Analytics suggest that my post ridiculing AB-Inbev's launch of Stella Cidre is the most popular thing I've written on this blog in 2011 so far. Long time readers will know that among the multinational brewers, I reserve particular ire for AB-Inbev because their relentless focus on cost-cutting is destroying some once decent brands, and because they keep bringing out new 'innovations' that are nothing of the sort.
It was therefore with a hint of nervousness that I spied Stuart Macfarlane across the room at the annual Publican Awards a couple of weeks ago. Stuart and I used to work together, but with the piss-taking I've subjected him to on here recently, I wondered if we were in for a bout of fisticuffs. Especially when, the second he saw me, he got up from his table and made a beeline straight towards me...
We had a good conversation. Stuart's actions suggest that he is not passionate about beer itself, but you only have to be in the same room as him to realise he is certainly passionate about the brands he's responsible for. (I would argue that you cannot be truly passionate about beer brands if you're not passionate about the beer itself, but that's a whole other blog post.) He reads this and other blogs regularly, and he doesn't like the criticism.
"Well just make better beer then!" I hear you scream in frustration. But in the strange world of multinational brands, it's not as simple as that.
Once we'd established that I wasn't simply criticising AB-Inbev because they were big, but specifically because of their actions, Stuart challenged me to try some Stella Cidra. I said I didn't have a problem doing so, because at the end of my blog post on it, I did say that when I saw it I would try it, and that if it was nice, I would say so. I'm not pushing agendas here - if it's a good product, I have no reason for saying it's not.
Fair play to Stuart, at lunch time the next day, there was a knock at the door and a case of Stella Cidre, with a note from Stuart saying how much he'd enjoyed our chat.
Stuart asked me to judge the product against its peers - "the two big yellow ones" as he described them - and one quality 'premium' cider. I chose Aspalls, because I like it, and because it's probably the first 'premium' cider many Magners/Bulmers drinkers would see/try.
If you're a craft cider purist, look away now - you're going to say it's not cider because it's not 100% apple juice, and that at least three of these four brands are tasteless abominations. I'm not about to say anything that will convince you otherwise.
But I'm fairly relaxed about cider. On a hot day, I like a pint of Aspalls or Addlestones, I LOVE Badger's Applewood cider made for them by Thatchers. Not because it's layered and complex and structured - it's not. But because it has a moussy mouthfeel and a clean, dry crispness, with just a hint of satisfying tart tingle, that's refreshing without the bloating gassiness of lager. I'll even happily drink a bottle of Magner's over ice if I'm in the right mood and the wrong pub. So I'm not judging Cidre by the standards of farmhouse cider - there's no point.
Side by side then:
These are poured in the same order as the bottles above. You can see that in terms of colour, Stella Cidre has gone toe-to-toe with Magner's and tried to match it exactly. Bulmer's is more lager coloured, which is interesting - looking more for that lager-cider pint crossover I guess - while Aspall's resembles a glass of white wine.
I should also point out that, according to the labels, Stella Cidre is made from 50% apple juice. Not much if you're a purist, but significantly above the 35% minimum you must now have if you want to call your product cider. Aspall's is made from 100% apple juice. Neither Bulmer's nor Magner's disclose this information on their labels.
None of them apart from Aspall's really had much of an aroma - although this may be due to the temperature.
Bulmer's was simply a monotone, a fizzy, flavourless thing that, if served truly blind, you would simply have no way of guessing was a cider. No apple taste or character whatsoever. Not unpleasant at all - you'd have to find fizzy water unpleasant to be able to say that - just...nothing.
So Stella Cidre then: after the vacuum of Bulmers, there's a bit more of a fruity flavour up front here, followed by an acidity that makes my mouth water. A bit of a chemical hint, and then, nothing. It's amazing how quickly it disappears, leaving you unsure whether you've drunk it at all. Again, not unpleasant - I think - but odd.
Magner's has more discernible apple aroma, a bit more of that moussy mouthfeel - Stella was more watery - less fruit, a little more of that tartness, and a slightly longer finish. It's very similar, but fits together a little better and leaves you more certain that you've just had some cider.
Finally, Aspall's was quite different. It clearly tasted of apples, had a nice aroma, was more structured and had a long, dry finish.
Stella Cidre - judged by the standards relevant to it and its competitors - is not a bad product. It's certainly nothing like the abomination that is Stella Black. Both in appearance and flavour profile it seems to be trying to match Magner's. The interesting thing is that people perceive Magner's and Bulmer's to be the same thing, and they're quite different, as this tasting shows. I might have a Stella Cidre instead of a Magner's if Magner's wasn't around. But Magner's would remain my first choice - it has the edge in terms of aroma and overall product delivery, and just feels slightly better made. Stella Cidre strikes me as being a little bit like the monsters from this weekend's Doctor Who - as soon as you're not looking at them any more, you forget you ever saw them. As soon as Stella Cidre is no longer in your mouth, you forget you've drunk it.
I believe it will do well where it's sold, and people in the mainstream cider market will like it.
The product, then, is not a disaster.
The marketing launched last week as well. The image at the top of this blog is one of the posters currently up everywhere. I won't offer my own comment on this, I'll just share a response to it from a more creatively minded friend of mine: