Why Artisanal Cider-Makers Hate the Fizzy Stuff Sold in Six-Packs

Hard cider doesn’t belong in the same category as beer.

Strongbow Hard Apple Cider on display at the Southern Kitchen Brunch Hosted By Trisha Yearwood - Part of The NYT Cooking Series during 2016 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival  on February 28, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Strongbow Hard Apple Cider on display in February in Miami Beach, Florida.

Sergi Alexander/Getty Images

On a warm spring afternoon earlier this year, I hiked around Autumn Stoschek’s orchards, which are perched on the steep slopes surrounding her cidery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The region’s cool climate is ideal for growing cider apples, and dozens of different microclimates, elevations, and soil types produce a huge number of variations in flavor and fruit quality.

At Eve’s Cidery, Stoschek organically grows more than 50 varieties of heritage cider apples, harvesting them as they ripen and shuttling them to the cider press located in what used to be her family’s dairy farm. All of her ciders are fermented, matured, and bottled on the premises, the 750-milliliter bottles stored and stacked high in wooden crates in what used to be a barn. It’s a labor-intensive process, but to Stoschek, it’s worth it.

It’s almost a crime to put Stoschek’s hard cider in the same category as the sweet, fizzy drinks that are currently available in convenience stores by the six-pack. Her still, dry Albee Hill cider recently scored a 93 in Wine Enthusiast; her ciders have been featured in Vogue. Her Northern Spy sparkling dry cider, which sells for around $17 a bottle, is a revelation: The aroma is full and sweet, smelling irresistibly of fruit, but its texture is clean and crisp. It reminded me more of a Riesling than of any cider I’d had before.

Many Americans’ first exposure to cider is as the stuff sold alongside beer in grocery and liquor stores. This chagrins fine cider-makers like Stoschek. “We call those ‘soda-ciders,’ ” Stoschek said. Her cider is more like wine in the sense that it has characteristic flavors reflecting the environment where the fruit was grown. And she and other artisanal cider-makers all across the country are struggling to change Americans’ perception of cider. To small cider-makers, cider is a beverage that warrants a higher price than beer and deserves to be sipped appreciatively, not chugged.

The cider industry has unquestionably benefited from the craft beer boom. According to the Nielsen ratings, which tracks retail sales of large companies like Smith and Forge, and Angry Orchard, the cider category grew by 71 percent in 2014 after growing 89 percent in 2013 and 90 percent in 2012! Growth has slowed significantly in 2015 to 10.8 percent, but these numbers don’t even reflect sales by regional and artisanal cideries like Stoschek’s.

Regional trade organizations are only now beginning to track growth statistics. According to the Northwest Cider Association, 64 percent of the cideries in the Pacific Northwest opened within the last five years.* Many of these new cideries, as well as established breweries, have rushed to capitalize on cider’s association with craft beer, with a slew of hopped, barrel-aged, or fruit-flavored ciders that are familiar to anyone who has recently visited their city’s newest, hottest beer bar.

There’s just one problem. Many of these ciders are made from dessert apples, like Fujis, or from juice concentrate made from dessert apples, or even from juice concentrate diluted with sugar water. To cider-makers like Stoschek, this practice is akin to making wine from bags of grocery-store seedless grapes, jugs of Welch’s grape juice, or Kool-Aid. It’s just not the same drink.

If you’ve ever tasted a wine grape, you know that they’re very different from the table fruit. The same goes for cider apples. Heirloom cider apples, like a Kingston Black or a Northern Spy, have different levels of sugar, malic acid, and tannins. Tannins give both fine cider and wine a sense of depth. Without tannins, cider can taste flabby, one-dimensional, limp—and in need of flavorings to mask the fact that it tastes like, well, jugged juice.

Why don’t most cideries make cider from cider apples? For one thing, cider apples are hard to find. Until very recently, there was little demand. Juvenile trees take years to produce a reliable crop, and a few varieties are notorious for their small yields. Once the fruit is ripe, you have a limited time frame to harvest and press it, which requires specialized equipment and heavy manual labor.

“As a producer, who grows apples, the cost structure and the craft structure is like wine,” said Melissa Madden, the proprietor of Good Life Cider, a Finger Lakes cidery that makes dry, still, and sparkling ciders that cost around $15–$26 per 750-milliliter bottle. “We need people to understand that so that they’re ready for it. There’s a way to make cheap cider, but it’s not based on the agriculture we’re trying to support.”

In contrast, dessert apple juice is abundant and inexpensive. And since many new cider-makers come from the brewing world, this approach is also philosophically familiar. Just sub out bags of malted barley for apple juice, add your hops or what have you, et voilà!

Nat West, the proprietor of Portland, Oregon–based Reverend Nat’s Hard Ciders, is probably the best-known evangelist for the cider-as-beer camp. “The cider industry has already aligned with beer,” West said. “Wine people don’t want anything to do with cider, while beer has welcomed us with open arms. The vast movement of cider is happening in the context of beer already, whether that’s what we want or not.”

West is also unapologetic about using dessert apple juice. “I treat making cider the way a chef would approach making food,” said West, whose seasonal specials include a passion fruit cider made with toasted coconut flakes and Mexican vanilla. “Every chef can get the same ingredients. … What makes one restaurant better than another is the process.”

Many cider-makers, like Kevin Zielinski of E.Z. Orchards outside of Salem, Oregon, agree with West about cider’s trajectory. “The current trends in modern cider don’t allow for fruit that’s grown expressly for traditional cider, because [the fruit] cannot be obtained at a similar price point” as dessert apples, said Zielinski, whose Normandy-style cidres (spelled in the French style) are made from fruit grown on land his family has farmed for more than 150 years.

To a traditionalist like Zielinski, even the terminology of modern flavored cider is disorienting. “Sometimes I talk to people, and they say they’re brewing cider. Brewing cider?” he asked me, rhetorically. “You ferment cider, you don’t brew it.” But he’s realistic about the current state of the cider industry, and hopes that a rising tide will lift all ships. As cider awareness grows, the public will appreciate it at different price points. “It’s a shared trade,” he said. “Sometimes, I think people in our industry are rattling swords on one side or the other, but it’s not going to make the other one go away.”

I saw a glimpse of what the industry could be at the July awards ceremony for the Portland International Cider Cup. A small, warm, fraternal gathering—“Northwestern” might have been a more accurate designation than “International”—provides ample recognition for all different categories of cider, from English dry to bourbon-barrel–aged. It’s telling that the best in show is a “modern sweet” cider intended to showcase the flavors of dessert apples: the Darby Pub cider from Montana Ciderworks.

It’s easy to imagine a future where groceries or beverage stores might have separate sections for cider, tiered by price and organized by region, with bottle-conditioned 750-milliliter dry ciders on the top shelf and more affordable six-packs farther down. Knowledgeable customers might hesitate at a $30 bottle, but understand that it’s worth it for a special occasion. And when you go out to dinner, a waiter might suggest a fine dry cider to accompany your entree. It’s not so far-fetched. After all, the same transformation happened to craft beer not that long ago.

Correction, Aug. 29, 2016: This piece originally misidentified the Northwest Cider Association as the Northwester Cider Association. (Return.)