By Jan Fialkow
Hard cider is making a comeback in the U.S. Although a ubiquitous drink in Colonial America – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were reported to be devotees – and still popular during the Civil war when Abraham Lincoln was known to quaff his fair share, hard cider suffered through over a century of decline. Today, however, the fermented fruit beverage is enjoying new found popularity and respect. Some say millennials and their quest for authenticity are the driving force behind the upsurge.
Hard cider is now a $500 million market. According to Impact Databank Cider Report, hard cider volume sales increased by over 60 percent from 2012 to 2013. In 2014, sales increased 49 percent. And growth for 2015 is projected to be 39 percent.
Although those numbers are impressive, they represent growth on a small base. Hard cider is still a niche product. Artisanal brands comprise most of the new entries in the market and have limited distribution while several of the national brands are backed by large companies, e.g., Strongbow is from Heineken, Crispin from MillerCoors, Johnny Appleseed from Anheuser-Busch InBev and Angry Orchard from Boston Beer.
Posed for Greatness
Some in the industry liken hard cider’s present position to that of the California wine industry a century ago: The fruits being planted now are the ones that will bear great harvests in years to come. Cider apples are very different from eating apples, just as wine grapes are very different from table grapes. The apples that become the best cider taste bitter and astringent. They have more tannins and sometimes (though not always) more sugars. The amounts vary from variety to variety and from harvest to harvest, which is why most U.S. ciders are blends; that may change as the orchards mature and their attributes become more defined.
Apple trees do best in cool climates so most of the new cideries are located in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, although quality cideries also exist in the Midwest, Virginia, Texas and California. The best of these are experimenting with barrel and/or stainless steel aging and with bottle conditioning, in which sugar is added to the bottle to achieve natural carbonation, in order to differentiate their products.
Cider styles run the gamut from dry to semi-dry to sweet to funky (the barnyard-y quality reminiscent of French cidre or British cider). They are delicious drunk cold on their own or paired with foods. Hard cider goes well with just about any food that is enhanced by a craft beer. Pairing hard cider with cheese is very popular and has been a European tradition for centuries.