The Rise of Craft Hard Cider

Small batch breweries focus on quality ingredients

By Derrick Peterman

Photo: Caitlyn Pura

Photo: Caitlyn Pura

Hard cider is hot. Virtually non-existent in the United States just five years ago, cider consumption has more than tripled between 2011 and 2013, from 9.4 to 32 million gallons according to the Beer Institute. In 2014, Nielsen reported off-premise cider sales grew by 71%.

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding this beverage made by fermenting the sugars in apple juice. Look around and you’ll see billboards and advertisements touting all sorts of new cider drinks and brands. Behind these mass-market ciders you’ll find mass market breweries. Both Smith & Forge and Crispin Cider are owned by MillerCoors, Strongbow Cider is owned by Heineken, and  Johnny Appleseed Cider is part of  Anheuser-Busch. Then there’s Redd’s Apple Ale owned by SABMiller, which isn’t actually a cider but a beer blended with apple juice and other flavors. The market leader in cider sales throughout the US is Angry Orchard, owned by Boston Beer Company of Sam Adams Boston Lager fame.

As with mass-market beer, mass produced cider is engineered by large corporations that often take production shortcuts. The product may contain less than 50% juice with the remainder artificial flavors and sugar water. The apple juice itself is often sourced from concentrates from orchards in China or Europe. Chemical additives like malic acid are often introduced into the beverage.

In a positive trend, smaller craft breweries with a focus on quality are getting into the cider market. San Jose’s Gordon-Biersch Brewery released their “Wildcide” cider late last year. Gordon-Biersch co-founder and brewmaster Dan Gordon found himself dismayed at the low quality of mass-market ciders. “Reading the back labels of the major producers, there wasn’t a 100% all-natural hard cider I could find made from fresh pressed juice without additives.” As he does with beer, Gordon stresses the importance of using quality ingredients. “The most important element was using fresh pressed apple juice. That was the key to capturing the aromatic qualities of the apple. By using fresh pressed juice, we were able to achieve a very aromatic flavor profile and fruitiness while keeping it dry with a crisp body. Many of the large producers are using concentrate and nearly everyone uses sulfates. We don’t use either.”

Hard cider has been available locally in California for over fifteen years. One of the first cider pioneers in the United States is Mike Faul, who founded Red Branch Cider in Sunnyvale. He began in 1995 producing mead, fermented honey, before introducing a honey-apple cider in 1999. “In 1995, there really wasn’t any hard cider in the United States,” Faul recalls. “There were some imports from Canada and the UK,  but very few US cideries were in business.” Like mass-market cider, Faul’s business is growing rapidly, too.  “In 2011, we produced 25,000 cases a year, which grew to 45,000 cases in 2014.” Faul doesn’t credit the growing popularity of mass-market ciders for this growth, noting  “No one comes in asking “What do you have that tastes like Redd’s Apple Ale?” Instead, Faul credits the growing trends of consumers to buy local and seek out high quality artisanal products, the same trends that are fueling the craft brewing industry as well.

Red Branch, like many local California cideries, blends other fruits like cherries, pears, peaches, lemons, into various offerings in their cider line-up. It wasn’t always that way. Mike Faul remembers when he first released his Black Cherry Cider over ten years ago, a daring experiment at the time. “I wanted to make a berry flavored cider and nobody was using black cherries.” The tart cherries created a fresh counter-point to underlying cider and became an immediate hit. “I never expected it would become our most popular cider.” Explaining what he looks for in fruit, Faul explains “Of course, the quality of the fruit matters. What I’m also looking for is the sugar content and the acidity.”  Like most local California cideries, Red Branch uses a blend of different apple varieties to create a greater depth of flavor through a balance of sweetness, tartness, and body.

There are now over 50 cideries in California alone according to ciderguide.com. Most are small establishments, selling cider either onsite in tap-rooms or in restaurants or bottle shops in their immediate area. A few wineries also engage in cider making. Since both wine and cider involve fermented fruit juice, cider is a natural extension of their core business. In fact, cider bridges a gap between wine and beer. Hard cider is a simple communal beverage enjoyed over conversation with family and friends, yet has the complex and subtle floral and delicate fruit flavors that make wine such a provocative beverage. Given this it’s safe to say that hard cider is not a passing fad and will continue to see increasing market share for many years to come.

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