Craft Beer / Eat, Drink, Blog

A Beverage on the Edge of Rediscovery: 2nd Annual Cider Week Returns to NY

Cider is having a moment. Hard cider, that is. After the better part of a century’s neglect, Americans are rediscovering their roots and a cider tradition that dates back to the Founding Fathers. Among the flurry of apple-based activity are major developments among beverage industry giants, including MillerCoors’ February purchase of Crispin Cider Co., the third-largest hard cider producer in the US (behind Vermont Hard Cider Company’s Woodchuck and C&C Group, maker of Magners Irish Cider). In April, Boston Beer Co., of Sam Adams fame, launched its Angry Orchard hard cider label. A month later, Anheuser-Busch added  Michelob’s Ultra Light Cider to its portfolio.

In New York City and the Hudson Valley, the second annual Cider Week will take place at several dozen venues from October 12-22. Launched by Glynwood’s Sara Grady as part of the non-profit’s Apple Project, Cider Week began as an exchange program between Hudson Valley apple farmers and French cider makers. A modest idea to unite regional cider producers with food and drink professionals in New York City is now part of a larger movement to bring hard cider to the masses nationwide.

Whether the big players are a boon or a curse to small cideries remains to be seen, but the increased presence of cider in the marketplace likely will drive more drinkers to try cider. Certainly the conversation about cider is advancing the cause of cider producers across the country as more people are introduced to hard cider, which currently makes up less than one percent of beer sales nationwide.

A brief history of cider

Cider wasn’t traditionally an afterthought among potent potables in US history. In fact, early settlers from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington through the famous Johnny Appleseed grew cider apples for brewing. The coarse texture and acidic taste of these apples made them largely inedible but perfect for fermentation. It wasn’t until the mass emigration of Germans in the early 20th Century that lager-style beer began to outpace cider as the drink of choice in America. Prohibition was the nail in the apple tree coffin for farmers, as many acres of orchards were left untended or converted to edible apples.

While hard cider has always been widely available in Britain, France and Spain, it was the globalization of the edible apple market that led orchards back to hard cider production in the U.S. While the Eastern U.S. is considered to be among the best apple growing regions in the world, apples from China, Chile and France have largely taken over commercial retail apple sales. Add in cheap Red Delicious apples from Washington State, and many northeast farmers struggled to survive the 1980s apple market takeover.

One orchard owner who did survive, Steve Wood of Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, NH, was hailed as “visionary orchardist” by industry peers when he decided to convert more than half his orchard’s acreage to commercial cider apples, transforming an orchard of commercial eating apple varieties that were no longer profitable to sell. By 1994, he was producing top-grade cider that created a sustainable business model for other apple growers in the northeast. Mr. Wood has also brought back heirloom and cider apples that have rarely been seen in the marketplace since the 19th Century.

Strengthening farms through diversification is part of the mission of Glynwood’s Apple Project, although Ms. Grady attributes serendipity for the success of Cider Week. “Glynwood became involved to encourage the agricultural connection and build more appreciation for cider as an agricultural and horticultural product. It was like being in the right place at the right time—we came to this from the perspective of farm viability—but it occurred at the same time as this resurgence of hard cider in our food culture.”

This year’s Cider Week has grown in both participation and scope. “This year we actually set some guidelines for partnered producers,” Ms. Grady explained. “We have a steering committee from a group of craft-based cider makers from the east coast. They made the decisions about how to make cider week happen this year.” As a result, there are more venues producing events and Cider Week is expanding to Virginia and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Is it a beer or a wine?

Among the challenges cider makers face is how to market cider as a beverage. This is particularly a problem in New York State, where the State Liquor Authority defines cider as a fermented beverage with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of less than seven percent. Anything higher must be labeled as “wine.”  As craft cider producers generally are working with high-end apples, the higher ABV comes naturally, but many cideries prefer to market their lower ABV product as true “cider,” meaning it generally is marketed alongside beer.

Add to this confusion a general separation between both beer and wine distributors and beer and wine/liquor retail outlets, and simply knowing where to find cider presents a challenge for consumers. Plus most cideries do not deal in volume. While Crispin has the weight of MillerCoors to distribute its brand, small cideries may self-distribute or distribute their product solely based on ABV level. Only one regional distributor, Rowan Imports, is focused exclusively on cider, distributing Slyboro from NY but mostly distributing ciders from the Basque region of Spain.

Even among cider industry insiders, there is no uniform marketing strategy. Ms. Grady is quick to point out that cider is akin to wine: made from fruit, priced similarly, and pairing well with food. Mr. Wood has seen a strong interest in cider among craft beer drinkers, who are growing in number far faster than wine drinkers. “With very high end beers such as those from Belgium, the beer market is a much more sensible place to put cider now than it was five years ago,” Mr. Wood notes.

What cider insiders do agree is that their future success will be dependent largely upon cider becoming its own entity, neither a beer nor a wine, but simply, “cider.” To that end, cider producer trade associations are forming in the U.S. Already in the Pacific Northwest, cider producers from Oregon, Washington, Montana and Canada have formed the Northwest Cider Association.  Mr. Wood has been meeting regularly with east coast cider producers to establish the U.S. Cider Makers Association, which came out of the 2011 and 2012 Cider Conferences and is still in the process of formalizing their bylaws and mission. These trade associations are working on everything from marketing to legislative initiatives, along with a cohesive outreach to bring in more cider drinkers.

The Cider Salon

Last month in preparation for Cider Week NY, Glynwood organized The Cider Salon, an all-day educational tasting event largely geared to press and NYC food insiders. A ticketed evening session open to the public helped finance the undertaking, but the producers largely attend of their own accord. Nearly two dozen producers of ciders and apple-distilled spirits were pouring at the Cider Salon, which billed itself as, “Crafting a Cider Comeback,” and offered guests tips in creating cider-centric events of all sizes.

In addition, producers led tasting seminars to educate attendees in different cider styles from Europe and the northeastern U.S., to learn about the process of blending ciders and how the terroir of an orchard affects the cider’s flavor, and finally to pair cider with food. The purpose is to acquaint NYC industry professionals with cider so that Cider Week continues to build momentum for cider producers.

For Ms. Grady, outreach is the key. “Cider Week allows us to engage with members in the trade directly—restaurant owners, bar managers, wine distributors, food writers, and the like—to complement what we’re doing directly with producers. This was a missing thing, and I think that this is the way cider will grow. Giving the trade a really great experience through Cider Week, who will then take it to the public.”

Among the 34 official events currently scheduled for Cider Week NY, several offer opportunities to meet producers and taste multiple ciders in a “fest-like” environment. These include Harvest Beer & Cider Sessions (October 13 at Factory on Kent, Williamsburg), A Cider Revival (October 14 at New Amsterdam Market) and Applepalooza 2012 (October 18 at Astor Center).

As cider’s popularity increases, Ms. Grady envisions Cider Weeks popping up across the U.S. every fall, bringing cider back to the drinkers of America and ensuring a healthy market for farmers for generations to come. “By drinking cider, you are providing opportunities for growers to develop apple varieties at a commercial scale. Drink it to save it.”

For more details on Cider Week NY and the events, please visit ciderweekny.com.

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