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Spotlight on American cider

Here’s one for you. If you could only drink from a single country for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

I suppose it depends on what your poison is, but let’s assume (you are the handsome and wise Malt readership, after all) that you’re of the curious tippling disposition. We can rule out Scotland straight away – one cannot live on whisky and industrial gin alone, after all – and England can be ditched as the still wine’s patchy at best. France isn’t a bad shout, but do you want all of your spirits for the rest of your life to be watered-down, over-coloured also-rans?

Australia wouldn’t be a terrible option if their whisky wasn’t all made in sheds the size of cubicles for a trillion pounds a pop. New Zealand? It’d be on the shortlist too. But in all honesty I don’t think I’d have to think too hard before picking the USA.

Whether you drink whisky or wine or beer or gin you can find examples in America that can punch with the best that the world has to offer. Not only that, but the scale and location and diversity of the country means a breadth of style and price across each of those categories that leaves the rest of the world standing. From bold reds to scintillating, pristine whites, from fruit-throbbing NEIPAs to booming, jet-black, barrel-aged stouts, from whiskies writ in corn, rye, wheat or barley to … well there’s nothing really to get excited about when it comes to gin, as it’s all just flavoured alcohol, but you get my point. So it’s perhaps inevitable that among those multi-talented grog-wranglers are a handful of folk turning their attentions to the apple.

Cider is not by any stretch of the imagination a major feature in America’s alcoholic landscape. Once upon a time it played a far more prominent role, but just as prohibition closed down whiskey distilleries, so the cider apple orchards were rendered useless and ultimately grubbed up. But over the last few decades cider has begun to experience something of a revival and now cideries are to be found in every American state. What’s more, unburdened by the weight of tradition or an incongruous conviction of inherited superiority, their cidermakers are as innovative, dynamic, professionally-minded and forward thinking as their wine pioneers of fifty years ago.

Yet barely any escapes the confines of the country and – I say this so often when it comes to cider – almost none at all reaches the shelves of the UK. Some of the exceptions to that statement have been phenomenal; just look at the glowing reviews of ciders from Eve’s and Eden that have graced these digital pages, but on the whole American keeps its cider in-house.

Feeling that it was about time we turned our eye westwards, and reminded by Jason that their national splitter’s day fell on a Saturday, I reached out to one of American cider’s more recognisable figures. Ria Windcaller has run the world’s best cider podcast on a weekly basis since 2015 and was deeply involved in the community for years before that. She very kindly agreed to answer my questions, which are reproduced in full below.

Malt: Firstly, tell us about your connection to cider in the US?
Ria: I’m a backyard fermenter living in Massachusetts, who happened to be at the right place and the right time in 1994. The now, oldest and biggest cider fest in the US (Franklin County CiderDays), was just getting started and they needed volunteers to teach cidermaking. I gladly signed up. I continued on in that role up to 2011. This event was spearheaded by the Maloney’s of West County Cider, who also happened to be the first and only commercial US cidermakers at the time. Being involved with CiderDays provided me with the opportunity to taste America’s cider evolution over the course of the past 26 years.

I am also a craft libations columnist and author. A love for farm to table and drinking “good libations” inspired me to launch “Cider Chat”, a weekly cider centric podcast in 2015.

Malt: How big is cider in the US now?
Ria: To take in America’s growing thirst for cider, I recommend looking at the growing number of US cider fans on social media platforms and at the booming cider festival scene (pre-Covid). We have a growing fan base that continues to provide hope for the future cider market. In just 26 years we are now seeing a cidery in nearly every state. The City of Austin in Texas has 4-5 cideries with makers trucking in juice from the Pacific Northwest and New York. As of this writing we have around 1000 +/- commercial makers and probably just as many, if not more, people hoping to open a commercial operation someday. Even Hawaii has cider!

Malt: Are there any key regions, as there are in the UK, France, Spain and Germany? Or is it evenly spread across the States?
Ria: Apples can be found here from sea to shining sea making this early era of American cider’s rebirth particularly exciting, because there aren’t any officially designated regions just yet.

California for instance, has 5-6+ different apple regions in that state starting in the high desert mountains of Southern Cal and rolling up north. The Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, New York, Pennsylvania, and New England are all honing in on their terroir. The southern states like the Virginias and the Carolinas are also beginning to showcase their region’s specific apple varietals.

Malt: Is there anything in terms of style and flavour that particularly marks each region out? Ria: Michigan makers tout their acid forward ciders as does the Finger Lakes region of New York state. New England ciders tend to have a bit more tannic structure from the orchard based cideries. Virginia is a super exciting region because the makers are now really showcasing their Southern apple varieties. The Pacific Northwest might appear like there is a big focus on adjuncts in cider, but there are just as many makers with outstanding ciders with no adjuncts.

Malt: And are the orchards similarly scattered, or are they concentrated in a particular area?
Ria: There are concentrations of orchards in areas like “The Ridge” in Michigan, which is in the area around the city of Grand Rapids. New York has clusters of orchards in the Hudson River Valley area, the Finger Lakes region and upstate. Washington state is the largest producer of apples in the US and as such there are large swaths east of the Cascades. In Pennsylvania you will find orchards galore in the South Mountain Fruit Belt.

Malt: In the Hard Cider Appreciation Society on Facebook there seems to be a real enthusiasm for “fruit ciders”. They’re a very controversial subject in British cider nerd circles: how important a part of US craft cider are they?
Ria: Fruit cider is huge in the US. Don’t expect this trend to end anytime soon. The American consumer is in the habit of always asking for the newest offering on tap or in the bottle. These types of drinkers are looking at cider as a commodity like beer, where breweries announce a new beer style each week. This is a huge market and fits a certain niche. At the same time, I see an increasing interest in single varietal ciders, dry ciders, and wild yeast ferments. The next ten years should be quite interesting as the apple yields from orchards planted specifically for cidermaking begin to mature.

Malt: What are the big brands in the US?
Ria: The top three biggest brand are Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Strongbow. Each one is a subsidiary of a beer company, which enables them to have both capital and distribution.

Malt: Legislation-wise, UK cider creativity really suffers from things like 35% minimum apple content and massive duty on certain fruit, sparkling and alcohol-level duties. Are there similar problems in the US?
Ria: It is a quagmire of regulations here, for makers. A key issue is with labelling. The Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) views Cider or Perry with >.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) as wine. Unlike wine, makers are not allowed to put vintage on their labels. The American Cider Association (ACA) is working on having the harvest year allowed to be noted on labels for cider at 7.0% or higher.

To complicated matters further, there are two different sets of rules for Cider and Perry, from two governing bodies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates labels for ciders under 6.9%, whereas the TTB regulates labelling requirements at 7.0% and above. ACA Executive Director Michelle McGraft says, “There is an important distinction in the code between what is TAXED as cider and what is LABELED as cider. Of course, they do not match.”

The TTB’s “hard cider” tax rate applies to wine that is derived “primarily” from apples or pears, or from apple juice concentrate or pear juice concentrate and water. “Primarily” means that any product that is qualified for the hard cider tax rate is >50% apple or pear juice, whether or not it’s fresh or from concentrate. And that it “Contains no fruit product or fruit flavouring other than apple or pear”.

Any product below 6.9% doesn’t have to qualify as a “hard cider” for labels or taxes according to the TTB. Thus, 6.9% ciders made with fruits, have no labelling restrictions. Says McGraft, “I honestly don’t believe there is much of any requirement for what “cider” products call themselves under 6.9% which is why you sometimes find malt beverages labelled cider.”

Malt: Tell us about Cidercon. It seems a real galvaniser of cider producers in the USA. What is it, how did it start and how has it developed since?
Ria: CiderCon is the annual trade conference for the American Cider Association. Though a trade event, cider enthusiasts can also attend if they become members. The conference takes place in early winter and moves around to different cities in the US, with every other year landing back in Chicago.

There are lots of cider shares and workshops on different tracks from orcharding, production, media, business and a huge trade show. 2020 was the tenth year for this conference. I hear that the first year had about 10-30 people. Now it has grown to over 1000 attendees with many international guests. There are always evening events happening throughout the host city, during the week of CiderCon. I recommend arriving early and taking part in one of the cider tours that is hosted by the ACA on the Tuesday before the actual start date of the conference. Once Wednesday kicks in through Friday it is non-stop cider pouring and information sharing.

Malt: Tell us about the apples that US producers are using?
Ria: The headlines a few years back would read, “Shortage of Apples for the Growing Cider Market” but that was only half the truth. We had and still have plenty of apples. They just happen to be primarily culinary apples varieties. More recently, you will get some push back if you ask about the “cider apples” that makers are using. They will inquire what you mean saying, ‘Well this is a multipurpose apple” when referring to say the Newtown Pippin, which is used in cider blends and as a single varietal cider in locations throughout the US and of course, in the kitchen.

I now see makers embracing apples like the MacIntosh which can be made into a delicious cider or eaten as a dessert apple. Suffice to say, it isn’t just about the “spitters” these days.

Malt: Are more bittersweets and bittersharps being planted?
Ria: I continually hear from listeners who are plantings orchards of both bittersharps and bittersweets. These are both hobbyists and future commercial makers.

Malt: What do you see as the main challenges that US cider needs to overcome?
Ria: Reaching a wider audience, that isn’t necessarily into all the technical aspects of making cider.

The Hard Cider Appreciation page on Facebook is a blaring example of commercial makers here using that forum for trade talk instead of letting the members just revel in their love of cider. Wineries, breweries, and restaurants all keep conversations on the business side of their industry to their trade association forums. I cringe every time I see a commercial maker asking about recommendations on the technical aspects for say the best canning equipment or managing CO2 during bottling on that page. Why anyone would think that showcasing what-you-don’t-know is going to help you instil consumer confidence, is beyond me.

Malt: Gabe Cook, “the Ciderologist”, waxes lyrical about the innovation in the US cider industry. Can you give us some examples?
Ria: Americans embrace innovation both as makers and consumers. Patrons here, like to always try the “newest thing” on tap, so it isn’t surprising to see ciders ranging from single varietals like Winesap or Arkansas Black to ciders made with Habanero pepper on a tap room list. From all accounts hot pepper ciders are widely popular, especially when paired with food like Barbecued Ribs or Fish Tacos!

At the same time, dry ciders, barrel aged ciders, wild yeast ferments and apples picked from a lone tree way out in the middle of the forest are equally popular.

There are both regional cider associations and the national American Cider Association. These groups and guilds not only support makers coming into the trade, but also work on legislative issue to help cider compete in the alcoholic beverage trade.

Malt: What are your own ambitions for Cider Chat in the immediate future?
Ria: I have two new offerings on the podcast for this summer. Folks in the trade can now send in audio snap shots (2-minutes) on their cider news. “Stories in Ciderville” is a new segment with author read essays. Episode 226 titled Northern Spy and the Underground Railroad is the first “Story” to be shared. The writer, Ryan Monkman, is a maker from Canada at FieldBird. He wove together the folklore behind the naming of the apple Northern Spy. Anyone can submit their essay. They don’t need to be publish anywhere else, which offers up a great opportunity for aspiring writers. Essays are 3000 words or less and writers are encouraged to send along an audio file, that they can record using their smart phone voice recorder app.

The response to the first “Story” was overwhelming with listeners telling me that they stayed in their car to hear the end even after they turn off the ignition. My hunch is that the time is ripe for offering up a bit of our apple lore and not just focusing solely on the technical side of how to make cider.

Malt: Can you tell us about three US cideries that absolutely need to be on our radar?
Ria: Botanist and Barrel is a cidery and tasting room based in Cedar Grove, North Carolina about a 30-minute drive to the west of the city of Durham. Their style embraces fruit ciders and single varietals. Expect an eclectic offering of locally sourced products with little to no residual sugar.

Wrangletown Cider owner and cidermaker Pat Knittel is a California native and calls the Humboldt region of the state where the cidery is located her home. Expect ciders that showcase Pat’s passion for oak barrels, wine and Northern California apples.

Haykin Family Cider They are a Colorado cidery with a tasting room, sourcing apples both regionally and from out of state orchards. I’ve had the opportunity to taste Daniel Haykin’s cider back when he was a hobbyist and even then, there was a “Wow!” factor.

Thanks to Ria for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth. Right – shall we drink some?

Today’s apples, appropriately but coincidentally, come from the Big Apple itself. Descendant Cider Company is described on their website as “New York’s first and only cider company”. They press and blend from New York State fruit – apparently it’s the second biggest region for apple growing in the country.

I knew none of this when I came across my bottle of Descendant’s Wilderness 2015. It was a chance find in the pre-lockdown fridges at Hawkes; a fairly reliable source for transatlantic titbits, but generally only those which are heftily adjuncted and more-than-judiciously sweetened. Seeing nothing on the bottle to suggest that Wilderness’s contents comprised anything beyond fermented apple juice, I took a punt. I’ve since learned that it was made from wild seedling apple trees and “long forgotten orchards that have been overlooked for decades”. What it costs from the cidery I’ve no idea. I paid something in the region of £15, doubtless including the premium of it having been specially exported in a very small quantity.

One last note before we get into the glass – I can’t think that I’ve ever seen so much sediment in a cider. Whether my bottle is a typical example I couldn’t tell you, but there appeared to be the best part of an apple still floating around in it. Whilst it won’t do you the slightest bit of harm, and is a reassuring proof that filtration was not excessive, those who prefer their cider in non-chewy form may wish to let the bottle stand a while before serving.

Descendant Cider Company Wilderness 2015 – review

Colour: Bright gold.

On the nose: Lots of fruit, with something of the character of gummy sweets. Orange and lemon wine gums. Fizzy apples. Lime fruit pastilles. It’s incredibly bright for a five-year-old cider – very high-toned. The years have been kind. There’s a light dill herbaceousness just fluttering around at the back.

In the mouth: Again it’s a vivid and juicy and upfront mouthfeel, tillered by gentle carbonation. Dry, with lots of citrus, though it’s more fresh than gummy fruit here – a real lemon’n’lime thing, a glug of passion fruit and plenty of green apple too. There’s a nice sort of geranium florality going on. Not blossom – it’s more pronounced than that. The lees lend a good, rich body and character, whilst a gentle snap of acidity keeps things fresh. Not much tannin, if any at all – wonder what apples were used?

Conclusions

This is a lovely, ripe, dry, clean, flavourful cider from which some of our own Eastern Counties makers could learn a thing or two. What’s remarkable is the brightness and life after five long years have passed; it’ll keep for a while to come, as delightfully appealing and downright moreish as it is already.

It’s been said by many a cider scribe before, but America is a place to keep a sharp eye on. I look forward to further investigation in the very near future.

Thanks again to Ria for her help with this piece. Check out her podcast, Cider Chat, here.

CategoriesCider
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Avatar
    Apple Wino says:

    If you are upset that most American cider “barely escapes the confines” of the United States, the reality is that a lot of the good stuff barely escapes the confines of the state where it was made. Quantities of the best (as with many alcoholic beverages) are small, and the interstate shipping regulations make interstate deliveries hard. Very few liquor stores have a good selection. I make strategic plans whenever I travel.

    A massive exercise in frustration!

    1. Avatar
      Adam W. says:

      Hi Apple Wino

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment again. Those interstate regulations don’t sound much fun.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

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