The versatile apple goes well with just about anything, as any connoisseur of apple pie or other apple-based desserts can attest. Put it together with cranberries, blueberries, raspberries or raisins and the combinations are virtually seamless. Indeed, makers of hard apple cider are stealing a page from vodka and Bourbon with a slew of new infused variations.
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A year ago, Vermont Hard Cider Co.—whose Woodchuck brand is No. 2 in the cider category at 2.31 million (2.25-gallon) cases in 2014—spent $34 million on a new cidery in its hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. The facility is big enough to produce some two dozen cider variations, ranging from ginger and smoked apple to chocolate and sour cherry. Late last year, the company launched Hopsation ($10 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles), throwing hops usually reserved for beer into a cider recipe to yield IPA-like flavors.
“We’re having a lot of fun exploring different styles,” says Dan Rowell, who’s been with Vermont Hard Cider Co. for 19 years and now serves as president and CEO. He confirms that the original Woodchuck Amber ($10 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles) is still the biggest seller. “Today’s consumer likes to try different things,” he adds. “People want variety.”
Wholesalers and retailers around the country are still coming to terms with cider’s rapid rise. “Four or five years ago, we worked hard to persuade stores to stock just a single cider on their shelves,” Rowell says. “Now the shelf space has increased quite a bit and they’re willing to take multiple ciders. That expansion has led to some great experimentation.”
Bars and lounges are jumping on board as well. In March, the bar Wassail opened in New York City with nearly 100 ciders available by the bottle and another dozen rotated on draft. Co-owner Ben Sandler stocks French, English and Spanish ciders, most of them in 750-ml. bottles and priced as high as $160. Cider represents nearly three-fourths of bar sales, followed by spirits, wine and beer. “We saw an incredible opportunity in cider,” Sandler says. “One of the most exciting things about the category is its amazing scope and breadth. Ciders come from many regions of the world, and our customers are having fun learning about the differences.”
Beer Giants Step Up
The leading players in the domestic beer industry don’t appear willing to let imports or crafts gain too much of a foothold at retail. The Boston Beer Co.’s Angry Orchard brand, the category leader, jumped 81 percent in 2014 to 14.5 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Johnny Appleseed burst onto the scene a year ago and quickly grabbed third place with a volume of 1.5 million cases, slightly ahead of MillerCoors’ Smith & Forge brand—also new to the marketplace in 2014—at 1.24 million cases.
The entire category saw sales leap last year by 61 percent to nearly 26 million cases, equal to about 1 percent of the U.S. beer market. But the gains weren’t shared by everybody. Woodchuck’s sales, in spite of its line extensions, saw a 17-percent decline, while the company’s import brand, Magners, was flat at 604,000 cases, placing it in the No.-8 spot. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra Light cider slipped 25 percent to 415,000 cases and the No.-9 position.
Rowell partly blames Woodchuck’s decline on a decision not to advertise on television in 2014 and 2015, while its biggest competitors have been blitzing the airwaves with commercials, spending around $100 million last year. Angry Orchard’s rise has been buttressed by a product lineup that’s nearly as varied as Vermont’s. There’s the cinnamon-spiced Cinnful Apple ($7 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles), the French hops–infused Hop’n Mad Apple ($7) and the sweet, frozen juice–enhanced Iceman ($15 a 750-ml. bottle).
Angry Orchard cidermaker David Sipes notes the versatility of apples. “Cider drinks well alone, but also lends itself to pairing with a lot of other things,” he says. In that vein, Boston Beer has mounted a campaign among mixologists to use its ciders in cocktails. Bartenders are encouraged to add cider to vodka and to feature it as a replacement for wine in white sangria. “It’s a wide-open playground,” Sipes says. “Cider has great versatility with brown spirits and can work in something like an Old Fashioned. It also plays very well with honey. People will be tinkering with a lot of different fruit additions going forward.”
In fact, after just a year on the market, Smith & Forge is readying its first line extension to be introduced late this summer: the honey-flavored Tennessee Barrel cider. The brand, which launched in 12-packs of cans, will be adding six-packs of cans as well. It remains to be seen how the honey flavors will play out with the strong male audience cultivated for Smith & Forge since the outset.
Lisa Rudman, MillerCoors’ marketing manager for innovations and incubation brands, says the company plans to continue strong media support for Smith & Forge this year. “Bigger players like MillerCoors will continue to grow this category, making consumers aware of cider,” she explains. “The rising tide we create will lift all boats.”
Supply And Demand
Rudman predicts that the U.S. cider category’s volume could triple in the next five years, bringing it to about 3 percent of the beer industry’s volume. She notes that throughout much of Europe, cider is closer to 5 percent of beer’s volume. There have been some sourcing concerns, but Rudman isn’t worried. “We source all our apples from Washington state, and there are enough to go around,” she says. “A company working at our scale can get access to all the best ingredients and quantities we require.”
Greg Peck, an assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who specializes in apple industry research, notes that there were 260 million bushels of apples harvested in the United States last year, up 20 percent from the 216 million bushels produced in 2007. In that same period, cider production has leapfrogged from 6.4 million gallons produced in 2007 to 54 million gallons last year, an eight-fold increase. He calculates that hard cider gobbles up at least 7 percent of all apples grown in the United States at present. “Where does this exponential increase in cider consumption stop, and can American orchard owners keep up with demand?” Peck says. “We’d love to know the answers to those types of questions.”
Many of the smallest craft producers have been overwhelmed by the demand for their products. John Washburn, owner and cofounder of Bold Rock Hard Cider near Charlottesville, Virginia, expected to sell 6,000 cases of cider in the first six months after he began pressing and fermenting juice in June 2012. Instead, he sold 46,000 cases, which became 100,000 cases in 2013 and 200,000 cases in 2014. Now, with 40 employees and a branch facility in North Carolina, Washburn is hustling to plant more apple trees on his farm. He just landed a deal to sell his cider through the 1,100-store Food Lion and 230-unit Harris Teeter grocery chains. “When we went into business three years ago, 80 percent of our tasting room visitors said they were having hard cider for the first time,” Washburn says. “Now that number is closer to 25 percent.”
Meanwhile, Smith & Forge’s more upscale sister brand Crispin (around $8 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles) includes the pear-based ciders Pacific Pear, Blackberry Pear and Venus Reigns, which is aged in red wine barrels. Crispin marketing manager Cristin Rudolph believes flavors are key to luring consumers away from craft beer and wine, where they’ve been spoiled by a dizzying variety of tastes. “For those people, the mainstream hard ciders may not seem interesting enough,” Rudolph says. “Our role is to drive premiumization in this category.”
Fueling cider’s popularity is the growing trend of tasting rooms that showcase products and draw tourists. Kaleva, Michigan’s Northern Natural Organics has opened a tasting room in the tourist mecca of Traverse City, 45 miles north of the cidery. President and CEO Dennis Mackey expects to produce 36,000 gallons of Northern Natural cider this year—double the 2010 total. The company offers seven ciders ($11 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles), including Orange Blossom, Cranberry Ginger, Elderberry Apple and Blueberry Apple, and the tasting room maintains a dozen tap handles ($5 a 12-ounce pour). Northern Natural also produces wines from fruits like peaches, cherries and strawberries.
An increasing number of cideries make other products as well. At Alter Ego Cider in Portland, Oregon, partner Anne Hubatch produces wines under the Helioterra label in addition to 2,000 gallons of hard cider a year. Paul Scotto, the co-owner of Cider Brothers in Lodi, California, also owns four wineries. “At our winery, we ferment grape juice, and at our cidery, we ferment apple juice,” Scotto says. “It’s not that big a jump. We can even use a lot of the same equipment.”
The intersection of wine and cider can lead to hybrid products. Dennis Dunham, vice president of operations at Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana, produces Beanblossom cider. At 9 percent alcohol-by-volume (abv), it’s classified under federal rules as apple wine, which fits in with the company’s other offerings like Peach Honey wine and White Sangria Classic. “We can move pretty effortlessly between grapes and apples,” Dunham says. “Wineries have so many choices now. I think more and more will elect to make cider.”
Some cider makers are also dabbling in spirits. At ÆppelTreow Winery and Distillery in Burlington, Wisconsin, co-owner Charles McGonegal produces apple brandy, sorghum whiskey and the fortified apple wine pommeaux in addition to 6,000 gallons of cider. “We’re at capacity right now,” he notes. The place is isolated, but on a nice autumn Saturday, 600 tourists can turn up at the tasting room.
McGonegal is concerned that raw apples on the market have risen from $3 a bushel a few years ago to $6 and even $9 now as supplies around the state tighten. “It isn’t easy to convince farmers to plant more apple trees,” he explains. “Many think that cider is a flash in the pan and will crash eventually like wine coolers did, leaving them with a surplus of trees and apple inventory.”
In St. Johns, Michigan, Uncle John’s Cider Mill makes spirits, wine and cider from its 300-acre farm. The vast expanse of land draws as many as 20,000 people in a day—250,000 visitors a year—to its tasting rooms in the fall. President Michael Beck says the company produced 25,000 cases of cider ($10 a four-pack of 16-ounce cans) in 2014 and hopes to do 45,000 cases this year. He’s continuously planting more trees, most of them bitter or tart European varieties with heavy tannins—typically shunned by most commercial orchards—that are ideal for producing authentic European-style ciders.
Beck is amazed at the number of entrepreneurs eagerly entering the cider category. He serves as president of the United States Association of Cider Makers, which had 26 members in its first year in 2011 and currently has almost 400 members. Each April, Beck participates in the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition held in nearby Grand Rapids, Michigan. This year, more than 50 judges ranked nearly 700 ciders, up from roughly 100 when the contest launched a decade ago. There are separate categories for mead-style offerings, hopped ciders and spiced products.
Pete Mulligan, co-owner of Forest Grove, Oregon’s Bull Run Cider Co., is president of the Northwest Cider Association. The organization currently has 52 members, up from 10 five years ago. Mulligan is experimenting with Champagne and Belgian ale yeasts and single varietals of obscure apples like Gravenstein ($7 a 500-ml. bottle). He takes great pride in hard cider representing 4 percent of beer sales in nearby Portland, believed to be the highest concentration anywhere in the country.
Mulligan is also watching closely as a new bill makes its way through Congress this year that would allow cider alcohol levels to reach 8.5-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv)—up from 7-percent abv—before entering a higher tax category. Dubbed the Cider Act, the legislation would also enable ciders to have more carbonation. “If we fix regulations, we can help this category really grow,” Mulligan says.
There’s been much activity on the import front as well. Shelton Brothers in Belchertown, Massachusetts, has been importing cider since 2007 and currently has a roster of 13 brands. “It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, cider still wasn’t a category,” says regional manager Lauren Shepard. “Retailers didn’t know where to put our ciders or what to do with them. Now we get shelf space in all kinds of places.”
Cider’s rise is drawing even more foreign producers to these shores. Fourth-generation English cider maker Martin Thatcher began selling his Thatchers Gold label ($9 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles; $7 a 500-ml. bottle) in 18 key markets earlier this year. British ciders have a reputation for a bone-dry finish that turns off many American consumers. Thatcher notes that Europeans, including himself, are learning to produce off-dry ciders more attuned to the American palate. He has particularly high hopes for draft cider. “If bars and restaurants don’t have a cider tap yet, I think they’ll soon be looking for one,” Thatcher says. “One tap will inevitably lead to two or more.”
In Chicago, Aaron Zacharias is set to open the Northman Cider Pub this summer with 20 ciders on draft and another 100 available by the bottle. He’ll also serve beer and spirits, but anticipates that 75 percent of his sales will be in cider. Northman will offer cider flights ($2 to $4 a 2-ounce or 4-ounce pour), as well as cider dinners and special events. There won’t be a MillerCoors or Anheuser-Busch product anywhere on the premises—just craft ciders. “We think we’re getting in on the start of something big,” Zacharias says.