They say that we leave the world as we entered it – bald, incontinent, wrinkled and without much of a clue as to what’s going on (OK, I might have taken liberties with the elaboration of that piece of wisdom, but the sentiment is as it was meant).
In the same way, many a pisshead starts his drinking career as he ends it – supping extra-strong cider from a big plastic bottle, that he’s got someone else to buy him, because he can’t get served in pubs.
When I was a teenager cider was what you got the older boys to buy you from the off-licence. As soon as you could get served in pubs you left it behind, a symbol of your virginal, young-shaving years, and switched to adult drinks such as, er, lager and lime, or if you grew up in the south of England, “lager top”. In the marketing end of the beer business we use many a hideous phrase to navigate the world of pubs, and a universal one is the “bar call” – it’s a shout, and you’re saying something about yourself when you’re calling for a particular drink. “Call” for a “lager top”, and the message you’re sending about yourself is “I’m desperate to prove my mature masculinity, but I can’t let go of my mother’s apron strings. I want to drink beer in front of my “mates”, otherwise they’ll question my sexuality, but it tastes horrid, so I’d like some lemonade in mine”. But I digress.
If you’re about 27 or under and you grew up in the UK, you didn’t follow the path I outlined above – the drink you got someone else to buy you from the supermarket wasn’t cider; it was Hooch, or Bacardi Breezer, or Two Dogs, or WKD, or Smirnoff Ice. Even sweeter – even more like the drinks you had as a child. And then you could circumvent beer altogether and go straight on to hard spirits. This is why the UK currently has a drink problem – but that’s another story.
What’s important here is that cider wasn’t naff in the mid-90s to mid-00s – it was beyond naff, it was totally invisible. So now, as the alcopop generation matures, it doesn’t have the negative baggage my generation did – cider is a clean slate.
So I loved it when Magner’s came in and introduced the pint bottle with a pint glass full of ice. It was immediately attractive to beer drinkers, especially those who had grown up with the cinema chain/McDonald’s buckets of iced Coca Cola. Ritual is vital in drinking, and here was one that didn’t necessarily need a branded glass to make it work – just a pint glass. All the other brands who’d been languishing in the moribund English cider market for years immediately copied Magner’s in an attempt to negate its advantage. And a general growth of interest in cider lead to a ‘halo effect’ – craft-brewed ciders, such as the wonderful New Forest Cider, suddenly started to get noticed too. Even if you’re a lifelong drinker of quality ciders who hates the taste of Magner’s, you have to admit that this is a good thing for anyone who likes cider. Except, no, hang on, some elements within the Campaign for Real Ale condemned it, unable to compromise for one moment and accept that even if they didn’t like Magner’s, the brand was drawing more people to “real”cider than if it hadn’t been there. But then, those people have no concept of what the twenty-first century is.
But again, I digress. Love it or loathe it, Magner’s has been the mid-noughties success story in the drinks business.
But it’s going to peak before September 07, and enter a decline as steep as its rise.
It’s all about the ice. Magner’s relies on bar staff chucking in an awful lot of ice with every bottle they sell. The ice is why people buy it – you can’t put ice in beer, that would be horrid – but you can in cider. Get everyone in the bar drinking Magner’s instead of lager, and suddenly your ice requirement increases a hundredfold. And you may well have cocktails, G&Ts etc. that need ice and have a far higher margin, so you hold some ice back for them. Either way, sooner or later someone orders a Magner’s and they don’t get that pint glass full of ice. And then they start wondering why they’re paying a premium, not to mention why it doesn’t taste as nice. Their pint doesn’t look like it does on the adverts. They feel cheated.
The higher the demand, the more likely this point will be reached – and demand will be huge this summer.
I’ve already seen it happen, and in decent pubs too – the kind of pub that always makes sure to serve you the right beer in the right branded glass. Two guys in the only vaguely middle-class pub in Portland (my writing haunt last week) picked up a chess set from the bar, ordered their pints of Magner’s, had them served with no ice… and switched to Guinness for the rest of the evening, before their ciders were even finished.
Pubs can’t produce enough ice to keep pace with the demand for Magner’s. It’s a victim of its success. This is the year the bubble bursts.