Cider revolution

Move over, craft beer—hard cider is making a comeback

Beer and wine rule American beverage aisles today, but apple cider was once the drink of the American people. A tradition introduced by British settlers, who planted the first apple trees in the colonies in 1623, cider was an obvious choice of tipple in muggy parts of the Southeast regions where grapes failed to grow. And while beer required imports of grain and hops, and skilled brewers to produce the beverage, cider did not. It was easy to make, and easy to drink, and—as Slate Magazine reported in a 2009 article—the average Massachusetts citizen drank 35 gallons of cider in 1767. As Americans went westward, the apple went with them, and cider was always just a barrel of juice away.

Then, even before Prohibition, cider mysteriously disappeared, along with the orchards of tart, acidic apples used to make it. Beer and wine became our favorite libations, and they remain such.

But national cider sales are back on the upswing, and in California a handful of micro-scale cider-makers are resuming old traditions of cider not seen in America for more than a century—and they’re expecting consumers to catch on soon. In Petaluma, Wayne Van Loon—owner of Murray’s Cyder—is making Normandy-style cider from organic California apples. Finding proper cider-apple varieties, Van Loon says, has not been easy.

“For a while, I couldn’t get anything resembling a cider apple,” he said. “I was using American table apples, and you just can’t make a real Normandy cider with those varieties. It can’t be done.”

Such apples, high in sugar but low in character-building acids and tannins, make for a dull juice, says Van Loon, and “a backward, hollow character” in the cider.

Persuading Sonoma County apple farmers to devote portions of their acreage to producing tart, rock-hard cider apples may require that Van Loon sign 10-year, or longer, buying contracts with the farmers, who might otherwise be left high and dry should the cider industry collapse. But Van Loon believes it’s at the eve of an explosion.

For now, though, it’s tiny. In the Chico area, for instance, there are no commercial cider producers. But cider sales are on the rise at S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods, where beer buyer Andy Granskog says he has seen consumer interest climbing for about two years. He keeps the beer department stocked with four cider brands—and Red Branch Cider Company, made in Sunnyvale, in the Silicon Valley, is as local as the ciders get. The Chico Natural Foods Cooperative carries a similar selection.

American cider has a reputation for being a sweet, simple, fizzy drink rather like a cheap wine cooler. A scattering of craft cider makers nationwide could change that, though. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a company called Angry Orchard uses heirloom apples imported from the Italian Alps and Normandy to make several ciders, including some made in old styles of Europe. One, called Iceman, is a tribute to cider traditions of Quebec and brings to the table a very unique, buttery caramel character. The McRitchie Ciderworks in North Carolina is filling wine bottles with handmade cider styled after ciders of Brittany, and in Washington State the Tieton Cider Works has planted a large acreage with its own cider-apple trees and, clearly, is banking on a boom in American cider drinking.

In California, a handful of producers are producing similarly traditional cider styles—more tart than sweet, with little Sprite-like fizz, and with just a trace of hay-bale funk. These companies include The Apple Farm in Philo and Two Rivers Cider in Sacramento. Several brands are based in Sebastopol, in the looming shadow of Ace, the king of American cider operations.

The cider produced here is made from eating apples, many of which are imported from China as frozen juice concentrate. Van Loon characterizes the majority of big-name cider as “gateway” cider—spritzy, sweet, refreshing, easy to toss back, and growing measurably in popularity. Van Loon, who will be releasing just 6,000 bottles this fall, recognizes the importance that the commercial cider giants will have in nurturing the growing cider industry.

“In a sense, the big guys are paving the way,” he said. “It just takes little guys like us to come in and say, ‘Okay, let’s go upscale.’”