20 December 2011

The provenance of cider

The other weekend I was walking down Tory Street heading towards Courtenay Place when I saw the following billboard advertisement for Bulmer's Original Cider:


In case you can't see the tag-line at the bottom right, it reads: 'Unashamedly English Cider'.

'Aha,' I thought. 'Here's my chance to be a smart-arse'.  Because in my hazy memory I was fairly sure that Bulmer's was an Irish company, and that the New Zealand advertising agency APN was engaging in a woeful act of misrepresentation from which I could possibly wangle a mention on The News Quiz or in the Guardian.

Unfortunately it isn't quite as simple as that, and ultimately it just goes to show that you should always check your facts. Rather than misrepresenting the provenance of Bulmer's, the hokey graphic is actually correct - the name is English rather than Irish. There is an Irish angle to the story though, and it relates to the well-known cider brand Magner's, the rather pricey Irish cider that's served over ice on hot summer days in Britain.

H.P. Bulmer was founded by Percy Bulmer in Hereford in 1887. The company was successful and grew, and by the early part of the 20th century it was attempting to broaden its market by targeting the more genteel drinker:

Bulmers attempted to secure a high class market for their products. 'Champagne is ruinous in price; Bulmer's cider is the solution', the firm announced and in 1911 received the Royal Warrant as Purveyors of Cider to George V.
- Walter Minchington, 'Competition and cooperation: The British Cider Industry since 1880', in Hans Pohl (ed.), Competition and cooperation of enterprises on national and international markets, 1997, p.128. 

Ireland joins the story in 1935, when Tipperary man William Magner bought an orchard and established the Magner's cider factory in Clonmel. The established Bulmer's firm bought half the factory in 1937 and enlarged the operation, and after the war in 1946 it purchased the remaining half of Magner's share in the company, and dropped the Magner's name in favour of its own. By this stage Bulmer's had become a well-known brand, and one which marketed its products aggressively:

From the late 1940s sales were maintained by a growth of press advertising and, once commercial television had begun, by advertising there too. The Beverley sisters singing 'Bring out the Bulmers cider' was a landmark in this campaign. This advertising aimed successfully to replace the stereotype of the bucolic peasant as the typical cider-drinker. While some beer advertising tended to advertise beer as a man's drink, most cider advertising suggested that cider could be drunk in mixed company and an element of sex (or unisex) was added to cider sales. As marketing developed, a macho element was added in 1960 with a Bulmers brand, for example, being marketed under the name Strongbow.
- Minchington, p.131

The success in these marketing campaigns, and later ones too, can be seen in the rise and rise of cider consumption in the UK, particularly in the past 50 years. For 95 years from 1870 to 1965 the UK consumed a fairly consistent figure of about 20 million gallons of cider per year. But then the market took off: in the five years to 1970 the market grew by half (to 31.4 million gallons); in the next 15 years to 1985 consumption more than doubled (64.3m), and by 2005 it had more than doubled again (136.4m). By 2010 the UK was consuming ten times as much cider as it was in 1965*. Cider is big business.

Source: Walter Minchington, 'Competition and cooperation: The British Cider Industry since 1880', in Hans Pohl (ed.), Competition and cooperation of enterprises on national and international markets, 1997; and Cider UK

In 2003 Bulmer's was sold to a brewing chain, and by 2008 the venture had been bought by mega-brewers Heineken. The Irish company that produces Magner's is owned by the Irish drinks company C&C Group; the Magner's cider brand was introduced in 1999 because C&C lacked the rights to the Bulmers cider name outside the Republic of Ireland. However, the two ciders are the same product. Confusing!

My introduction to cider drinking came when I first moved to London in 1997. Traditionally regarded as an unfashionable student drink, cider was perfect for me because I don't drink beer, but when others were drinking pints it was easier to be drinking something served at the same volume for 'pacing' purposes. And as an added plus, the red English ciders tend to look like beer in a dark pub interior. When I returned to New Zealand in 1999 cider had yet to take off, but in recent years the market has expanded and you can even obtain Bulmer's and Magner's here now.

I guess I'll just have to refrain from criticising the Bulmer's billboard in Tory Street for historical inaccuracy. Perhaps I'll just have to change tack and lambaste it for misleading cultural stereotypes - after all, the use of the word 'frightfully' suggests it's a drink for poshos, which is traditionally not the case at all - apart from George V, that is.

Hot summer's day in London + a Magner's by the Thames = nice

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