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The great beerification of cider

Hops, cans and other ways American craft cider is following the beer playbook.
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CIDER LargeA server wearing neon patterned leggings swings by to check on a table flanked by benches full of guys and girls in their mid-20s. They sport knit pom-pom hats and flannel to combat the Bozeman, Montana chill; one is wearing a Montana Ale Works baseball cap. Tasting glasses full of liquids in various colors and stages of emptiness clutter the blond wood table while a few feet away an eager man with a guitar takes requests for John Mayer and Santana covers. Couples at the table are debating the next Saturday afternoon stop: White Dog Brewing? Happy hour at Ale Works?

This feels like any brewery taproom, except it’s Lockhorn Hard Cider, and no one’s drinking beer at all. Instead, they’re swapping glasses of Cascade-hopped, bourbon barrel-conditioned and dry, ginger-spiced ciders. The sunny building is actually a renovated garage that became the cidery’s home in 2014. Just a few years ago, cider taprooms didn’t feel this … well, beery. But this beerification—of taprooms and the cider itself—shows no signs of slowing.

• • •

The classic ciderhouse model is still on display in the Finger Lakes region of New York and in Oregon and Washington, home to some of the best wine-minded cider makers in the country. These cider makers—unlike those who buy pre-pressed juice or even concentrate—are the ones who tend their family orchards and cultivate the finest heirloom apple varieties. Their taprooms are listed on their state’s wine trail maps. Call them “cider brewers” and they might wince; their process more closely resembles winemaking than brewing, and their exceptional ciders are better enjoyed in stemware than a pint glass.

But call Nat West a brewer and he probably won’t correct you. West is the friendly, evangelical founder of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland, Oregon, and he’s the unofficial spokesman of the nascent movement to produce, market and distribute hard cider like craft beer rather than wine.

West sums it up this way: “The best, most widely consumed and successful cider brands in the market now, and in the coming years, will be made, packaged, delivered and handled, sold and consumed like beer—not wine.” Reverend Nat’s ferments nearly all of its ciders with beer yeast, a fact that’s not lost on homebrewers who taste them. The company also makes a Cascade-hopped cider with apricots, a sour cherry cider that’s more like a lambic than apple juice and limited-release, bourbon barrel-aged ciders as well. Sound familiar, beer world?

Other cider makers (though certainly not all) have heeded his rallying cry; you’ve likely seen hopped ciders, ciders in 16-ounce tallboy cans, and seasonal draft ciders listed on bar menus alongside IPAs and kölsches. That’s no accident: Today’s beer drinkers are very, very important to cider’s growth. And in the coming months and years, craft cider is going to look a lot more like craft beer.

But first craft has to figure out where it fits into the larger cider market. Much was made of hard cider’s headline-making 68 percent case volume growth in 2014. That slowed to around 8 percent in 2015, according to Nielsen, which provides information and insights on consumer behavior. But there’s an asterisk attached to that lower number.

Kevin O’Brien of Zepponi & Company, a global beverage alcohol M&A advisory firm, analyzed the Nielsen data to offer a more nuanced look. He grouped the ciders owned by the biggest six players (Boston Beer Company, MillerCoors, AB InBev, C&C Group, Heineken, and W.M. Magner, Inc.) and found these 2015 numbers: Total cider growth was 9.6 percent, but craft cider growth (minus the big six) was up 44.4 percent year-over-year. The smaller guys are doing just fine, thanks.

“That overall slowdown is not the takeaway,” says Bryant Goulding, co-founder of Rhinegeist Brewery and its cider offshoot, Cidergeist. “The craft growth is the exciting aspect to us; it’s like the beer market 10 years ago.”

• • •

Michigan’s Vander Mill is a success story in this growing craft wave. It quickly gained speed since it began selling cider in 2008, mostly by introducing its dry and flavored ciders (all made with Michigan apples, some of which are milled onsite) to craft beer drinkers. Vander Mill’s 16-ounce cans are now available in convenience stores, supermarkets and bars throughout the Midwest, and the cidery recently opened a 43,000-square-foot production facility in Grand Rapids. Adjacent to the production space is a 250-seat restaurant with 20 draft lines pouring 19 ciders and a lone beer.

“We used to have people come in [to our other restaurant] to eat and they’d see the taps on the wall and ask where the beer is,” says Vander Mill co-founder Paul Vander Heide.

That doesn’t happen much anymore, and it only took a few years to see the tide turn. Just five years ago, Vander Heide made the first step outside his corner of lakeside Michigan and tested the Chicago market. He began with kegs and later added cans, zeroing in on the city’s better beer bars like Bangers & Lace, Sheffields and Fountainhead. He self-distributed, lugging kegs in the back of his minivan and pitching them to drinkers as a drier and more flavorful alternative to mass-market cider.

He suspected that craft beer drinkers interested in local, well-made and flavorful liquid—no matter its origins in grain or fruit—would dig his cider.

“In those major areas where craft beer has been a while, people have really been drawn to us fast,” he says. “In Grand Rapids and Chicago, which have been in the craft beer game a long time, it’s remarkable to me how fast the consumer’s palate has advanced in seeking different styles of cider.”

• • •

Some craft cider houses have even grown straight out of breweries. These include Rhinegeist’s Cidergeist line, Begyle Brewing partner brand Broken Nose Cider, Short’s Brewing’s Starcut Ciders and Two Beers Brewing counterpart Seattle Cider.

“We share a tasting room, so when we opened the cidery we had a built-in audience already,” says Caitlin Braam, president of Two Beers Brewing Co. and Seattle Cider Co., which launched in 2013, six years after the brewery was founded. The two share executive and sales staff, though not a production facility. “Making cider is much different than making beer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see beer styles sneaking into the cider house.”

Exhibit A: Seattle Cider’s recent Gose cider, a specialty release that married a dry, lightly tart cider with the subtle salinity of gose, a darling style among craft beer drinkers.

“There’s nobody out there really these days who only drinks beer. In our taproom, people get taster flights of half cider, half beer,” she says. The taproom sees an even mix of guys and girls, Braam says, and a blend of both beer and cider enthusiasts. When hopheads want to branch into cider, bartenders point them toward Seattle Cider’s Citrus, which has IPAlike dryness and astringency. “It’s a place where people can experiment with craft in general and see what’s new.”

When Rhinegeist launched its Cidergeist line in October 2015, Goulding says it was “critical” to get the semi-dry and hopped ciders, both available in beerlike 12-ounce cans and on draft, to beer fans.

“When we head to Boston with our cider, we’re going to hit up Trillium and Tree House [breweries] and introduce ourselves,”  he says. “I think craft beer people are also potential future cider drinkers if they’re not already. We try to reach out to tastemakers that like beer and cider and foodies that just like high-quality liquid.”

“We need to win beer drinkers in terms of reputation and respect. Guys that are drinking fresh, hoppy beer and teasing out Mosaic versus Citra hops, they’re going to have their eyebrows raised when they try our cider.”

• • •

Thus far, craft cider makers have mostly enjoyed a warm welcome from the craft beer world. But it’s in the dating phase, not quite marriage. Reverend Nat’s Nat West knows this, and takes on the challenge.

“I see it as giving me a chance … Every time that craft beer drinker goes to the store, she has to remember me and want to buy me as opposed to being distracted by 100 other things,” West says. “That’s a fair fight. We all stand on our merits, not on our advertising or price promotions. I just have aspirations to get my very unusual ciders into everybody’s mouth who wants them.”

The unusually flavored, hopped and barrel-aged ciders are designed to appeal to adventurous beer drinkers, sure, but they’re also born of necessity. Many start-up cider houses don’t have access to the premiere varieties of cider apples—it takes time, experience and land to grow a successful orchard. Instead, many use juice pressed from dessert apples and then consider flavors like fruit, hops or souring to make a more complex final product. And Americans familiar with flavored and fruited beers drink it up.

“When you have apples that don’t have a ton of intrinsic flavor, you say ‘What can I add? What can I still make that’s delicious?’” says Nat West. “The vast majority of our top-selling ciders are hopped or flavored ciders. We have a growing culture of cider in America using American dessert apples and we’re not hiding that fact. We use arguably the best dessert apples in the world.”

This is where American craft cider can make its mark, not unlike craft brewers did in recent decades. Craft brewers innovated, told their stories and gained popularity, becoming global leaders in an industry once thought to be an exclusively European domain. (A recent RateBeer thread begun by a user in West Bromwich, England titled “American cider is shit and you know it” proves U.S. ciders have a ways to go in winning overseas drinkers.) Instead of mimicking the farmhouse ciders of Normandy or tart, effervescent Basque ciders, American cider is poised to forge its own path with craft beer as its model.

“We have built the beginnings of a cider culture in the U.S. that has an identity,” says Nat West. “Its identity is not English, with their tannic ciders, dry and acidic. That’s not what we’re drinking. It isn’t that we don’t have anything of our own here, it’s that we have something.

 

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