The cider industry is currently experiencing a major uplift, with leading customer experience consultancy CGA saying that the cider category experienced a rise in both volume (1.9%) and value sales (4%) in the 12 months to 29 December 2018. In an increasingly crowded market, how can cider producers distinguish their products and bestow them with a long-lasting appeal to consumers?

For Xavier d’Audiffret Pasquier and the makers of SASSY Cidre, the answer appears to be a blend of old and new; a low-alcohol, 100% natural fruity blend packaged in a distinctly modern bottle, and yet bearing distinct roots in older cider production methods. SASSY’s apple, pear and rose cider offerings are made using direct fruit extraction, without additives or concentrates, and have attracted major interest across the hospitality sector.

SASSY was launched in 2014 by d’Audiffret Pasquier (right) and his childhood friend Pierre Manuel, with both growing up in Normandy, France. The company has largely grown off the back of d’Audiffret Pasquier lengthy heritage in the trade; his family has been producing cider and Calvados brandy at Château de Sassy since 1852.

In this Q+A, d’Audiffret Pasquier explains more about how SASSY is taking a more sustainable stance on cider, while trying to appeal to a growing ‘less but better’ attitude amongst consumers.

Joe Baker: Where did the concept for SASSY Cidre come from?

Xavier d’Audiffret Pasquier: We really wanted to reinvigorate the Norman economy with our mission to change the perception of cider. I studied a semester in the UK and it was quite frustrating because I couldn’t find the taste I liked. Most of the time, it was either super sweet or very dry and bitter so I couldn’t find a quite well-balanced and delicate taste. When I came back to France, I saw a lot of cider producers in Normandy were closing orchards so for us it was very sad. We should be proud of our champagne, and indeed we are super proud.

We decided to try to launch our own company and modernise and change the perception of cider. For us, it was very important to treat the product as if it was wine. In the UK legally you can call your product a cider if it contains only 30% of apple juice, and SASSY contains 100% pure juice. It’s an assemblage of different apple species including acidic, bitter, sharp and sweet apples.

In the two ciders – the Cidre and the Cidre Rosé – we’ve got around 20 different apple species inside and in the Pear Cidre we’ve got around ten different pear species inside. That’s why there is quite a [complex aroma] because of all the apples we are using give a very distinctive taste – we don’t give you the taste with water or sugar; it’s 100% fruit.

Also [it’s in] the way we are working; we have sheep in the orchard in order to keep the grass low and healthy. We don’t shake the trees during the harvest; we wait for them to drop naturally when they are mature enough and when the grass is low, meaning the apples don’t perish too quickly. We also the same press used to make champagne, so it’s going to press the fruit very slowly and gently, and we just press the best part of the apples. For the aromas, it’s very important.

We are roughly pressing 80% of the fruit and the 20% left we give to local farmers to feed their cows. So we are trying to be as sustainable as possible by using only Norman apples and by working only with local artisans and producers.

JB: How is SASSY distinguishing itself from other cider producers?

XAP: We are really trying to promote SASSY as if it was a low alcohol-by-volume (ABV) sparkling wine. We really want to show consumers the idea that cider can be a very good product at quite an affordable price. We have quite modern packaging in order to highlight the juices.

We are communicating a lot on social media – I think it’s very important. It’s like a window and everyone can have access to our philosophy, to the way we are working. Because we are not Ab Inbev or Heineken we can’t spend millions on marketing so for us the best marketing is the people we are working with. We are working with a lot of Michelin star chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon, with five-star hotels like the Four Seasons, and we are also working a lot with cocktail bars.

We are pushing SASSY as a natural ABV mixer – for example, the pear cider is 2.5% ABV while the rosé is 3% ABV. Now, consumers want to consume less but better, and they are keen to try new flavours, so I think to have a cocktail with cider is quite innovative. Our goal is to disrupt the market and not [do what’s been done already].

JB: Why is Normandy such a hotspot for cider?

XAP: Normandy is super well known for cider production, and the classic terroir of Normandy is apple production. Like Burgundy is for grapes, Normandy is the place to be for producing cider. Because my associate and I both grew up there it’s very important again to announce the terroir and to put Normandy back on the map.

The way we are producing, like the classic Norman style of production, is very different from Rekorderlig or brands where they have a lot of chemicals and where it’s not, for me, real cider.

JB: Have you faced many challenges trying to export your product outside of France?

XAP: I think when people try and understand our vision and our mission, they like it. Even when you are [giving samples] at Selfridges or elsewhere people are saying ‘oh I don’t like cider’, but actually when they try it they say, ‘actually, it is super interesting’.

When you see this huge trend for artisanal products in spirits [and] in beer, there is a huge trend for ‘less but better’ and I think SASSY is the best thing for this. You might have just one bottle instead of two industrial ciders, but you will enjoy it and you will immediately know why you are paying more: because of the taste, because of the process, which is very different.

JB: How have consumer attitudes changed towards cider in recent years? What is driving consumers towards cider?

XAP: Today there is a lot of education to do. Often, when I’m talking about cider, people think it’s for teenagers who want to get drunk for a cheap price. So we should feel the need to educate a lot in order to change the perception of the product.

People want to consume food that makes sense and which talks to them. If they are attracted to the concept, to the philosophy of the company, I think they will buy it. So I think that is why we are trying to be as natural as possible, as artisanal as possible, and as sustainable as possible.

We have beehives in the orchard for pollination so we are trying really to produce [cider] as my grandfather was producing [it]. It’s very good for biodiversity and will allow the trees to produce fruit quickly in a natural way, instead of using chemicals.

JB: Do you think we will see more cider producers trying to introduce sustainability to their operations?

XAP: I hope so – for me it is very important. I hope people will now think ‘okay, we should produce differently if we want people to consume [differently] in the future’. It starts with us – the producer. So I hope more will produce in a more reasonable way. But I really believe that consumers today want to consume sustainably, so that also will follow.

Additional article images courtesy of SASSY.