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Washington’s hard cider boom

The German heirloom variety, Zabergau Reinette, lends a sharp flavor to hard ciders. Credit: J. King, WSU

A self-described beer man, Alan Shapiro had his cider “wow moment” on a beautiful spring day in Suffolk, England, in 2003. He was staying at a mansion surrounded by a moat on an apple orchard estate. “It was like a light bulb went on over my head,” he grinned. “It reminded me of when I had my first good beer, and I realized very quickly I had stumbled upon something.”

Since Shapiro’s epiphany, hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, has taken the nation by storm. Take a look next time you’re at the grocery store or a pub. You’ll find a selection of cider offerings that simply wasn’t there 10 years ago. In the last three years alone, the volume of hard cider produced in the United States has nearly tripled, as tracked by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

With a nearly 30-year history in the adult beverage industry, Shapiro is the mastermind of the Cider Summit, a series of cider festivals he started with four other partners in Seattle in 2010. What started with 400 attendees is bursting at the seams five years later with nearly 4000 cider enthusiasts. His newer summits in Portland, San Francisco and Chicago attract similar crowds.

It’s not surprising that craft cider is taking root in a region of wine and craft beer enthusiasts. Washington is the second largest wine producer and has the second highest number of craft breweries in the country. But when it comes to cider, Washington is out front with 30-plus cideries, more than any other state in the country.

The cider production boom

Shapiro, a cider guru, agreed to share his insights about the fastest growing sector in the alcohol industry. We met at Schilling Cider House, a cider bar that opened last September in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

A taste for the bitter and sweet

Although plenty of delicious hard ciders are made from familiar eating apples such as galas, honeycrisps and granny smiths, these so-called dessert apples can’t compete with the range of flavors that cider apples provide.

Cider apples are categorized as sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps, according to their levels of acidity, which confers sourness, and tannins, which contribute bitter flavors. To make truly authentic hard ciders, cider makers often seek out heirloom varieties such as Kingston Blacks, Cap of Liberty and Harrisons, an American heritage apple.

Kingston Black, an English bittersharp, is that rare heirloom that has the tannin, acid and sweetness balance for a single-varietal cider.
Kingston Black, an English bittersharp,  has the tannin, acid and sweetness balance for a single-varietal cider. Credit: J.King, WSU

Generally speaking, cider apples are not for eating. New Jersey-based cider journalist, Chris Lehault says, “eating a bittersharp apple is a bit like sucking on a black tea bag soaked in lemon juice.” But when balanced with a bittersweet apple the result, writes Lehault, is “powerful, austere ciders with long, drawn out finishes lingering on your tongue.”

Once the juice from cider apples is blended just so to balance acidity, sweetness and tannins, and then fermented, the resulting cider falls along a continuum from dry to sweet and displays a spectrum of flavors: fruity, floral, spicy, nutty, sour, acidic, earthy, caramelized, citrus. The possibilities are infinite.

Demand for cider apples currently outpaces supply. Cider apples are hard to come by, even in Washington, the largest apple-producing state in the nation. It will take time to discover which varieties grow best in the different conditions found in the Northwest, and how to harvest the fruit most economically.

In the industry publication Good Fruit Grower, cider maker Marcus Roberts of Tieton Cider Works Growing cautions that growers can expect to invest $25,000 to $30,000 per acre before they see any return. Besides money, starting a cider orchard requires patience. It takes at least three years for newly planted trees to bear fruit.

Nonetheless, many cideries (Finn River and Snowdrift are examples) have established their own small orchards. There are no big ones. Even the largest cider apple orchard in the state, owned by Tieton Cider Works, is only 55 acres.

Cider guru Alan Shapiro at the Schilling Cider House
Cider guru Alan Shapiro at the Schilling Cider House. Credit: Sylvia Kantor

Alan Shapiro agreed to walk me through a tasting of ciders made specifically with cider apples. He selected half a dozen or so 500-750 ml bottles and brought a tray of small tasting glasses to the table. We began to sample and talk cider.

With short-cropped dark hair, stylish glasses and a Cider Summit t-shirt, the 52-year-old Shapiro is at ease in the cider bar setting. “I’ve been in liquids all my life,” he begins, matter-of-factly.

After graduating from college in Boston, Shapiro went to work for Seagrams, distributing wine coolers. Later, under the tutelage of Charles Finkel, founder of the specialty beer import business Merchant Du Vin and Pike Brewing Company, the young Shapiro learned the adult beverage import business. Finkel is credited with bringing Samuel Smith ale from England to the U.S. in 1978 and helping to ignite the craft beer resurgence that got its start in the ‘80s.

What Finkel did for craft beer, Shapiro may have done for cider. His 2003 epiphany was sparked by that Suffolk cider: Aspall. He became the first person to bring Aspall to the U.S. Looking back, he wonders if the arrival of Aspall, a family-owned cider maker since 1728, may have helped set the stage for the cider revolution that’s taking place now.

“I really didn’t know what would happen,” says Shapiro. “But I thought I found something that people would be interested in. I started right here, in Seattle, and was lucky with the timing. The market place received it very well.”

Shapiro eventually started his own beer import company, SPS Imports, in 2002, then expanded into cider and sold the business 10 years later. Now he wears his cider festival producer hat full time.

Navigating the cider market

Choosing a cider from the bewildering array of options on the market today can be a daunting experience. (Prices vary from $7 to $8 for a six pack on up to $25 for a corked 750 ml bottle; federal tax law requires that all ciders be under seven percent alcohol by volume.) From an industry perspective, Shapiro views ciders in terms of brand positioning in the market place. Accordingly, he has come up with four market-based segments: commercial cider makers, beer-influenced, wine-influenced and artisanal.

Hard cider selection in the Vashon Island Thriftway
Part of the dizzying hard cider selection at the Vashon Island Thriftway. Credit: Mary Bruno

Most cider produced in the U.S. comes from large-scale, commercial cider makers such as Angry Orchards owned by Samuel Adams’ Boston Beer Company; Ace, owned by the California Cider Company; and Woodchuck Cider, now owned by the Irish C&C Group. “Ninety percent of cider business is done in this category,” says Shapiro. “That leaves everybody else fighting over the remaining 10 percent of the market.”

The “beer-influenced” segment appeals, not surprisingly, to craft beer drinkers. Many beer-influenced brands, such as Reverend Nat’s, Anthem and Schilling experiment with flavors like ginger, cherry, apricot, blackberry and hops; or, for the more adventurous palate, carrot, coffee and orange peels or Sriracha lime. Anthem, Shapiro tells me, is a “market friendly” cider in this category. I can see why. It’s made from dessert apples and its mildly sweet flavor profile makes it quite drinkable.

The artisanal segment is “where people transition from their introduction to ciders like Anthem or Schilling to the authentic artisanal cider,” explains Shapiro. It is where cider apples are in greatest demand. Aspall falls into the artisanal category, as do Washington ciders made by Tieton Cider Works, Finn River and Alpenfire. These farm-based cider producers use apples grown in their own small orchards.

Alpenfire’s Pirate’s Plank Bone Dry cider is fully fermented, leaving no residual sugar. Dry it is, with only a very faint hint of apple. Wandering Aengus’s Ashmead’s Kernel is a varietal cider named after and made from the Ashmead’s Kernel cider apple, one of the few apples that can stand alone in cider. It’s dry and slightly sour but rich and a little juicy.

The ciders I like best from our tasting fall into the “wine-influenced” segment. These higher-end ciders include brands such as Snowdrift from Wenatchee, Troy from Sonoma and EZ Orchards’ Cidre Dry from Salem, Oregon. If you like a dry white wine, you’ll like these.

A touch of science

Although many beer drinkers are exploring the new frontiers of cider, cider has more in common with wine — apple wine — than beer. But unlike wine, cider has no clearly defined set of standards or styles. Flavors like hops, blackberry, apricot or ginger aside, it can be difficult to know exactly what to expect in a cider labeled dry or semi-dry. For now, it’s pretty much up to the cider maker to use his or her own definitions.

“There are no objective measurements in the industry because it’s so new in the U.S.,” says Washington State University economist Peter Tozer, who along with his colleague, WSU sensory scientist Carolyn Ross, are trying establish some rules to make it easier for the consumer. “It used to be that with Rieslings we had to rely on the wine maker to tell you what style it was,” explains Tozer. “Now, for Rieslings there is a scale from dry to sweet based on objective measurements of sugar-to-acid ratios.”

The electronic tongue in action, analyizing flavor compounds.
The e-tongue in action, analyzing flavor compounds. Credit: WSU Media Services

Tozer and Ross are conducting tasting studies and market research to help establish those standards and better understand the economics of cider. They hope to develop an objective system to characterize ciders. They’ve been running sensory studies with human tasters. But to be as objective as possible, they also plan to employ an electronic tongue, a laboratory instrument that identifies taste compounds at the molecular level.

The device, used primarily in wine research, dips its “tongue,” or electronic sensors, into a cider-filled beaker that sits on a rotating platform. After recording a profile of the cider’s sensory attributes, the e-tongue pulls out and reads the next sample in line.

Tozer’s preliminary research shows that consumers are, in fact, willing to pay a premium for craft cider over a mass-produced cider, a fact which surprised him. “About half our sensory test tasters were WSU students,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d be willing to pay more.”

Based on market trends, Shapiro thinks that America’s cider drinkers fall largely into the beer-influenced category. He also believes that because the Northwest consumer, in particular, is well-informed, the cider market is ready to evolve. Just as with Northwest wines and craft beers, as our cider palates grow more sophisticated, so will our appreciation.

“This [cider] rebirth in the U.S. is rooted in authenticity like the craft beer movement was,” he says, “or how the wine business evolved a couple decades before that in the mid- to late-70s. In beer years, cider is in the  1988 to 1990 range.”

Like fine wine and craft beer, cider seems ready to take hold of the U.S. consumer. That’s good news for Washington’s small but growing cider industry. The next decade promises to be an exciting time for Americans thirsty for a new adventure in flavor that comes rooted in history.

Cheers to that.

Newbies and enthusiasts alike can enjoy The Cider Summit (in Portland, June 19-20; and Seattle, September 12-13). Also in Seattle, WSU’s Cider Symposium (at Beeronomics 2015, September 9). And learn more about cider and sustainable food systems in WSU’s Green Times blog.

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