American Cider Zeitgeist

There’s been talk lately about an “identity crisis” happening in the cider industry. Having recently spent the better part of a week with some thousand enthusiastic cider makers and drinkers, it isn’t really clear just what the fuss is about, but perhaps the perception of anxiety is related to American cider’s multiple personality complex. Is cider a sessionable pub drink or an elegant beverage destined to accompany a fancy dinner? Put another way, is cider more like beer or more like wine? Can it be both?

Zeitgeist photo

Having lost whatever historic traditions cider had pre-Prohibition to the triploid pressures of increased immigration from non cider-drinking locales, movement from rural to urban communities, and the 18th Amendment, this country’s new cider makers are not constrained in the way that their comrades in Europe might be. European cider traditions stretching back many hundreds of years have left an indelible print on the drinks-consuming public in the UK, France, and Spain. Everybody “knows” what cider is, so that any attempt at innovation – whether it be the co-fermentation of apples with other things or the use of yeast strains more often associated with beer or cider made in another traditional style – can be met with skepticism and huffing that it isn’t “real” cider. (That being said, UK cider drinkers do have other issues to contend with.)

Not so in the US. Here cider is in many senses an unknown, free to be created in whatever image a particular cider maker has. Some see apple juice as just one of many possible constituents the way that a brewer would consider wort. It provides fermentable sugars and some acidity, but the variety of apple involved isn’t particularly important. It’s mostly just a canvas on which a cider maker can paint a flavor picture using other ingredients if need be. Then there is the element that seeks to elevate cider to fine dining status where it can sit along side wine. For this cider maker the apple is the whole point, and coaxing the truest flavor out of one or more varieties and embracing the complexities of vintage is the cider maker’s highest calling.

Some tension exists between these two camps, although politeness still reigns, in part because there are any number of cider makers with feet placed pretty firmly in both. The former sub-category of cider has been dominant so far, in part because the largest players are mega-breweries that are looking for products that can compliment their existing portfolios in a market where beer sales overall have been somewhat flat. These Big Players have been a key force in driving the explosive growth of cider as they’ve used their existing marketing muscle and distribution channels to ramp up cider’s place in the American drinker’s consciousness, not to mention on store shelves.

These Big Players have such an outsized influence on the numbers (% sales growth, for example) that it well may be that they skew an evaluation of American cider as a whole. More than half of the cider producers in the US in 2015 (65% to be exact) don’t have distribution outside their local area (yet) which is not to say that their businesses aren’t robust and growing. So when one hears that cider sales growth in 2015 was only 10 – 12%, instead of the remarkable 60 – 70% of the previous two years, does it mean that cider overall is slowing down (and 10% is still plenty respectable) or that sales for the Big Players are? Bear in mind that these sorts of sales figures come from sales to supermarkets and like, not to restaurants and bars where consumer preferences might be quite different. In a consumer trends survey conducted by Penn State Extension in the final quarter of 2015, researchers found that a significant number of respondents tried cider for the first time because they either make a point of trying locally made products or enjoy wine and thought that cider might be similar. So why insist that the cider only be compared to beer as published statistics so often do?

There is also some talk that American cider makers ought to be focusing on developing an indigenous cider culture rather than seeking to imitate the ciders of other regions. This seems a worthy goal, but frankly experimenting with European cider styles seems like it might be part of a cider maker’s maturation process, rather like an art student playing with the techniques of her predecessors as a means of preparing herself to take off in her own direction having through thoughtful imitation found her own voice.

Then there is the question of apples and the calls in some circles for US growers to plant more specialized varieties used for cider elsewhere. The apple-juice-as-canvas approach suggests that the need for apples having a lot of post-fermentation character in and of themselves may be overblown if not unnecessary. Certainly in skilled hands even a humble dessert apple can shine (think West County Cider’s Macintosh/Golden Delicious or Tilted Shed’s Inclinato). Besides, cider has been growing quite nicely based on the apple varieties already widely available.

This is, perhaps, a might short-sighted for it may be that a true American cider is one that embraces a melting-pot, multicultural approach, whether that be in fruit selection or production method, much in the model of America itself. Using apple varieties that originated on the other side of the pond won’t in and of itself make for a derivative cider, for certainly a wine made in France of pinot noir grapes grown there and one grown and made in northern California will be distinctly their own as the effects of soil and climate and all the other nuances of terroir exert their effects. Then, too, there are any number of cider makers/orchardists who are working to discover a whole new array of uniquely American cider varietals, tramping through the woods in search of character-filled wild seedling apples, people like Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr and Eric Schatt of Redbyrd Orchard. Many of the wildings are as richly flavored and mouth-pukeringly tannic as any apple hailing from Somerset and are as well suited to their environment as any of their wild native neighbors. Mayhaps these will be the apples of America’s true cider future.

Throughout the ages cider has fueled the celebrations of fierce warriors, graced the tables of ambassadors, and made up part of a day’s wages for itinerant farm workers. In the end there is really no need to create some strangling definition of what cider is and isn’t. Let cider just be cider. Because, after all, as one British cider maker quipped recently, cider making isn’t open heart surgery on small children. It’s making a quality drink that brings people pleasure and sparks good times be it poured by the pint in the corner pub or in crystal stemware to accompany foie gras en croute. And if the cider category seems a bit chaotic at the moment perhaps it is best to just embrace it, for it is out of chaos that new worlds are born.