At Hawthorne Hophouse in Portland, OR, patrons can order whatever’s new from several nearby breweries, perhaps discovering they love peppery saisons or tart krieks. But the 24 taps don’t end there, as there are fermentations from producers around the Northwest, all vying to create beverages locals might like. And locals like hops. So a dry-hopped number from Salem, OR, might not seem like an envelope-pusher until you realize it’s not a beer at all but a dry-hopped cider from Wandering Aengus Ciderworks.The keg kicked in about a week. It was followed by a brandy-cured strong cider from the new Two Towns Ciderhouse. It’s no wonder beer lovers are cottoning to artisan ciders, stoking a resurgence in hard ciders akin to the craft beer renaissance of decades past.
Actually, for the record, don’t call it hard cider to folks in the industry. It’s cider. That “soft” stuff is juice. You don’t call grape juice wine.
The TTB permit required for making fermented cider is the same that bonded wineries need. (The Bureau also does some bizarre differentiation when said cider contains more than 7 percent alcohol and/or any fruit besides apples or pears.) Yet it can be said that wine people don’t love fruit in general; they love grapes in particular. Most oeonophiles wouldn’t be caught dead sipping strawberry or elderberry wine, or even the mead (a.k.a. honey-wine) variety “pyment,” which contains both honey and grapes. So while part of that crowd opens up to what is essentially sparkling (though sometimes still) apple wine, a good part of cider’s growth stems from gravitating beer lovers.
Beer aficionados rightly revere hops the way vintners genuflect before grapes. Yet beer geeks (and their girlfriends)* seem to embrace many non-beer fermented beverages, mead notwithstanding, so long as they’re made artisanally (Zima-esque malt beverages need not apply). So, while cider’s nothing new—vastly predating the Norman conquest of England in 1066 credited as cider’s tipping point—more bottles of it are showing up at the collective beer table.
In the UK, at least 15 percent of the people enjoy cider regularly to the tune of well over 5 million barrels annually. Cider is roughly a quarter as popular as beer, according to Nomura Equity Research. That means some four million pints are enjoyed daily, according to Simon Russell who handles media relations for the National Association of Cider Makers. Heck, the British have such a thing as the NACM. And lest you think it’s mostly the birds drinking it, the blokes quaff twice as much. Stateside, it is tearing through its reputation as something mostly ordered by girls who don’t like beer.*
“UK cider makers–large and small–have remarked that the US is becoming more significant in terms of export sales,” says Russell. “I suspect the strength and success of the craft beer sector in the US and a willingness for consumers to increasingly consider quality and provenance in their food and drink.”
The cider category today resembles beer 25 years ago, says Alan Shapiro of SBS Imports, a more than 20-year veteran of sales and importing in both beer and cider. He talks about ciders in terms of “refreshment” brands and artisanal ones. The former likely includes brands found in six-packs dominated in the market by Vermont Hard Cider Co., producers of the best-selling cider in the US, Woodchuck, and importers of Heineken-owned Strongbow from England, the top-selling cider in the world.
Some ciders today contain concentrated apple juice, additional sugars, and other additives. There is no cider equivalent of theReinheitsgebot—the Bavarian Purity Law that limits beer’s ingredients to the bare necessities of malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. But when connoisseurs seek that provenance that Russell describes, it’s typically found in bottles or kegs that contain juice straight from the apple press and yeast. “What I’ve seen since in last eight years,” says Shapiro, “is not only a significant increase in producers but dramatic improvement in the quality.”
Of course, cider’s gluten-free for those who suffer from Celiac Disease, but there aren’t enough Celiacs to explain how cider sales erupted 25-percent last year to make it a $50 million industry, according to SymphonyIRI. Having said that, it’s still a pittance compared to beer’s $100 billion mark. And cideries old and new are banking on the boom from the Johnny Appleseed-come-latelies.
Doesn’t Fall Far from the Orchard
When Greg Hall walks into a liquor store in Chicago, he’s accustomed to seeing 150 feet of shelf space for craft beers including the ones he made at Goose Island Brewing, which his dad John started in 1988. “But,” he adds, “they’ve got like four ciders. I can buy 20 different Michigan beers but only one Michigan cider.” There are probably more cideries in Michigan—close to 20—than in any other state. And he can forget about finding something from New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill or Washington’s Snowdrift. Outside of the Upper Midwest, America’s other primary cider regions are New England and the Pacific Northwest. Part of the allure is that ciders appeal to those who seek out local products. “All these great cider makers are local,” says Hall. “They’re regional, or sub-regional.” The only downside is that fans in one part of the country simply don’t have access to ciders from another part.
Lack of variety is something cider fans in Portland need not worry about, once they step inside Bushwhacker. The bar grew out of owner Jeff Smith’s frustration in always “finding mostly dusty bottles” of the hard stuff. He and his wife Erin have three coolers stocked with over 150 bottled ciders—everything available in the state of Oregon including several brands brought in just for the Smiths. It is probably the country’s first and only all-cider bar, akin to the few cider houses in England. It’s popular among expats. A few cans of British ales rest on the bottom shelf, but Smith initially devoted two of his eight draft lines for great suds because he “wasn’t confident enough that everyone would go coo-coo for cider.” Even the beer geeks who got dragged in by “cider geeks who have come out of the closet” have become converts. Now, in the back of the bar behind a chain link fence, Smith puts his years of home cidermaking experience to work in the new licensed cidery picking up a few accounts around town.
Malts and hops’ stability make them easily transportable. Farm fresh apples, not so much. Bruce Wright of Orchard Gate ciders based in Flushing, MI, points out that the USDA disclosed that two-thirds of the apple juice in the US comes from Chinese apple concentrate; no wonder all that Mott’s juice on the shelves is so cheap. And like Orchard Gate’s organically-grown apples, Virtue also sources its fruit mostly from Michigan that is finally seeing acreage return to growing apples after years of serious decline.
So while amazing breweries can and do exist all over, until such time as global climate change brings longer winters to the southern half of the country, don’t look for the cider boom to strike in Arizona or Florida.
At the same time, don’t tell American crafters what they can and cannot do. In brewing, Germans make lagers. The British make ales. And Belgians make… divine beer, but they don’t make much that’s fresh and hoppy. “In America, there’s no bs tradition that you can only make this or that. Everybody makes everything,” Hall enthuses. With AB-InBev’s buy-out of Goose Island, he found himself looking for a new gig when he decided to apply that same craft approach to ciders. Look for Virtue Cider to appear on draft at bars and restaurants in Chicago this summer. Hopefully 750-milliliter bottles will hit sub-regional shelves next year.
Craft beer continues to grow by double digits annually, so even though cider is a tiny slice of the cobbler, 25 percent growth in the category is no slouch. Comparing beer to cider in many ways is like comparing, well… let’s just say there’s still bushels of room for growth. No one understands that better than some of the veteran craft brewers.
Boston Beer Co. hasn’t just grown into the largest craft brewery since 1984. In addition to their 40-something active Samuel Adams recipes, they just introduced three Angry Orchard brand ciders (Dry, Crisp, and Apple-Ginger). If you’ve ever seen Hardcore Cider, that’s them, too. Boston neighbors Harpoon Brewing began selling cider in 2000. In Olympia, WA, Spire Mountain opened in 1985 to remain the oldest craft cidery, and is made today by the brewers at Fish Brewing, meaning both their ciders and organic ales are tapped fresh at Fish Tale Brewpub. Across the border, where the cider market is more developed likely due to Canada’s Anglo culture, Tree Brewing in British Columbia just launched Dukes Cider.
In fact, even the top bananas in the beer business have noticed how this apple cart has wheels. MillerCoors’s craft and import division, Tenth and Blake, recently acquired Crispin Ciders from Minnesota. Anheuser-Busch is fabricating Michelob Ultra Light Cider.
Still, wineries are more apt to add cider to their portfolio than breweries. They already know that the product comes down to having impeccable, fresh fruit whereas brewers can buy barley from anywhere, anytime. Having said that, Hall would like to see more brewers get into ciders, and for good reason. Innovations in fermentation are directly attributable to craft brewers’ experimentation and flogging of tradition. Some of the new cideries are neither offshoots of wineries nor of breweries.
As American as…
In England, cider leans toward the very dry and tannic, perhaps akin to Special Bitters or Dry Irish Stouts (try Aspall Dry Premier Cru). In France, where the cider press was invented in 13th century Normandy, ciders tend to be farmhouse-style entailing low alcohol like a light, earthy saison (try Dupont Bouché Brut de Normandie). Spanish sidras of the Asturian and Basque varieties are tart and funky from wild yeasts, and just may deceive a fan of Belgian lambics that he’s drinking a rare gueuze (try Sarasola Natural).
By comparison, Hall says of craft beer’s early days that Americans tended to pick a regional style and stuck with it, and believes that domestic cidermakers do likewise. “You couldn’t make cider in America in all three of the traditions,” such as English, French, and Spanish. But, grins Hall, “That’s what we’re going to do.” Not that Virtue will confine itself to just three types of cider.
Some American cidermakers strive to break the mold and conquer new frontiers, as is our tradition. Just as the craft brewing industry sprang from the homebrewing community of the seventies and eighties, home cidermakers have dosed their craft with that What-If mentality for ages.
Jeff Carlson is a Michigan homebrewer and a board member of the Great Lakes Cider and Perry (cider made from pears) Association who began brewing “in earnest” in 1992 (but had “dabbled… in wines from concentrates and Pabst Malt Syrup” beers since the ‘70s). With the wealth of fresh apples surrounding him, he began buying apple juice by the carboy-full. After learning about pH, acidity, and fermentation temperatures, he earned the American Homebrewing Association Cidermaker of the Year award in 2000. Then repeated the next year. And then won back-to-back again in 2008-09. English styles are fine by Carlson, and cherry ciders are the rage in sour cherry-rich Michigan, but in true homebrewer fashion, he has made hot ciders not by adding mulling spices and warming them on the stove but by adding jalapenos or Atomic Fireball candies. “I even got a commercial producer, Uncle John’s Cider Mill here in Michigan, to do the Atomic Fireball thing. It sold like crazy.”
Finnriver Cidery in rural northwest Washington, like Wandering Aengus, makes a dry-hopped cider. It’s made from Finnriver Farm’s bittersweet and bitter-sharp heirloom apples as well as the Cascade hops the farm managers use for their homebrew. Co-owner Crystie Kisler says IPA lovers “get it” right away. “We are grateful to diehard beer lovers who haven’t scoffed at cider but opened their minds, and mouths, and found they like the variety of new tastes that ciders offers.”
Slightly northwest of Finnriver is Sea Cider, near Victoria, British Columbia, which at only two years old is already scintillating cider enthusiasts in a way beer lovers would understand. Their Rumrunner is aged in rum barrels, which would’ve been enough, but then they one-upped the game by procuring Screech Rhum barrels from Newfoundland. That’s where, as the story begins, cod fisherman historically traded salt fish for Jamaican rum. Due to legal issues, once it is distributed south of the border, it will be called Prohibition Cider in the US market, and they are eyeing 17 states (primarily in the northwest). “Five years ago, you didn’t see cider sections,” says owner Kristen Jordan, who puts their annual production at under 5,000 barrels. “Now you have ‘em in Whole Foods on display.”
Sea Cider also makes Wild English that is spontaneously fermented inside neutral bourbon barrels in the Herefordshire style. “I’m sure there’s Brettanomyces doing its job,” says Jordan. “It’s earthy, tannic, and phenolic… and goes with strong cheeses. We let Mother Nature do her thing.”
And back in Bushwhacker—the cider bar that offers everything from 3 percent alcohol French ciders to 19 percent Quebecois pommeaux (pommeau is cider that’s been distilled into brandy, then “cut” with fresh juice)—cidermaker Smith makes mostly English-style ciders, but tailors his cider based on the “market research” he gets everyday direct from the customers across the bar. Or sometimes inspiration comes from across the street.
Famously, Alasskan Brewing founder Geoff Larson looked to his friends across the street from the brewery at Taku Smokeries that smoked Juneau’s tasty snack—smoked salmon—over alder, the local hardwood. It’s the same smoker they use to this day. It’s why the porter that has won more Great American Beer Fest medals (20) than any other craft brew is often said to possess a strong lox flavor.
As fate would have it, Bushwhacker Cider is directly across the street from Edelweiss Sausages and Delicatessen, which does its entire meat smoking in-house over alder. Smith asked if they could smoke some apples for him. The result—as should come to no surprise—is a big, smokey bratwurst-flavored beverage with just a hint of apple. It is perhaps the world’s first rauchcider.
The Cider Hunter
There are a few matters differentiating craft cider from craft beer, but they’re mostly on the consumer or education side. In the UK, a community of cider geeks already exists. The American market has yet to develop this. Between the two primary online beer communities, RateBeer.com provides a platform for reviewing ciders—possibly due in part to its more international user base. BeerAdvocate.com co-founder Todd Alstrom once proclaimed in a forum thread on the subject, “BeerAdvocate is 100 percent beer. We will not be including cider or perry.” Perhaps one enterprising fan can develop CiderAdvocate.com. It should be noted that there really was a website called All About Apples for the apple loving community as a resource about American orchards, but it merged with OrangePippin.com.
Whereas the British have the NACM (founded in 1920), there’s no American cider equivalent of the Brewers Association to promote domestic cider and perry and hence no Great American Cider Festival, yet. David White of the Northwest Cider Association says that this past February, a National Cider Conference was held to discuss the logistics and benefits of a national organization.
But that leads to an even more fundamental hurdle to understanding and appreciating cider. It doesn’t have its own Michael Jackson; there does not exist a World Guide to Cider that clearly outlines cider styles. Ben Watson, author of Cider, Hard and Sweet, does have a chapter on cider styles in his book, but it mostly outlines its regionality. When people talk cider, they use descriptors like dry, bittersweet and tannic. Watson has consulted on establishing categories for competitions, chiefly the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition dubbed GLIntCaP, with 19 categories such as English cider, New England-style cider, common cider, and common perry.
But people like to have styles to wrap their heads around. It’s how beer lovers have discerned if they prefer amber ales or pale ales, or what they’re getting if they order a Dry Irish Stout over a Cream Stout. Wine drinkers reach for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon over Cabernet Franc or Petite Sirah instead of Syrah. Grape varietals, as much as the terroir of soil, tell imbibers what they’re in store for. For cidermakers’ part, some are experimenting with single-varieties.
Watson ways, “There are actually a number of producers who are experimenting with single apple varieties, both European vintage apples—Kingston Black being the most widely represented—and classic American apples (Baldwin, Golden Russet, Newtown Pippin, and Wickson, among others). So these varietals are being rediscovered and in some cases fermented and bottled separately.”
Smith naturally has tried a lot of these ciders and reflects on a Newton Pippin-only cider he tried. “It wasn’t good. But I encouraged people to try it.” For his money and taste, when he can find them, he agrees with Watson that Kingston Black—immensely bittersharp to the point of inedibility—is a fabulous cider apple.
Just as there are now hundreds of cultivars of hops, the same goes for varieties of apples. Just don’t expect a Mikkeler Brewing-esque single-variety line for each and every one. Whether Virtue Ciders gets into heirloom ciders or not, Hall recognizes the opportunity. “I think there’s room for single varieties, but it won’t be the best seller.” He’s a Cox’s Orange Pippin man himself, but maintains that the best ciders are typically blends of various apples. The real opportunity, as Hall posits, is in the various processes: experimenting not just with varieties but levels of ripeness and maceration. “If you let the apples oxidize, they pick up different colors and flavors.” Don’t even get him started on yeast strains, pitch-rates, and temperatures.
And this is where cider again may appeal more to beer enthusiasts than wine drinkers. Hall suggests, “Cider is two parts beer, one part wine. Even though it’s fermented fruit juice, it has refreshing qualities that you associate with beer. But it has acidity like wine.”
Smith, too, thinks cider is more beer-like. “It’s made like wine (because it is), but when people think about wine, certain things pop into their head like that it’s expensive,” and he also mentions the “snob factor.” At Bushwhacker, their objective is to appeal not just to each camp of fermentation fans (“You can nose it like wine, or just sit back and enjoy it or geek out but enjoy yourself,” he says), but to everyone. Cider is stepping out from the others in the category. It’s more than just an alternative to the malternatives.
That cider had to fight the impression of being only for girls or just a fad used to keep Smith awake nights. In fact, he says one distributor bet that the bar would close within six months. If only that guy could’ve foreseen the opening of a place like Tertulia in New York’s Greenwich Village, chef Seamus Mullen’s take on the classic Spanish sidreria—the cider equivalent of a brewpub. “I thought we were going to battle that misconception,” says Smith, elated at the growing appeal; “I don’t want to go back to a real job.”
Lastly wine seems to have caught on, though how many people have their own grapevines? Tons of folks have an apple tree in their yard and making cider at home is pretty easy. Better yet, for commercial purposes, Hall admires the farms that are in the hands of the fifth or sixth generation of apple growers who have staunchly kept alive the heirloom apples. “If I can keep another generation staying in farming, keeping those orchards there instead of planting Mansanto corn or soy beans, that’s a great thing.”
Whether craft cider can follow another path of craft brewing that we’re just now starting to see—family run breweries taken over by the second generation—Hall is not unfamiliar with phenomenon. He was 23 when his dad built Goose Island. His kids are now 12 and 10 and insists the plan is to have them take over some day. “I’m not building this thing to sell it; I’m building it to keep it.” For his daughter’s part, her seventh grade science fair project entailed utilizing dad’s mill, press, and hydrometer to test the density and sweetness of multiple ciders.
*In our November 2012 issue, All About Beer Magazine apologized for the gender-defining language in this story.