Posted on | August 31, 2012
Written by | Jim Clarke
Appealing to the curious and connoisseurs, apple-based products gain traction.
We all know what to do when life gives us lemons. But what about apples? A dozen years ago, Almar Orchards in Flushing, MI, was feeling the squeeze; apple prices had plummeted as Chinese concentrate became the preferred, cheap source for apple juice. So owners Jim Koan and Bruce Wright decided that instead of selling their apples, they would ferment them and sell cider instead, giving birth to the J.K.’s Scrumpy brand. Their organic ciders are now sold in 14 states and include several different styles.
“We didn’t start out to be part of a cider boom in the U.S., but we’re glad it’s happening,” says Wright. U.S. cider sales were up 25% in 2011, according to SymphonyIRI Group analytics.
Bret Williams is president and CEO of the country’s largest hard cider producer, The Vermont Hard Cider Co., which makes the Woodchuck brand. He agrees that times are good; for one thing, cider has slipped the grip of autumn and become a year-’round beverage. “Back in the beginning it was absolutely seasonal. Now every consecutive month is a record-breaking month,” he says.
Following in Craft Beer’s Footsteps
In modern times, cider first gained some notice as an addendum to the craft beer movement in the late 1980s. Most were moderately alcoholic and sweet—and British, represented by brands like Scrumpy Jack and Strongbow. Both are part of H.P. Bulmer, an English company which owned Woodchuck Cider until Williams, originally one of their salesmen, bought them out in 2003.
Today domestic cideries dot the northern half of the U.S., most notably in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. As with craft beer, Williams says cider drinkers are demanding variety; in addition to its core brands, Woodchuck has introduced a Private Reserve line, which includes pumpkin, ginger and bourbon-barrel-aged ciders. And like many craft breweries, they offer a seasonal line.
At J.K.’s Scrumpy, Wright has been working with barrel aging, and recently visited Thistly Cross Cider in Scotland to create a collaborative cider¬—another story that will ring a bell for craft beer fans. Chicago’s Virtue Cider recently rolled out their own collaboration with Oliver’s Cider and Perry of England.
In addition, the range of imported British ciders has expanded to include higher-end products. “We’re doing super-premium ciders in the UK,” says Henry Chevallier-Guild, an eighth-generation cidermaker at Aspall Cyder in Suffolk, England. The Aspall ciders, imported by SBS Imports in Seattle, have a delicacy and Champagne-like texture. Guild says they treat their ciders more like wine than beer, and that a few centuries ago the reputation of the region’s ciders actually exceeded that of French wine.
Stylistic Variations Worth Noting
Jon Lundbom, division manager at the importer B. United International, says the three great cider traditions come from England, Normandy and the Basque Country and Esturia in Spain. While the Anglo-American styles dominate the U.S. market, the others are becoming increasingly available. Like Aspall’s products, Norman ciders resemble Champagne in texture; they also have an AOC, Pays d’Auge. B. United imports two Norman producers, Etienne Dupont and Christian Drouin; the former follows the AOC rules, while the latter chooses not to so he can use some apple varieties not allowed by the AOC regulations.
Another Norman producer, Eric Bordelet, used to be a sommelier at the 3-star restaurant L’Arpège in Paris. When he expressed an interest in making his own wine, the late Sancerre winemaker Didier Dageneau suggested that as a Norman he should make cider instead. Bordelet’s production is entirely biodynamic, and terroir is an important part of his thinking—another tie to the world of wine among Normandy’s cider producers.
On the other hand, “Basque ciders,” says Lundbom, who imports Sarasola Sagardoa, “are really weird. They’re spontaneously fermented, like a lambic, and aged in huge barrels; they’re acidic, funky, and completely flat.” The best part? “They haven’t been dumbed down for the American market.”
André Tamers, whose De Maison Selections brings in Isastegi and Bordatto, both Basque ciders, and Trabanco from Esturia, agrees. He says the Esturian style, is “a little less tart and volatile, with a little more fruit.” Producers there, too, are exploring soil types and heirloom apple varieties.
The range of styles available means ciders can pair with a lot more than cinnamon donuts. For example, Lundbom says a traditional Basque cider house dinner includes Bacalao, ribeye steak and an apple tart, all served with cider. Cheeses—Cheddar in England, cider-or Calvados-washed cheeses in Normandy, and Valderon or Titillia in Spain—are also quite traditional. Chevallier-Guild says Aspall’s ciders can work with a variety of dishes; pork and apples is a combination beloved by chefs, but duck and even spicy Asian cuisine are also good possibilities.
With so much going on, it seems like cider could be complicated to sell. Not so, says Ben Sandler, co-owner of The Queens Kickshaw, in Queens, NY. “We love cider; we found that our guests love it, too,” says Sandler. They took part in Cider Week, a New York area promotion, shortly after they opened and saw their cider sales jump to 25% of total alcohol revenue; since then it’s hovered around 15%. The restaurant’s selection typically includes 17 or 18 ciders. Sandler says the entry-level ones sell the best, but that people have fewer expectations about price with cider than they do beer, so more expensive, 750ml bottles aren’t hard to move. “Cider is its own category and I love that people realize that,” he notes.
Alan Shapiro of SBS Imports says, “Getting the word out there that ciders are not all the same is the most important thing. Every other category has a trade-up option but typically there’s only one cider on the list,” so there’s room to offer an “upscale option.” Good beer venues and “boutiquey, eclectic restaurants” have been the best customers for Aspall. “We’ve been more successful on-premise than we initially expected, despite the price point,” says Henry Chevallier-Guild.
This seems to hold true for the more eclectic, imported ciders, but Bret Williams says sales of Woodchuck are 80% off-premise. In any case, Williams expects growth to continue—enough to merit building a new $24 million, 100,000-square-foot facility. His confidence in cider goes beyond current trends: “It’s a real product, with historical significance”—hard cider was deeply popular with our country’s Founding Fathers—and since we all grow up enjoying apples, “it’s not an acquired taste.”
Fitting in at Retail
From a consumer’s perspective, cider is in a peculiar situation. To most Americans, “cider” is thought of first as non-alcoholic apple juice, albeit of higher quality than the juice boxes typically made from concentrate and geared toward children. While its taste, texture and strength resemble beer or sparkling wine, it is truly neither—so re-sellers face the challenge of how to present it to the drinking public.
When a customer at Schaefer’s in Skokie, IL, asks Eli Robinson, one of the store’s buyers, whether cider is more like beer or wine, he responds without hesitation: “It’s like cider.” This quickly shifts their expectations, he points out, and helps them approach it with a more open mind. Crispin Browns Lane, a classic dry English cider, and Woodchuck are brands that move quickly at Schaefer’s.
Mike Kaminski, a wine associate at Gary’s Wine in Wayne, NJ, leans toward beer when discussing cider with customers, noting that “it is fermented more like beer, and is consumed more like beer.” Cider’s alcohol by volume is also more beerlike, ranging from 4%-9%, but typically 5%-7%. He sees cider sales as seasonal, with a twist. Fall, when fresh apples are on people’s minds, brings a spike in sales, but so does early winter because that is when higher-end ciders from the previous fall tend to be released. Kaminski also saw a jump in cider sales at Gary’s this summer, possibly because it was so hot outside and people turned to cider as an easy-drinking, refreshing beverage. Best sellers at Gary’s include Farnum Hill from New Hampshire (various styles from $13.99-$18.99/750ml) and Angry Orchard ($8.99-$9.99/six-pack).
If any part of the U.S. has what can be considered a long cider heritage, it’s New England. At Bauer Wine and Spirits in Boston, the staff has rallied behind local ciders, carrying eight to ten at any given time. The locavore angle, genuine enthusiasm and in-store sampling have been key to introducing cider to customers. On particular favorite is Bantam “Wunderkind,” recently launched by two women, Dana Masterpolo and Michelle da Silva, who create test trials in a small Cambridge lab and then share production space with a regional winery. The cider is crisp and clean with a hint of honey. Priced at $7.99 for a 22 oz. bottle, it’s a relatively easy product to recommend, both for the price and the versatility. Sales staff suggest pairing it with lots of foods, from brunch fare to cheese platters to Indian or Thai food.
While individual stores may opt to take a page from the craft-beer book and stock local ciders, it bodes well for the category that several nationally available brands are red-hot. Among those enjoying double-digit growth in 2011: Ace, Woodchuck, Strongbow, Magners and Crispin (which recently became part of Miller Coors’ Tenth & Blake division). Angry Orchard was launched by Boston Beer Co. this past spring; and Anheuser-Busch released Michelob Ultra Light Cider in May. Vermont Hard Cider’s Woodchuck, riding 28% growth for the first half of 2012, is expected to hit 3 million cases by year-end.
• In cider’s early American heyday, all of it was “hard” (i.e, alcoholic), because lack of refrigeration made it impossible to keep sweet cider stable. Pilgrims (even children) enjoyed cider with meals, and while clergy would denounce harder spirits, they had no issue with cider.
• Perry is the term often used for pear cider. When sugar or extra fruit is added during fermentation, increasing the alcohol level, cider is classified as “apple wine.” Calvados (the apple brandy of Normandy) and applejack are made by distilling apple cider.
• The United Kingdom leads the world in per capita cider consumption. According to the UK’s National Association of Cider Makers, 13% of UK adults drink cider at least once a month while 49% drink wine and 51% drink beer. Not surprisingly, many Americans who visit England and eat/drink like the locals return with a taste for hard cider.