The hard cider boom is on.
The hard cider boom is on.
Virtually nonexistent in the United States 20 years ago, sales of cider, which is fermented apple juice, are on a marked climb, rising from about $35 million in 2009 to $172 million this year, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.
For cider old-timers, which usually means 10 or so years in the business, it's both validation and profit.
"It's fantastic," said Michael Beck, owner of Uncle John's Cider Mill in St. Johns, Mich. "I'm glad I started 13 years ago. It bodes well for apple growers, which we are."
But for consumers, the rapid growth has led to a few too many choices on store shelves. Ciders come with a wide array of character, from sickly sweet to bone dry, and with a wide array of backgrounds, from chemical-addled and corporate to just-down-the-street fresh and local. Yet most bottles simply say "cider," with little to distinguish the products.
Some companies are overtly trying to cash in on the craze (the recently released Cidre is clearly labeled as a Stella Artois product), while others are more coy about their affiliations (nothing about Angry Orchard's bottle says it is a product of Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams beer).
Other longtime major players are trying to up their offerings. Since being sold last year to an Irish conglomerate, Woodchuck has unveiled a new "cellar series." Even Jim Beam has jumped on the trend with a "hard-core cider" version of its flavored Red Stag whiskeys.
I went into a recent cider binge with an open mind, but my conclusion was inescapable: as with craft beer, the best cider is made by smaller companies and in smaller batches.
Angry Orchard's flavored ciders, like its cinnamon fall seasonal, Cinful Apple, tastes almost like soda pop. If you want any complexity, keep looking.
Similarly, Woodchuck's first "cellar series" offering, which is spiked with hops (a crucial beer ingredient that adds floral notes) tastes disingenuous and chemical laden.
A quality take on the hopped cider sat on the same shelf as Woodchuck's: Washington-based Tieton Cider Works' version is clean, fresh and accessible while straddling a dry-sweet line.
As with craft beer, the difference comes down to fresh ingredients and a patient process. Availability of craft ciders varies by region, but do your homework — online and at the liquor store — and you won't be sorry.
Larger cider-makers are "making this a truly legitimate category in the industry, but when people find a craft cider, they'll know the difference," said Tieton cider-maker Marcus Robert. "We aim for something more complex and more interesting rather than just being sweet."
Three to try
Vander Mill: Generally sweeter and more accessible ciders that manage to taste like actual fruit; a great place to start. (Available in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.)
Tieton Cider Works: Broad and ambitious range of clean, well-made ciders. (Available in Alaska, California, Idaho, Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Washington.)
Wandering Aengus Ciderworks: Well-regarded, with a growing national reach; also makes Anthem cider. (Available in California, Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico, New York, Montana, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Washington, D.C.)