Craft Cider Is the Next Craft Beer
Years-long growth, especially in New England, has given way to a slowdown. Can the beverage that was once America’s favorite tipple rise again?
BY TOM ACITELLI / PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
On a broiling day in late June, Bantam Cider was in full production mode. A forklift was parked inside the Somerville, Massachusetts, facility near pallets of empty kegs, and in the next room Bantam’s production tanks churned away.
The four-year-old operation is one of 72 cideries in New England, according to the Cyder Market, an online news and information portal dedicated to tracking the growth in hard cider in the United States. Massachusetts has the most with 25, followed by Vermont with 17 and Maine with 13. Connecticut has nine, New Hampshire seven and Rhode Island one.
Some of these cideries are a part of long-established wineries, and others operate as standalone producers.
These 72 cideries produce myriad cider styles—and iterations of those styles—most on a very small scale compared with national brands and most with apples grown in New England, if not in particular states. Together, these cideries are shaping a resurgence of interest in cider in the very region that birthed the nation’s once-torrid love affair with the beverage centuries ago.
Dana Masterpolo is a co-founder of Bantam, whose releases include a dry, honey-tasting flagship called Wunderkind and a farmhouse cider called the Americain, which tastes like apple pie in a glass. She said hers and other smaller cideries are taking to the next level what much larger operators started about 20 years ago.
“What we’re trying to do is reinvent what American cider is,” Masterpolo said, “and make it with great materials and make it with finesse, and show people that it can taste like a wide range of flavor profiles.”
In this approach, these smaller cideries sound unmistakably like smaller breweries 15 or 25 years ago: youngish upstarts intent on redefining the expectations of a classic American libation. The cideries look like the breweries, too, using some of the same equipment, and even taste like them. Masterpolo compared some ciders to sour beers.
But the number of smaller, or craft, breweries in New England and the United States dwarfs the number of craft cideries. Also, craft beer’s sales volume is much greater than that of its fruitier cousins, and smaller brewers have a much louder trade voice in governmental matters.
Still, the vibe is unmistakable—and the comparisons of the two beverages in media coverage myriad. And, if there is one region where craft cider’s ascent in terms of sheer numbers and stylistic dominance could mimic craft beer’s rise, it’s New England. Why? Because of producers such as Bantam and because of the centuries of history at the beverage’s back.
From Johnny Appleseed to Spuds Mackenzie
Once upon a time, a man named John Chapman, born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1774, set off to what were then the frontiers of America to plant apple orchards.
Chapman stayed one step ahead of settlers moving westward, selling the orchards and the surrounding land to them as they arrived. By the end of his life in 1845, Chapman had planted perhaps hundreds of orchards stretching from Pennsylvania through Illinois, amassing tidy profits for himself and a nickname: Johnny Appleseed.
That nickname has rendered Chapman’s nomadic life the stuff of children’s stories, his apples often depicted as pulpy fresh fruit grown for eating. In fact, far from this childlike idyll, Chapman/Appleseed planted the apples so settlers could make hard cider. For hard cider was America’s tipple of choice in the nation’s infancy. The tell was that Chapman planted seeds that spawn the sorts of apples unsuitable for munching (those come from the more careful grafting of styles together).
“Cider is the historic preference,” said Dale Brown, co-founder and editor of the Cyder Market. “That is what America drank. Every farmer had his own apple trees and made his own apple cider.”
Part of the popularity was practical. Easier and faster to make than whiskey, the other alcoholic staple of the early republic, cider also provided a safer alternative to often-contaminated water. Part of it, too, was legacy: America inherited a taste for cider from its former colonial overlord, England, where the drink remains popular.
Americans’ love affair with tartly strong cider continued well into the 1800s. Then bourbon, a corn-infused whiskey developed on the same frontier where Chapman spread his seeds, started to eat into the domestic demand. Then chaos struck much of Europe.
Revolutions and counterrevolutions convulsed much of the Continent in the late 1840s, sending waves of German immigrants fleeing for America. These arrivals brought with them a zest for their native beverage: beer. Specifically, many preferred the thinner-tasting, lighter-colored pilsner style of lager, born in what’s now the Czech Republic in 1842.
Clean, crisp, refreshing on a hot day and easy to replicate, pilsner’s appeal started to spread beyond Americans of German descent. Enter industrial-scale production after the Civil War, and pilsner—or at least the watery iteration that companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller were making—spread farther and farther.
As did another beverage that got a migratory shot in the arm: wine. Immigrants from southern Europe, particularly Italy, in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought a taste for fermented grape juice with them. Wine, like beer, had always been around in the States, but now its popularity ballooned.
Even Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, failed to stem the tide. In fact, given that the government allowed some wineries and breweries to operate throughout the alcohol ban—to, say, produce sacramental wine, or beer well below the alcohol cutoff for illegality—some companies were ready from the moment of Repeal to scale upward.
Modesto, California, winery E&J Gallo, for instance, would account for one-third of the domestically produced wine sold in the U.S. by the early 1970s. By the same period, a few breweries, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller, would account for around half the beer sold in the country, imported or otherwise. There were no similar behemoths pushing cider in supermarkets and chain restaurants.
Pretty soon, there was nobody alive who could remember even hearing secondhand of cider’s early-19th-century heyday. Orchards once devoted to cider never returned after Prohibition—or, if they did, they returned brimming with sweeter apple varieties grown from grafting and fit for eating.
If there was a future in alcoholic apples, it could be found in the first rumblings of what would come to be called craft spirits. Smaller distilleries on both coasts were making apple-based brandies and eau de vie by the late 1980s. As for hard cider, it seemed consigned to trivia.
How Cider Got Its Groove Back
One day in 1991, Greg Failing, a winemaker at the Joseph Cerniglia Winery in Proctorsville, Vermont, began toying with hard cider in his two-car garage in the same tiny Black River town. Failing had made ciders at Cerniglia, but the winery’s main focus was apple wine.
That soon changed. Failing’s experiments led to a sweet cider called Woodchuck Amber. Other Woodchuck styles followed, and by 1996 the Proctorsville winery was producing 400,000 cases annually of the stuff. That year, to facilitate growth, particularly distribution, Cerniglia partnered with Stroh’s, an ailing national brewery looking for a lifeline.
While Stroh’s would not survive the decade, Woodchuck would. It became, along with a handful of other larger producers, the unlikely vanguard of cider production in the U.S. Whereas craft beer, fine wine and craft spirits all started with smaller, bootstrap-y entities battling more established macro-producers in the marketplace, the modern cider movement started with big players setting the culinary table for the wave of tinier craft peers that has followed.
That is the biggest reason why cider fell so out of favor after Prohibition: There weren’t macro-producers, at least not in the U.S. There were imports from northern Europe and American wineries such as Cerniglia dabbled in cider, but, for the most part, commercial production of the beverage was virgin territory when Failing started tooling around in his Vermont garage.
The offerings of the big producers were and are generally indistinct, a little off-putting in their sweetness, more alcoholic cola than apple cider. But their arrival caught consumers’ attention. At the start of the century, for the first time in as long as anyone alive could remember, cider was a commercial presence coast to coast.
The Next Craft Beer?
The larger producers who arrived early still dominate the marketplace. At the start of 2016, four companies accounted for just under 70% of cider sales in the U.S.
The leader was the Boston-based Boston Beer Co. Its Angry Orchard brand accounted for 34.6% of the market, according to research firm IBISWorld. (While the stats account for nonalcoholic ciders and fermented pear juice, or perry, hard ciders comprise the bulk of the numbers). U.K.–based C&C Group, which includes Woodchuck, accounted for 23.3% of sales. And then Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors each account for less than 6%.
Many of these bigger brands launched in just the past five years—Boston Beer rolled out Angry Orchard in late 2011, for instance. These launches helped make cider “the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage industry in the United States” from 2011 to 2016, according to IBISWorld. By any measure, cider grew spectacularly. Revenue for the industry grew by more than 27% on an annualized basis, apparently peaking at 86% in 2012.
Revenue has declined every year since, despite more cideries opening. In 2016 IBISWorld expects revenue to decline more than 8%. While the research firm does not break out statistics by region, it does note that New England has one of the highest concentrations of cideries relative to the population. Any dropoff will be especially felt here.
So is cider a fad? Or the true return of an American classic?
The answer may lie in that craft beer to which it is often compared. Craft beer exploded in popularity in the late 1980s behind, ironically enough, Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams brand and a now-defunct competitor, Pete’s Wicked. In the late 1990s, though, for myriad reasons, including too many breweries producing beer of inconsistent quality, the bubble burst—dozens of craft breweries went out of business. Media around 2000 began routinely describing craft beer as a fad.
Now there are more breweries in the U.S. than at any time in the nation’s history: 4,000-plus, the vast majority craft. No one talks of a fad anymore.
Perhaps the slowdown in cider, then, is but a blip on an otherwise steady march upward. The newer craft cideries are frank about the slowdown, but also quick to point out how well-established cider has become as a distinct beverage, especially in a New England where it goes back centuries, a beverage as worthy of exegesis as a spicy IPA or a well-balanced Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It had three huge years of growth and now it has tapered off a bit, but the market is also a lot bigger,” said Tyler Mosher, a co-founder of Downeast Cider, which launched in Maine in 2011 and is now located in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood.
“So I think even though the percentage isn’t as big, we’re getting a lot more people who are familiar with cider and who seem to recognize it as a true alternative to beer as opposed to another, I guess, Zima or something like that—a fad, something that’s going to blow over.”
Curious about New England cider?
What to try first
There are more than 2,000 types of ciders made in the United States, according to Dale Brown at the Cyder Market. The three key ingredients are apples, yeast and soil (or, as the French say of their wine, terroir). From there, the cider is in the hands of the imagination of its maker.
American cider makers, including in New England, now use everything from hops, the bittering agent in beer, to jalapeño peppers to other fruits, particularly berries—and then sometimes age the cider in barrels previously used to age wine, spirits and beer.
New England cider makers are also known for producing ice cider, an iteration born in Quebec about 25 years ago. Ice cider involves either freezing the apple juice or leaving the apples on the tree longer than normal. Both practices increase the sugar concentration and boost the alcohol content. Vermont’s Eden Specialty Ciders was the first American cidery to get federal approval for an ice cider label.
Here are some notable offerings from 11 of the more than 70 cideries in New England.
DOWNEAST CIDER HOUSE
Original Blend: straightforward flagship, “the Satisfaction to our Stones,” as the cidery puts it
Cranberry Blend: tartly sweet blend of apple and cranberry
HOGAN’S CIDER MILL
Hogan’s Hard Cider: a throwback to the earliest ciders of New England
Mackie’s Mulled Hard Cider: a blend of apples with cinnamon, cardamom, rose hips and lemon peel
RICKERS HARD CIDER (AT RICKER HILL ORCHARD)
Mainiac Mac: made primarily from McIntosh apples for a sweet taste
Mainiac Gold: not so sweet; made primarily from Golden Delicious apples
FARNUM HILL CIDERS (AT POVERTY LANE ORCHARDS)
Farnum Hill Extra Dry: palate-cleansing dryness with lots of fruitiness
Farnum Hill Semi-Dry: “balances the gentlest sweetness against sharp,” according to the cidery
NORTH COUNTRY HARD CIDER CO.
Bitter Brothers Bourbon Barrel: a semi-dry cider aged in barrels previously used to age bourbon
Sugar Shack: a cider made with local maple syrup, ginger and black walnut