Where Benjamin Franklin was reputed to believe that "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," his contemporary John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider every morning to ease his stomach, and William Henry Harrison ran as the "hard cider candidate" in the presidential election of 1840 (oh, to have politicians be so brave today!).

Hard cider, after decades of neglect, has made a nationwide (even global) comeback, with on-trade volumes, or those sales made to bars, hotels, restaurants, and cafes, surging 49% in 2013. Although cider still commands less than 1% of the overall U.S. beer market, it did gain another 0.5 points of share, while craft beer saw a 4% volume rise in on-trade volumes even as beer as a whole dropped 4% year over year. Over the last 10 years, consumption of hard cider has grown globally by 50% and sales are running about 6% higher annually, according to Rabobank.

Far and away the leader is Angry Orchard from Boston Beer (SAM -1.97%), which owns just shy of half the market and enjoyed the largest share gains last year. Having stolen the crown from C&C Group's (CCGGY) Vermont Hard Cider's Woodchuck brand, Angry Orchard has aggressively been getting itself placed onto store shelves.

The big mass beer brewers see the potential for the market and have introduced new brands or bought existing ones. MillerCoors, the joint venture of SABMiller (NASDAQOTH: SBMRY) and Molson Coors (TAP -2.17%), bought the Crispin brand in 2012 and plans to launch this year a new, male-oriented Smith & Forge brand that has 6% alcohol by volume. 

Similarly, Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD -1.77%) tapped both its Michelob and Stella Artois beers to market new ciders, and it could be the latter that makes the most indelible mark. GuestMetrics says that whereas some 70% of bars and nightclubs sell cider, fine-dining and casual-dining restaurants are much less likely to offer it. Since they have lower penetration levels, it represents a significant opportunity.

Unlike a number of its competitors, Cidre, with 4.5% alcohol by volume, is specifically targeting the white wine drinker. From a 26-state launch last year, A-B just rolled it out nationwide last week and will support it with a major marketing push.

In the U.K., cider sales have captured about one-fifth of the beer market and analysts expect it still has plenty of runway, suggesting growth here in the U.S. could still go parabolic. That's why I dismissed some analysts who said last year the cider market was already tapped out, but it should be noted that volume growth did slow considerably as 2013 wore on.

Having widened by 70% in the first quarter, it eased back to 52% growth by the third and hit 42% by the end of the year. GuestMetrics says that has more to do with the harsh market bars and restaurants are operating in than any lack of demand, since off-trade growth, or purchases made at supermarkets and corner shops with the intention of being consumed off-premises, was more robust. 

Even though restaurants represent some untapped potential, I still see Boston Beer outperforming Anheuser-Busch. The cider market more closely follows the trajectory of the craft beer market, another industry where the smaller brewer leads, and though siphoning sales from white wine will further widen cider's appeal, investors should expect it to continue to match beer's growth -- and that means Boston Beer will keep its lead bottled up.