Should you label your craft cider as a gluten-free product? Writer Emma Cosgrove explores the plight of naturally gluten-free beverages and whether labeling them as such makes business sense.
For a certain segment of the drinking population, the resurgence of naturally gluten-free cider has been a godsend. Though craft beverages are booming right now, the rebirth of cider in particular has been impacted by a growing interest in fermented grains, fruits and vegetables. However this newfound popularity poses a dilemma for cider makers. Should they acknowledge a basic reality of their product, namely the lack of gluten in an apple-based beverage, or appeal to consumers clammering for greater transparency into farming practices, ingredients and manufacturing methods?
The market for grain-free and specifically gluten-free options can be attributed to a mounting preference for specialized diets and a newfound awareness of chronic issues such as celiac disease. For example, the intensely popular Paleolithic diet, as well as almost every other diet book that has popped up in the last few years, recommends laying off the gluten. In return, consumers are showing an increasing awareness for - and scrutiny of - product labeling to provide information on gluten- and nutritional-content in food and beverages. The result? Suddenly, naturally gluten-free cider has risen to become a star selling-point at many food and beverage establishments across the country.
With craft cideries becoming a more viable business prospect for aspiring entrepeneurs, the question has recently shifted to communicating with cider drinkers who possess varying levels of fluency when it comes to all things apples.
For some, applying a gluten-free label to their product is a starting point for introducing a new consumer to an old beverage: “Cider is a rapidly growing segment of the alcohol industry and is still trying to define itself. I think the gluten-free designation plays a big part in that because it draws appeal from a small yet underserved segment of the population,” says upstate New York cider maker Colin McConville of Apple Country Spirits.
For others, the idea of touting cider's gluten-free nature as one of its distinguishing traits is an anathema. For this camp, the goal is to help a customer select their libation based on other factors like taste, appearance and provenance much like wine today. But is it wise to disreguard the question of gluten altogether?
When it comes to whether or how to label cider, the answer starts in part with examining what's already gone mainstream.
Even mainstream media outlets have become embroiled in this controversial matter. On Jimmy Kimmel Live!, for example, self-professed "gluten-phobes" admitted to classifying themselves as such despite generally not understanding what gluten actually was. That means labeling something gluten-free requires more than mere signposting, it's an educational tool as well. For an industry still struggling to define itself, that can seem like an impossible task for your average cider maker.
So far we've seen that the concept of gluten-free is becoming mainstream just as the cider industry gains prominence with drinkers of all ages. With 20% of the US population currently choosing to avoid gluten, is it worth labeling your cider gluten-free?
The founder of Apple Country Spirits, David DeFisher, is firmly in the "label" camp: “Cider labels that don’t state the obvious might be passed over by gluten-intolerant consumers who don’t know any better.” Many of his fellow cider makers agree. Jennifer Lim, co-owner of Wassail Cider Bar, states the gluten-free cider claim is indeed a powerful one: “A gluten-free label raises consumer awareness that cider is a naturally gluten-free beverage. In raising awareness, it also helps this product to create a demand for itself.”
Similarly, as noted by Wassail, cider carries the same cross-contamination risk as other foods and beverages in co-production. For example, whiskey barrel aged-cider may come into slight contact with remnants from whisky grain during the manufacturing process. At that point, cider makers would benefit from disclosing that on the label.
These opinions might make it seem like favor is stacked against ignoring the gluten-free component. However in terms of market data, it’s worth noting that of the top four cider companies in the US: Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Johnny Appleseed and Smith & Forge, only one (Smith & Forge) is certified gluten-free by the Gluten Intolerance Group. With few market leaders to draw on for inspiration, many craft makers are forgoing the gluten-free route in favor of their craft credentials, betting on an educated consumer discerning enough to know the score.
For new makers in particular, the cost-benefit analysis of labeling a cider "gluten-free" may play a more significant role in informing their labeling decision than outright market dynamics. Investing in graphic design services, labels, bottle labelers and other necessary equipment may simply not fit the new cidery bill.
For others, the issue of obtaining gluten-free certification is an unecessary barrier to market. Navigating the certifications process may prove one hurdle too many for small cider businesses plagued with a raft of complicated labeling regulations. That holds especially true as consumers become more informed about gluten, with many asking the same questions certifiers would instead of looking for a seal of approval from a third party.
Apple Country Spirits explains why labeling may be a step too far: “At this point, independent certification is redundant in cider production. Cider is naturally gluten-free and is allowed to brand itself as such - assuming best practices are [indeed] observed.”
At this point it's also worth noting that apart from being a naturally gluten-free beverage, cider is also dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free and even vegan! So, if you want to cover all your dietary bases, it may come down to a question of branding. By choosing to label your cider as gluten-free, you're honing in on a certain demographic who may, if anything, have more questions (and need more labels)!
Consumer awareness for gluten and gluten-free products is growing. By choosing to opt for a gluten-free label, you're potentially targeting a demographic looking for lots of information about your production and brand standards to boot. Be prepared to address those concerns and understand that demographic for your marketing campaigns. The flip side? Not adding a label means potentially alienating a section of the population who seek a label's validation.
Invest time in defining your target consumer then work on factoring that into your acquisition strategy and branding. A gluten-free beverage can't be all things to every drinker, but it can certainly cast a refreshingly wider net.
Looking for more info? Check out the video below to see what members of our Kinnek Community think makes cider so special: