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Critical Drinking — Are Craft Brewers Cutting Craft Cider to its Core?

This is going to be indelicate, but Cider Summit is in Chicago this weekend, and it seems like as good a time as any to clear the air. Craft brewers, who have long evangelized their elevated ingredients, process, and authenticity when making the beers we so love today, are coring craft cider for their own gain. Worst of all? The irony seems to escape them. 

There’s a lot of extra fermentation capacity in U.S. craft breweries right now—tanks sitting idle or under-utilized as the result of major expansions that are meant to be future proof. They’ll be busy soon enough. But while those forward-thinking brewers wait for the market and their growth curve to align, they’re starting to have ideas. We’ve seen a craft lager boom in recent months, due in large part to this extra capacity lying around. Typically very expensive to make, lagers require a lot of extra fermentation time, tying up a cellar that would otherwise be bursting at the seams to keep up with demand. But for an expanded brewery with extra capacity, it’s a matter of utilization and hitting a growing niche at the same time. Win win, right? But craft cider from breweries has not been a win for the consumer. 

“Everybody’s talking about the fastest growing categories and that’s been cider,” Citizen Cider’s Kris Nelson says. “There’s some that get into it because they believe in what they’re doing and they’re passionate. And for some people it’s just a business. And there’s plenty in the middle. And beer is getting more crowded. Where do you go, and what do you do? It’s very easy for a brewery to get the raw materials, ferment it, and you already have the other stuff ready to go, so it makes sense.”

But compared to lager, those American hard ciders are exceptionally cheap and easy to produce. Sometimes, the finished product costs less than the can it’s in. To achieve a marketable hard cider, you only need water, apple juice concentrate, and yeast. And with America competing against a growing apple industry in China right now, the prices for apple juice concentrate are virtually negligible. There’s an excess, and craft brewers are increasingly a customer. And all this easy access to market for breweries who want incremental growth with ease is creating momentum for craft cider before it’s even been established in the minds of the drinker.

Multiple fermentation experiments at Citizen Cider in Burlington, Vermont

Multiple fermentation experiments at Citizen Cider in Burlington, Vermont

“Craft cider hasn’t ever seen a bubble,” Nelson explains. “Nobody knows where the ceiling is on how much cider can be consumed. So turning people away from the category isn’t good for anybody. We’re in a funny place where we’re still figuring out what it is. There’s a handful of people around the country actively trying to define what craft cider means. The sooner we have a collective definition, the better. Like, ‘never made from concentrate’—that’s a major cord cutter. Or ‘no sugar added.’ With beer and wine people, there’s more of a consensus in the culture about what’s good. Cider people are still evolving, still thinking about what they like and where it’s going.”

Which is to say: craft brewers are abusing the cider category so badly that craft cider producers feel like they need a definition to protect themselves. Everything that has happened before will happen again. 

“It’s a complicated part of our humanity,” Nelson says. “The things we believe and buy in to, our behaviors, and the marketing and what tastes good—how do you get the message out on what’s real? You hope people will think the bad cider is awful. Hopefully there’s a natural selection that takes place. In the end, it’s up to the people.”

Angry Orchard, the world’s largest cider producer and owner of more than 60% of the U.S. cider market, is making plenty of good, consistent, very drinkable ciders from concentrate ranging from sweet to dry. Their concentrate is largely produced from traditional cider apples, massive orchards spanning entire valleys full of bittersharps and bittersweets from Europe. Concentrating that juice is not an ideal way to make a craft cider—no one would argue that. But it’s also not ideal to ship thousands of containers of apples across the Atlantic when you can press them and re-constitute the juice in the U.S. instead. Why not use American apples? Because they don’t exist. At least not in anywhere near the quantities that Angry Orchard would require. 

Angry Orchard's new Walden, NY ciderhouse

Angry Orchard's new Walden, NY ciderhouse

But this is not the apple juice concentrate that newly minted “craft cider” producers are sourcing. Many of them are getting commodity juice from culinary apples from a mix of small and industrial farms they’ll never visit or concern themselves with. Apple juice concentrate of this sort is traded more like corn syrup or ethanol than a base for an artisanal product. And every day, more concentrate from Chinese farms enters the market. The apples used in these concentrates are not inherently interesting or useful for craft ciders—McIntosh, Granny Smith, etc. They lack the structure, tannin, and acid qualities of traditional and heirloom cider-making fruit. So it’s not just a matter of whether concentrate was used, the same way it doesn’t matter much whether whole cone hops are used for bittering vs. hop resin extract. It’s the quality of the acids, sugars, flavors, and aromatics left in that concentrate that matters most. 

Brian Rutzen pouring a Spanish cider at The Fountainhead

Brian Rutzen pouring a Spanish cider at The Fountainhead

Brian Rutzen, the manager of Chicago’s first cider bar, The Northman, sees the difference in the samples he receives every day from brewers and cider makers alike. “Many of the brewers rely on concentrate more than craft cider makers do," he says. "And a lot them are using concentrate more often or flavoring them because they can’t get interesting apples. And it’s true, there’s a constraint on the more interesting varieties. Vandermill in Michigan for example, doesn’t have their own orchard, but they live down the street from some, and they crush it themselves, and make their own juice." 

When asked how a brewer can do better, he said the solution was pretty simple, but that a mind shift also needs to occur. 

“They should talk to growers,” Rutzen says. “As a brewer, you’re used to ordering ingredients out of a catalog, getting grain from anywhere you want, hops from New Zealand, and only being constrained by your imagination. Cider isn’t a commodity—it’s produce. To get access to quality produce, you have to go to the source and have a conversation with farmers. And that’s how we’ll bring the cost down and get some quality juice.”

You don’t exclusively need cider-making fruit to make a quality cider either. Almost any apple has a place in the vast array of flavors and textures of cider. But typically, you need to balance sweetness, acidity, tannin, and a host of other attributes in a blended cider to arrive at a product with more character than alcoholic apple juice. Even traditional cider makers will balance the use of simpler culinary apples with heirloom varieties, or even crab apples to achieve an interesting balance. But if you’re buying concentrate off the open commodity market, you’re likely just getting sugar water, and fermenting sugar water is a dicey proposition. Controlling temperature, timeframes, yeast nutrients, and other factors requires moving fast and leaving little room for error. Unfortunately, those errors are showing up in a parade of “craft ciders” that smell like hot stewed apples, fusel alcohol, and jolly ranchers. 

“Do they know what great cider’s supposed to taste like?,” asks Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Cider in Portland, Oregon. “Have they had French and Spanish cider, or even great American ciders? They’ve probably drank a bunch of shit. How long’s it take for people to realize it’s not great cider?”

For his part, West has worked with breweries who cared enough to bring a cider maker to the table and get it right. “I consulted with Craft Brew Alliance on their Square Mile cider," he says. "They make good beer, great beers, and I told them to make sure they don’t use apple juice concentrate, or a bunch of sugar and water, to make a cider equal to the quality of their beer.”

“We make beer and that’s our focus,” explains Doug Rehberg of CBA, the creator of Square Mile. "And we’re having success in cider in the Northwest. If we’re going to enter another category we want to emulate what the best in that category is. We may use beer yeast instead of a wine yeast or a classical cider yeast. But our cider guy [Joe Casey] has gotten involved in cider associations and talked to others who make cider, so his approach has been to be a cider master, and use what he can adapt from brewing."

Humility and earnestness is part of what seems to be making Square Mile so successful, currently a distant #2 behind Angry Orchard in the Northwest, according to Rehberg. "We deal with a couple of apple processors that get apples from different farmers. So we’re a step removed from them. But we’re very happy with the quality. The people who make the juice that we purchase know where to get the apples we want. They have a level of expertise we haven’t gained completely yet. We live in the Northwest so it’s accessible. It’s Yakima. The apples could be coming from Oregon and Washington, and that's just a three hour's drive from our brewery . It's about quality as much as it is proximity. We could get cheap overseas apples but we don’t want those." 

 

Modern cider makers use all sorts of yeast pitches to produce the alcohol in their ciders—ale yeast, champagne yeast, wine yeast. The cleanest ciders tend to be made with wine yeast. Cider is a wine, after all. The most progressive and traditional (everything old is new again) makers are producing spontaneous or naturally fermenting ciders without interruption. But in many craft breweries, yeast management is kept to a minimum, so they’re just using whatever ale yeast they’ve selected for their beer production and pitching it into cider. This could be fine with some serious trial and error, or it could be a complete misalignment with the juice you’re getting. And the more limited your control over the juice, the less control you’ll have over fermentation. 

Kevin Zielinski of E.Z. Orchard bearing the heirloom fruits of his labor.

Kevin Zielinski of E.Z. Orchard bearing the heirloom fruits of his labor.

“If you don’t have the orchards like Kevin Zielinski [of E.Z. Orchards], your other choice is to be full-on recipe-driven," West says. "Brewers know this. They’re used to specific temperatures, hop loads, managing head space, aroma, head retention. The list is long on how to make the best IPAs, but the list is too short for how to make hard apple cider. If you don’t have the best fruit, if you don’t have an orchard, you have to differentiate on process. Fruits, yeast (we use a lot of beer yeast in our ciders, which is 60% of a beer’s flavor and aroma), but everything on the shelf in front of me is being made with neutral white wine yeast.”

Craft brewers can make any one of these compromises and still have something of value for a mainstream cider drinker—a clean, refreshing hard cider. Or they can intentionally mess with a part of the process, or mix of ingredients, and arrive in new territory with real intent for something expressive. But that’s not the scourge that’s causing the craft cider market to stumble before it ever has a chance to stand up on its own. In many cases, brewers are making all of these compromises at once in the pursuit of profit, or in their ignorance of another person’s craft, and hitting the gas peddle on production hoping they can cash in on another exponential growth trend adjacent to craft beer. In other words, craft brewers are co-opting craft cider the way craft brewers claim macro brewers are co-opting craft beer.

The orchards of Angry Orchard in Walden, NY

The orchards of Angry Orchard in Walden, NY

There’s a host of small producers out there trying to push the cider-making industry forward with high-quality products. And perhaps ironically for many folks, Angry Orchard is helping lead that charge with a new cider orchard of it's own in the Hudson Valley. These people, big and small, are taking the time to educate their consumers about apple varietals the way brewers talk about hops. They’re investing in fermentation science and equipment to create a truly unique, modern, American cider-making tradition that was nearly lost in the previous century. And still others are rushing to get fruit in the ground so that they might have a chance to source better cider-making fruit locally, with farmers they know and orchards they manage, that will pay off in 3-5 years. These are all operational challenges worth solving. But the biggest threat to cider-making right now is philosophy. Because if we don’t start treating cider like a craft with its own identity, then craft brewers are going to ruin it for everyone. 

“You can’t treat cider like beer,” says Ryan Burk, Angry Orchard’s cider-maker at their new Walden, N.Y. orchard. “Fermenting it like beer, at beer temperatures, using beer timeframes, using beer yeast, thinking any juice will make good cider, any apple—it just won’t. You’ve got to be in touch with agriculture and apples. It’s maybe funny for me to say that as someone who's cider company is owned by Boston Beer, but we’re in touch with the agriculture. We pay attention to seasonality and source cider fruits. We use yeast made for fermenting wine, we do slow fermentations, age it before we package it. We have dedicated cider makers. Our brewers are not making cider. Anyone can do it, as long as they’re thinking like a cider maker, and not like a brewer.”

Ryan Burk of Angry Orchard slicing in to an apple in cold storage on the Hudson Valley orchard.

Ryan Burk of Angry Orchard slicing in to an apple in cold storage on the Hudson Valley orchard.

The legacy of craft brewers in America is almost unfathomable. It's transitioned decades of light-adjunct-lager duopoly into diversity, respect, and authentic beers that most of the country now turns to when they think “beer.” But unless we take a hard look at the way we approach new opportunities in adjacent categories like spirits and cider, the legacy of craft brewers will also include the hypocrisy of having destroyed another craft industry before it really even got started. Like all things agriculture, you reap what you sow.

Words + photos
by Michael Kiser

Michael Kiser

Michael is the founder of Good Beer Hunting. He travels the globe — writing, shooting, and collaborating with breweries of all shapes and sizes. This site is his chronicle of a life in beer as he witnesses the cultural explosion first-hand and finds the people, places, and products with amazing stories.

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Critical Drinking™

Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.

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