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Red wine and overpriced vodka may be the beverages of the moment, but if, as economists like to say, present trends continue, we'll all soon be guzzling cider.

Sales of the sparkling, fermented-apple beverage - sometimes called hard cider in Canada to distinguish it from the non-alcoholic stuff - are on a tear.

In England, the drink's traditional stronghold, the National Association of Cider Makers celebrated a heady milestone last week.

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Annual sales in the United Kingdom had broken the one-billion-pint mark, according to figures compiled by market tracker ACNielsen. That's more than 2.7 million 20-ounce servings a day.

It wasn't a gradual achievement, either. Volume grew by 26 per cent in the 12-month period ended March 31, 2007, compared with the preceding year.

Meanwhile in Ontario, scene of the biggest cider growth story in Canada over the past year, volume was up 21.3 per cent at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in the 12 months ended March 31 compared with the previous fiscal year. Sales also are up in British Columbia, traditionally the biggest domestic cider market by far.

And in both the United Kingdom and Ontario, dollar growth was even higher, at 30 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. (Sales in Ontario, though still puny compared with beer, shot up to $8.2-million from $6.6-million.)

Credit the surge mainly to shrewd marketing, especially by premium international brands. Big producers have been aggressively expanding distribution channels and backing up products with unprecedented marketing campaigns.

Last year's blistering growth in England, for example, was due largely to a single brand, Magners, owned by Dublin-based C&C Group. Although available for years in Canada and Scotland, it was launched only last year in England - with an innovative television and poster campaign.

Magners was shown being poured, not from a draft tap like a pub beer, but from a bottle over ice into a glass, which imbued the brand with the trendy urban affectation of a cocktail. Curiously, British mega-brand Strongbow, the world's biggest-selling cider, now also features the slogan "Serve Over Ice" in its marketing literature.

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In Ontario, meanwhile, cider's sudden growth can be credited mainly to two factors: the British invasion and testosterone.

Strongbow, the imported brand with the he-man name and sporty archer's logo, has recently muscled in on the Canadian market at the expense of more established B.C.-based brands with its first-ever mass-market ad campaign. Strongbow now accounts for almost 57 per cent of cider sales at the LCBO.

The radio- and transit-ad campaign, which includes specially painted buses in the city of Mississauga, is focused on the tagline "shatter expectations," playing subtly on the fact that Strongbow is much drier than the typically sweet Canadian style of cider. The radio ads don't even mention the word cider.

Strongbow is even making serious headway in British Columbia - albeit from a small base - posting better than 80-per-cent growth in May over the same month last year, according to Gary Ehasoo, Ontario sales manager for Scottish & Newcastle, the company that owns the brand.

"We're basically by far the driest cider available in Canada," Mr. Ehasoo says. "With people's palates changing, more educated palates, people don't like the sweet product any more."

In fact, dry cider producers around the world have been playing up the quality theme. In May, the Spanish city of Gijon hosted Sicer, the first "international exhibition of quality cider," with 67 producers from 11 countries showcasing almost 300 brands. (Canada was represented only by ultra-expensive icewine-like dessert ciders from Ontario and Quebec.) Also making its debut at that show was a new, stemless cider glass designed by Riedel, the famous Austrian wine-glass company known for glasses shaped to enhance the qualities of individual grape varieties.

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The British cider invasion in Canada has also helped expand the market segment in the West, where the beverage has enjoyed a dubious reputation as the party fuel of choice among university students, particularly women.

"When a man ordered a cider, you sort of had the conception that it's a girly drink," said Nikki Havers, bartender at the Penny Farthing Pub in Victoria, a British-style eatery that's been serving Strongbow on tap since it opened six years ago. "It's not just a girly drink any more,"

But Strongbow and other imports have a way to go before catching up to one B.C. producer, Growers, a brand of Vincor Canada (now a unit of U.S. giant Constellation Brands). With its down-home imagery and myriad fruit-flavoured products, it still accounts for almost 50 per cent of cider sales in Canada, measured by volume, compared with Strongbow at 17 per cent.

Many of the more popular ciders in Canada, in fact, are merely based on tart cider apples but flavoured with additional sweet fruits, such as berries and pears.

Growers' latest brand, an apple-based product flavoured with pomegranate, was launched in April in the West. The electric-red product is currently available at Vincor's Wine Rack stores in Ontario and will be launched through the LCBO in a couple of weeks.

"We're 350 per cent over forecast," says Kelly Kretz, marketing manager for Vincor's so-called refreshment brands. "We just can't keep it in stock."

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Though it's labelled dry, the Growers Pomegranate is still considerably sweeter than Strongbow and even sweeter than other new imported ciders based on other fruits, such as William's Sir Perry from England.

But domestic producers are clearly hoping to tap the bigger, latent market of non-traditional cider consumers.

Okanagan Cider Co., a family-owned operation that was the first to introduce sweet flavoured ciders to the market in the 1980s, launched Okanagan Premium Classic Dry Apple Cider in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan in April. The product, virtually as dry as Strongbow, may be available Ontario by next summer.

"Rather than having the characteristics of a dessert apple, it has more of the characteristics of a cider apple," said Andrew Frost, Okanagan's brand manager.

Cider 101

Cider is an alcoholic drink made from fermented apple juice. In Canada, it's sometimes called hard cider to distinguish it from the sweet, non-alcoholic farmer's market juice typically sold in jugs.

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Although it can be made from any apples, the best ciders tend to come from unusually tart, bitter apples grown specifically for the purpose. Cider can also be made with pears, a drink better known as perry in England.

Cider is especially popular in southwest England, but it is produced in many other regions, most notably in the northwest of France and in British Columbia. Canadian cider tends to be sweeter than English cider, although there is a growing international preference for drier, more upscale brands. Dry cider combines the qualities of demi-sec champagne with beer - fruity like the former but with the tamer effervescence and quaffability of the latter.

Beppi Crosariol

Tasting notes

Strongbow (England) $2.70/500-mlVery dry for a cider. Pale yellow. Subtle fresh-apple flavour and a hint of beer-like graininess. Light and clean. Very good.

Magners Original (Ireland) $2.80/500-ml Golden, full-bodied and round. Rich, baked-apple flavour. Nicely balanced, with distinct sweetness but fairly crisp on the finish. Very good.

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Blackthorn (England) $2.80/500-ml Light, fresh apple flavour and crisp acidity. Like a cross between crisp, light Strongbow and fruity Magners.

Okanagan Premium Classic Dry Apple (B.C.) $10.45/6-pack of 355-ml cans (West only).A tad funky on the nose, but the flavour is clean, quite dry and fresh. Good value.

Growers Pomegranate Dry Cider (B.C.) $9.49/6-pack of 341-ml bottles Electric red and quite sweet for a "dry" cider. More of a fruit cooler than an example of cider's new manly image.

Williams Sir Perry, (England) $2.70/500-ml Light and quite dry, with an ever-so-subtle pear flavour. Very good.

Beppi Crosariol

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