of NPD, regionality (which still plays a part in cider) and multipack cans. These are a massive opportunity that they haven't got their act together on."
Gaymer is spending £24m on supporting its brands this year. "Growth will come for highly-supported brands," says Mills.
Adds Carr: "Gaymer has seen what's happening to Strongbow and Magners and said if it's going to make it work it's got to spend some money."
On the rocks
The embracing of Magners by cider drinkers has led to a whole new way of drinking cider, so far mainly in the on-trade, referred to in the trade as the "over ice phenomenon".
Whether other brands' moves to get in on the over ice act have been driven by the need to do something to steal Magners' thunder, or are a response to a genuine shift in consumer wants isn't yet clear.
Scottish & Newcastle UK is emphasising the over ice proposition across its entire portfolio now, with Bulmers Original and Strongbow Sirrus both launched to some degree in response to Magners.
Although the launch for Sirrus involved some link-promotions
to bagged ice, which the firm's Craig Clarkson described as "hugely successful", he said he felt the best way to make the most of the ice opportunity in take-home would be through packaging design, as the company has done with its Foster's lager.
He says: "I don't think it's in retailers' means to be able to communicate that and it's up to manufacturers to perform that job."
But he did say that retailers needed to treat the category like beer and make full use of fridge space to deliver cold cider to consumers.
"Choose the big brands and make sure they're in the fridge," he adds.