Posted on | August 24, 2015
Written by | Jim Clarke
While still enigmatic, cider is winning converts and gaining visibility.
“I don’t mind admitting I’ve got more cider in the fridge at home than beer.” Unexpected words from a brewer, but so says Dave Hoops, Master Brewer at Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, MN. The Brewhouse also owns Endion Station, a refurbished rail station, where Hoops handles the beverage selection. “At least eight of our 20 draft lines are cider; more than half our sales are cider,” notes Hoops.
Cider has gone from confusion—isn’t that what we had as kids in autumn?—to conqueror, establishing itself as the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in the U.S.market. The category grew 100% in the 52-week period ending on January 26th of 2014, reaching a total annual sales figure of $220.7 million. That number is built on similarly expansive growth dating back to at least 2011.
Cider often falls in-between beer and wine, packaged like the former in six-packs, served on draft, or poured from cork-sealed 750s, but made, like wine, by fermenting fruit (or concentrate). Adding to this adult beverage’s enigmatic profile: it is handled differently in varied states in terms of how it is regulated and taxed. In New York, for example, wine retailers can carry cider, but not beer.
Whereas the large players were slow to get on board with craft beer and the diffusion of styles they represent, cider has not taken them by surprise, and brands like Strongbow and Woodchuck have led the way in making cider widely available, especially at entry-level price points. The craft beer business itself has joined in, with Boston Beer Co.’s Angry Orchard brand now the largest player in the U.S.market (Strongbow is the largest globally).
At ACE Cider, based in Sebastopol in California’s Sonoma County, founder Jeffrey House attributes the category’s success to a number of factors: “The consumers are 50/50 male-female. It’s not gender specific. It’s suitable for gluten-free drinkers. It’s low-calorie compared to wine and beer, and it pairs well with food.” It’s no longer all about apples, either. “For us, more than 60% of our volume is perry,” says House. That is, cider fermented from pears rather than apples.
In 2014, Strongbow began offering ciders embellished with flavors you’d associate with apples—Ginger, Honey and Red Berries. At the same time they dropped their traditional dry product in favor of a sweeter version, Gold Apple, and encouraged drinkers to try it over ice if they want to recreate a drier expression.
ACE is exploring the audience for more exotic flavors. “I believe that fruit ciders will be big,” says House. “Americans have a sweet tooth and I think apple by itself can be a bit boring as a style. ACE pineapple is becoming a bit of a phenomenon.”
Imports like Rekorderlig from Sweden are bringing in exotic flavors and combinations like passion fruit and strawberry-lime. “It’s served cold, over ice, and most of the time with citrus,” says Brand Ambassador Joel Persson. The passion fruit version puts the citrus in the bottle: “Ice cold and with the citrus to cut the sweetness, it’s a cocktail in a bottle,” effectively fitting into the alcopop market.
While House says he aims to keep the ACE ciders on the shelves at the $9.99 price point—“Once we get over $10 it slips down in demand”—higher-priced, more artisanal styles also abound. At Endion Station, Dave Hoops focuses on more craft products, bringing in ciders not otherwise available in the area. Sweeter and fruit-flavored ciders are just one part of that selection. “We sell the Aspall Blush [an English, blackberry-flavored cider] and the Julian Black and Blue. It goes for $8 a glass and we can’t keep it in stock; there is a real market for that.” Nevertheless, “A lot more people come to us seeking out dry cider. We sell a lot of dry, really English-y cider rather than the sweet stuff.” And those styles can command higher prices. “When we get Farnum Hill I have to sell it at $1 an ounce, but people are okay with that.”
“Yes of course there’s a split,” says Farnum Hill’s founder Steve Wood; based in New Hampshire, he was one of hard cider’s pioneers. “The comparison to wine is apt. There’s Gallo Hearty Burgundy and there’s Gigondas, but they’re connected.” At the same time, cider’s rocketing popularity has helped generate a confusing market: “Just imagine if wine arrived in this country in just two or three years, if everything up just got dumped in front of the country. It’s chaos.”
Traditional European ciders are not made from the same culinary apples that make American pies, so American cider apples are often tannic and inedible. Wood had grafted over some of his trees to cider varieties in the 1980s as an experiment, and began making cider when the culinary apple market began to stumble. Having harvestable cider apples earlier than many was an advantage, and Wood plans to have 1,000 more trees producing in the next few years.
While many cideries are using culinary apples, Wood says the line between craft ciders and simpler products isn’t clear yet. “If people are making great cider from Golden Delicious, what’s wrong with that? There will be a difference in the fullness of time.” For that matter, some producers are getting good results from high-quality concentrate from bittersweet (cider) apples.
Farnum Hill and like-minded cider producers have been working together to educate retailers and on-premise staff about higher-end ciders. “We at Farnum Hill and a bunch of others are trying to help retailers make these distinctions. We get asked, ‘Why does your bottle cost $16?’ We’re paying more attention to trade and less to consumers. We arrange the ciders from dry to sweet; at the end we present ‘debatable’ examples” that show acetalaldehyde, or volatile acidity. “That’s worked way better than the public tastings,” he notes.
While cider definitely has locavore appeal (see sidebar), its popularity hasn’t left behind traditional European producers. English, Spanish, and French imports are up, many coming in via wine rather than beer-focused companies. “We noted this cider growth mid-last year and started brainstorming ways we could take part,” says Jordan Sager, Vice President at the importer Winesellers Ltd, which added three French cider brands to their portfolio this May. “We’re selling a $15 bottle of cider or a $13 Grüner, but they are going to the same people,” says Sager. “They’re willing to try as long as they see it as higher quality. Everybody’s looking for something better.”