“Craft is like porn: you know it when you see it.”
Tony Magee, irreverent founder of Lagunitas Brewing, the sixth largest US craft brewer.
There has been endless debate in the world of beer about what makes a brewery craft or not. Until the rise of Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and other craft brewing pioneers, the US beer market was dominated by a small number of regional and national brands of dubious quality. Discerning beer drinkers around the country are now blessed with an abundance of choice, but the fact remains that more than 90% of the beer consumed in the US is not what most people would consider craft.
What does this have to do with cider? Many beer drinkers are starting to take cider seriously—or at least with a diminished sense of skepticism—and I wonder what steers these beer drinkers toward one cider or another. Are they attracted by ciders that are priced in line with craft beer? Are they attracted by ciders with similar ingredients—hops, brewing spices, fruity ale yeasts? Are they attracted by ciders with bold aromas and flavors similar to imperial-strength, barrel-aged, or mouth-puckeringly sour beers?
Ask ten different beer drinkers this question and you’ll likely get ten different answers. If you’re reading this post, then I assume you have a gut feeling about what drives the cider purchasing decision for yourself and possibly for others. So now that you’ve paused for a minute and pondered upon an answer, let me ask you another question: Do experienced cider drinkers believe that any of the above beer-like attributes would steer someone toward a quality cider? Will the inexperienced cider drinker be purchasing a craft cider if they follow these beer-like rules of thumb?
My goal in what follows is not to irrevocably draw a line between cider that is craft and cider that is not. The more pressing issue is that most drinkers—even some who regularly enjoy cider—are unaware of the diversity of ciders available in the US because distribution for small-scale cider producers is not yet widespread. At the same time, there are many similarities across seemingly different ciders that may not be immediately apparent to the casual drinker.
I will lay out my thoughts on craft cider at the end of the post. For now, I’d like to share my perspective on the US cider market and the types of cider that are currently available. At the risk of oversimplifying, I find it’s instructive to break the US cider market down into three main types.
Overview: This is not Unlimited in the sense of potential quality, complexity, or delight on behalf of the consumer, but Unlimited in the sense that the producer is free to use a wide range of inputs and methods to design a product meant to be sold in large quantities at an attractive price. These are the ciders that most drinkers will be familiar with based on their availability at convenience stores, supermarkets, and many bars. These products may be referred to as industrial or mass-market ciders by other observers.
Apple Varieties: Specific apple varieties aren’t mentioned unless the product is designed to evoke a particular variety, such as Woodchuck’s Granny Smith. Apple concentrate is often used, sometimes from US or Canadian sources but more often from suppliers in Europe, South America, or Asia. When fresh apple juice is used, the juice is often obtained from apples that have been stored in refrigerated or controlled-atmosphere environments.
Methods/Adjuncts: Prior to fermentation, sugars might be added to boost alcohol potential, water might be added to reconstitute apple concentrate, and sulfites might be added to kill undesirable yeasts, molds, and bacteria. Malic acid—which is naturally found in apples—might be added in chemical form to increase “tanginess” and/or to reduce high pH levels that could lead to undesirable aromas and flavors. After fermentation has completed, sorbates might be added to prevent refermentation in the bottle; this also opens the door to “backsweetening” the cider with additional sugars or juices to increase the perception of sweetness. Various fruit flavors—berries, pears, apricots, cherries, peaches—are sometimes added, always in extract form. Hops and spices are not uncommon. Pasteurization by heat is common practice.
Yeast: Yeast profile is typically neutral, though sometimes specialized ale yeasts are used to enhance the impression of fruit or spice.
Carbonation: Medium to high carbonation, similar to beer.
ABV: Usually 5.5% or below, almost always below 7%.
Aroma/Flavor: Often an intense apple aroma. The taste is typically sweet to very sweet, even when marketed as a “dry” cider. The overall impression will be of apple juice and sugar, not of fermented apple.
Packaging/Price: Bottles are typically 12-ounce glass, packaged in a six-pack carrier or a twelve-pack cardboard box, similar to craft beer packaging. Cans are gaining in popularity, with 12-ounce cans often available. Beer pricing is the norm, typically less than $10 for a six-pack and less than $15 for a 12-pack.
Commercial Examples: Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Crispin, Ace, Stella Artois Cidre, Michelob Ultra Light Cider.
Overview: This is not Common in the sense that a cider is uninteresting or widely available, but Common in the sense that commonly grown US apple varieties are used to make a cider that is refreshing and easy to drink. These ciders are usually made with 85-100% juice; the apples used for Common ciders are often too blemished or misshapen to be sold as eating apples, so cidermakers can purchase these apples to produce an attractively priced Common cider.
Apple Varieties: Typical eating/dessert varieties found in supermarkets such as Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, Jonathan, Empire. Conventionally-grown apples are the norm, though organically-grown apples may sometimes be used. As with Unlimited ciders, the apples may have been stored in refrigerated or controlled-atmosphere environments prior to being pressed into juice.
Methods/Adjuncts: Prior to fermentation, sulfites might be added to kill undesirable yeasts, molds, and bacteria. Malic acid—which is naturally found in apples—might be added in chemical form to increase “tanginess” or to reduce high pH levels that could lead to undesirable aromas and flavors. After fermentation has completed, sorbates might be added to prevent refermentation in the bottle; this also opens the door to “backsweetening” the cider with additional sugars or juices to increase the perception of sweetness. Various fruit flavors—berries, pears, apricots, cherries, peaches—are sometimes added, usually in extract form. Hops and spices are not uncommon. Pasteurization by heat is common practice.
Yeast: Yeast profile is typically neutral, though sometimes specialized ale yeasts are used to enhance the impression of fruit or spice. JK’s Scrumpy is unusual in that cultured yeast is not used.
Carbonation: Medium to high carbonation levels, though low carbonation or no carbonation (still) is possible.
ABV: Typically below 7%, though occasionally higher.
Aroma/Flavor: Apple aroma can range from subtle to easily detectable. Tannin may be imperceptible but adds complexity when present; acid should be evident to avoid insipidness. Few ciders of this type will be overtly sweet; bone-dry to off-dry is common, medium and semi-sweet less so. The overall impression of a Common cider is that it should be approachable and not too austere.
Packaging/Price: Bottles are typically 12-ounce glass, often packaged in a six-pack carrier. 22-ounce “bombers” are also common and 750ml bottles are occasionally used. Cans are gaining in popularity, with 12-ounce and 16-ounce cans available, usually packaged in a four-pack or six-pack. Premium beer pricing is the norm, typically $6 to $12 for a 22oz or 750ml bottle.
Commercial Examples: JK’s Scrumpy, Anthem, Original Sin, Julian, Two Rivers, Bold Rock, Downeast, 2 Towns, Doc’s Draft, Uncle John’s Draft Apple.
Overview: The terms Common and New World are sometimes used interchangeably, but New World in this sense means a cider that is made with characterful apple varieties that are especially well-suited for cider production and that thrive in the various climates of the New World. These ciders are often made with estate-grown apples. The art of blending different varieties to produce a balanced, high-quality cider is most in evidence here.
Apple Varieties: North American heirloom varieties such as Northern Spy, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, Golden Russet, Tompkins King, Esopus Spitzenburg, Rhode Island Greening, Winesap, Albemarle Pippin, Winter Banana, Arkansas Black, Pink Pearl, Wickson. European cider varieties such as Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Ashmead’s Kernel, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Medaille d’Or. Typically made with 95-100% juice that has been freshly pressed in the fall or early winter.
Methods/Adjuncts: Sulfite and sorbate use (as described above) is common. Malic acid is not typically used. Dry ciders are often sought after, so backsweetening is less common. Additional fruits, hops, or spices are not often used. Pasteurization by heat is still common, although sterile filtration is sometimes used on its own to prevent in-bottle refermentation.
Yeast: Typically cultured yeast, but some indigenous yeast ciders exist.
Carbonation: Still to medium, although sparkling ciders (Champagne-style or otherwise) are also produced.
ABV: Typically 6-9%. Ciders below 7% are often packaged in 22-ounce bottles and may straddle the line between Common and New World.
Aroma/Flavor: Apple aroma is subtle but desirable, much as grape character is subtle but desirable in wine. Both acid and tannin should be evident and in balance. Few ciders of this type will be overtly sweet; bone-dry to off-dry is common, medium and semi-sweet less so.
Packaging/Price: Almost always 750ml bottles; cork and crown cap are equally common. 500ml bottles are used primarily to entice drinkers to try an unfamiliar product. $10-$20 for a 750ml bottle, $8-12 for a 500ml bottle. 375ml bottles are rare, used mostly for specialty products.
Commercial Examples: Farnum Hill, West County, Bellwether, Aaron Burr, Eve’s, Foggy Ridge, Albemarle, Tandem, Uncle John’s, AeppelTreow, Westcott Bay, Alpenfire, Snowdrift, Wandering Aengus, Montana CiderWorks, Blossomwood.
You might be wondering why I haven’t included an Old World category for ciders made in the various styles such as those found in England, France, Spain, Austria, and Germany. European ciders are still not widely available in most US markets, though enterprising companies such as Shelton Brothers, Rowan Imports, Ciders of Spain, and various wine importers are bringing more shipments across the Atlantic. As for European-style ciders produced on American soil, I can think of only one pure example that uses classic Old World cider fruit and production methods: EZ Orchards Cidre made by Kevin Zielinski in Oregon.
How could this be, when so many US cidermakers claim to make an English-style or French-style cider? In my opinion, what sets the Old World cidermaking traditions apart from those of the New World is that only naturally occuring yeast—found on the fruit itself or accumulated on the milling and presssing equipment and in the fermentation vessels—is used for fermentation. This type of fermentation—often called wild or spontaneous fermentation—results in an markedly different flavor profile than cider made with yeasts that have been cultured in a laboratory.
It is up to the drinker as to their preference in the finished product, but the fact remains that few cidermakers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand rely on indigenous yeasts for fermentation. Chris Lehault’s article for Serious Eats earlier this year highlights a few exceptions—to which I could add the ciders made by Sebastian Lousada at Flag Hill in Vermont, Tim Bates at Philo Apple Farm in California, and a handful of other small farmstead producers—but otherwise cultured yeasts are the rule.
I would certainly welcome more cidermakers in the US to go this route, but it is difficult to justify from a financial standpoint, with chances of a batch going wrong or of customers not appreciating the product much higher. And if I understand Jolicoeur, Lea, and others correctly, standard orcharding practices in the US result in apples that are much higher in nitrogen than their European counterparts, and high-nitrogen fruit tends to ferment faster than is desirable for a spontaneous fermentation. Much as wild ales and sour ales are a niche in the overall US beer market, so too will spontaneously fermented ciders be a niche in the overall US cider market for the foreseeable future.
But back to the topic of craft cider. In my humble opinion, Unlimited ciders cannot be considered craft by any possible interpretation, despite them being priced in line with beers that are considered craft. Personally, I will always choose to drink a Sam Adams Boston Lager or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale rather than a similarly priced Unlimited cider.
Most Common ciders are made with care, but craft may not be the best way to describe many of those, either. Common ciders are what industry people call a value added product, where you take a crop already being grown and position it differently in the marketplace for additional profit. To be clear, there are some great values in Common ciders and I wish that quality Common ciders were more widely available. I’m already on record to that effect, and I’d love to see every commercial orchard in the country making a Common cider with the fruit they already grow.
But if I were forced to draw a line between craft and not craft, I would have to draw it between Common and New World ciders. The fruit cultivation techniques and production methods of New World ciders embody the true meaning of the word craft for me, and New World ciders are what I’m drinking 90% of the time. Does that make me a rich snob who can afford to drink whatever he wants? No, it certainly doesn’t. Does that make me a passionate enthusiast who wants New World orchardists and cidermakers to learn from and expand upon the worthy traditions that Old World orchardists and cidermakers have already established? Yes, it certainly does!
Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments. My goal was to be as objective as possible about US cider without oversimplifying or being needlessly opinionated. Please take a minute or two to let me know how I’ve done!