The State of Cider: How Do You Like Them Apples?

Did you know that the American folk hero Johnny Appleseed planted scores and scores of inedible apples? In the bestselling book, The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan mentions that Appleseed and the frontier settlers who bought his apple orchards were not at all interested in eating the apples. They had something different in mind -- cider.

Cider used to be the drink of the American colony, present in every household; drank at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But then cider disappeared. Immigrants from Europe brought lager beer in the late 1800s, and later, prohibition-era drinking put the emphasis on cocktails. America forgot about cider. That is, until a few years ago, when it came back with a vengeance.

Though it’s still a ways’ off from wrestling the market away from the tight grip of big beer, cider’s market share has grown substantially in recent years. Even though cider still accounts for a paltry 1% of beer sales in the US, Sales of cider tripled from 2007 to 2013.

Industry titans, meanwhile, have responded by launching their own -- Michelob’s Ultra Light Cider, Stella Artois Cidre, and Boston Beer Company's Angry Orchard, to name a few. Other corporations have acquired companies, like the C&C Group's purchase of Vermont-based Woodchuck Cider. Some have also expanded existing operations globally, as Heiniken did with the UK-Based Strongbow cider.

As with the beer industry, however, craft and local cider has found great success as well. Breaking from the predictability (and, let’s face it, less-than-stellar taste) of mass-market cider, small-batch cideries have instead focused on innovation, quality, unique ingredients, and creative manufacturing processes. 

Just look at Boston’s own Downeast Cider House, which operates out of a Charlestown facility. Since starting in 2011, they have clocked “75 percent annual sales gains year after year”, moving from facility to facility to scale production according to the kind of growing demand that landed them the #63 spot on the Inc. 5000 List of Fastest-Growing Companies in America.

The company prides itself on its approach to cider: fresh-pressed, unfiltered, never from concentrate. But despite this purist approach, Downeast sees the importance in innovation and experimentation. Though they sell their regular flagship ciders year-round, one-offs and seasonal brews round off their offerings. Of the myriad of different blends Downeast has released are such flavors as Candied Pecan Cider, Mint Chocolate, Spicy Capcasin, and Sour Oak.

Having variety -- especially when variety includes the new and unique -- helps to craft brand loyalty, as consumers have been shown to equate the diversity of a brand's options with expertise. The same study found that "unique, exotic flavors, [...] are likely to have greater impact on perceived quality than more mundane product variants. Even if few consumers actually choose such items, their presence can create a certain aura and enhance the perceived expertise of the brand."

Such experimentation has been shown to be integral in craft cider’s push to claim their portion of the beverage sector. Small cideries like Salem’s Far From The Tree have embraced experimentation, creating offerings such as Lei -- a pineapple and jalapeño cider -- and Ember -- a toasted chai, smoked vanilla, and burnt sugar cider. Somerville’s own Bantam Cider has, in addition to their regular Wunderkind blend, a cider titled Rojo which is made with sour cherries and black peppercorns. 

And, in Vermont, Citizen Cider has found success with a similar approach. Like Downeast, they espouse the philosophy of farm fresh and fresh pressed. Their website proudly displays the orchards that they source from, and their ciders page is replete with in-depth nutritional information.

What Citizen does differently from other cideries, however, is their curious beer-meets-cider approach. Take Wit’s Up, which utilizes traditional Belgian Wit yeast and malolactic cultures to echo the flavor of wheat beer. In addition, their Lake Hopper cider is dry-hopped with local Cascade hops, lending the cider the singular hoppy bitterness and floral qualities that one would expect from hop-forward beer styles like the IPA.

Since cider is naturally gluten-free, Citizen's beer-cider hybrid smartly taps into the large (and constantly growing) gluten-free market, aiming to entice customers who like beer, but not gluten.

This is but a small sample of the myriad of cider companies that are entering a fledgling marketplace. Like the craft beer renaissance that came before it, however, the craft cider movement has demonstrated that success comes not from advertising, but from quality products and innovation. 

And though we've only covered a few of New England's cider brands, there are manymany more to choose from. So, next time you're at a restaurant, forego the beer, wine, and cocktails, and order some cider. It's what Johnny Appleseed would've wanted.