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Stella Artois Cidre goes national as cider wars heat up

Hard cider might be best served cold, but as 2014 gets underway the competition in the category is heating up.

The first move in the coming cider war comes this month, when Anheuser-Busch InBev's Stella Artois takes its cider product national.

Stella Artois Cidre, which was introduced this past May in a limited release, will now be available in all 50 states.

Source: Anheuser-Busch InBev

Cidre (pronounced CEE-dra) is described as a European-style cider with a drier, crisper flavor profile than the sweet beverage consumers often associate with cider.

Despite sporting the same upscale Stella Artois branding its parent beverage has made famous, Cidre is targeting a different consumer.

"We don't want to go after your typical beer drinker," said Chris Hanson, Stella Artois Cidre brand manager. "We're ... going primarily for the white wine drinker."

(Read more: Stella Artois hops on the cider bandwagon)

Based on the results of the limited launch, Hanson said, the positioning has been a success.

"The majority of our volume is coming outside of the traditional beer category, so it's coming from ciders, wines and spirits," he said.

It's a notable reversal of a trend that has plagued beer in recent years: continued loss of market share to wine and spirits.

While beer has struggled, the hard cider market has been growing fast.

According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, sales of hard cider were $172 million last year, compared with about $35 million in 2009.

GuestMetrics, which measures sales in bars and restaurants, said sales volume in the cider category rose about 49 percent last year from 2012.

(Read more: Get ready for a beer cocktail boom)

Though hard cider accounts for less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. beer market, analysts project that sales will continue to grow.

Facing stagnant beer sales, brewers large and small are looking to capture a piece of that growth.

Consumers can expect to see the cider wars taken to another level when MillerCoors introduces Smith & Forge Cider in March. The company is going all-out, calling it the largest cider launch since Prohibition.

MillerCoors is already a player in the space with Crispin Cider, which was up nearly 200 percent last year in Nielsen accounts.

Source: Boston Beer Company

Boston Beer, maker of the well-known Samuel Adams beer brand, will be watching as the two brewing heavyweights spend large sums to market their cider brands.

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Sales of its Angry Orchard Cider, launched nationwide in spring 2012, have skyrocketed. Angry Orchard is the best-selling cider brand, accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. cider market. Some analysts expect it to make up 20 percent of Boston Beer's total volume by the end of 2015.

Though the cider space is getting crowded, Stella Artois is betting its upscale positioning will set it apart.

A key part of Stella Artois' strategy with Cidre has been to differentiate the brand from beer in its marketing as well as physically, at points of sale, according to Hanson.

"One of our primary goals from a display perspective is to get outside of the beer aisle, and specifically in the wine aisle, to capture those wine drinkers and wine occasions," he said.

Cidre may not be targeting beer drinkers, but the line extension is lifting the awareness and perception of its famous mother brand.

According to Anheuser-Busch data, two-thirds of people who try Cidre think more positively of the Stella Artois brand than they did previously. Company executives also said that two-thirds of consumers who are aware of Cidre have reported having a positive image of Stella Artois as a whole.

Cidre will look to promote its launch with a big push at the Stella Artois-sponsored Sundance Film Festival at the end of January, and will dial up the media presence in March with national television spots and a large digital campaign.

—By CNBC's Tom Rotunno. Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno.

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