Not Just Sugary-Sweet, Hard Cider Makes A Comeback : The Salt Cider is the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in the United States. Much of that growth is driven by big industrial producers, but smaller cider-makers are looking for a larger bite of the apple.
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Not Just Sugary-Sweet, Hard Cider Makes A Comeback

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Not Just Sugary-Sweet, Hard Cider Makes A Comeback

Not Just Sugary-Sweet, Hard Cider Makes A Comeback

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Do you like craft beer or bourbon? Well, that's so last week. Right now, it seems like the goateed hipsters in Brooklyn - or whatever the hipster stereotype is these days - they're turning to craft cider. Multinationals like MillerCoors are getting into the business of making hard apple cider. They're joined by hundreds of small craft cideries and handful of cider-only bars. The latest one opened this week in New York City. NPR's Joel Rose has this report.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The bar is called Wassail, and it's billed as the first in New York devoted primarily to cider.

BEN SANDLER: Let me just pour you a taste of the E.Z. Orchards. This is a West Coast cider.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE OPENING AND POURING)

ROSE: Co-owner Ben Sandler fills my glass with a delicious amber liquid that smells like leaves and soil.

SANDLER: You can see the color, very deep. You can see it's kind of cloudy, so it's not filtered - really dry.

ROSE: Wassail has a dozen ciders on tap and another 80 or so in bottles, from the sour, sweet and funky ciders of traditional producers in Europe to crisp and clean offerings from American upstarts. Sandler's wife and co-owner Jennifer Lim says they're trying to highlight the huge range of flavors cider-makers can coax from fermented apples.

JENNIFER LIM: The U.S. cider scene is exciting because American cider-makers are not as shackled as cider-makers in France, in Spain, in the UK and in Ireland. So there is more experimentation, definitely, that's going on in the U.S.

ROSE: Cider used to be a popular drink in America before prohibition. These days sales are tiny compared to beer and wine, but they're growing fast, more or less doubling every year. There are at least three cider bars on the West Coast and two more planned for Chicago. Danelle Kosmal with Nielsen says cider drinkers have a lot in common with craft beer consumers.

DANELLE KOSMAL: They tend to be millennials. They tend to have higher income. But one difference with cider and craft beer is it's attracting more females compared to beer.

GREG HALL: I think the opportunity can be as big, or even bigger, than craft beer.

ROSE: Greg Hall is the founder of Virtue Cider in western Michigan. Before that, he helped build Goose Island Beer in Chicago into a national brand. Hall says the cider industry reminds him of 20 years ago when craft brewers had a tough time getting their products into stores and bars.

HALL: There's still a lot of places that don't have any cider. And I think a lot of the bars that have one cider on tap, in a couple years will have two or three or four ciders on tap.

ROSE: A lot of the growth in the cider market is coming from brands owned by huge companies with serious marketing muscle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGRY ORCHARD ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Looking for a new refreshing drink? Like the taste of fresh apples? Welcome to the Angry Orchard.

ROSE: Angry Orchard is owned by the company that makes Sam Adams beer. Last year, it accounted for more than half of all U.S. cider sales. There's debate inside the craft cider business about whether the success of sweeter, mass-produced products is a good thing or not, says Ben Sandler at Wassail.

SANDLER: That's probably the biggest challenge for us is counteracting the preconceived notion of cider being sugary-sweet. That's kind of what we're up against is really trying to showcase ciders that aren't that.

ROSE: That starts with a training session for the staff of Wassail, run by Steve Wood.

STEVE WOOD: So this is Golden Russet. It's a famous, old-heirloom variety that...

ROSE: Wood co-owns Farnum Hill Ciders in New Hampshire. Back in the 1980s, he was among the first to start growing bittersweet apple varieties from Europe, which make the most complex ciders. But Wood says there's a place for what he calls six-pack cider, too.

WOOD: These people are essential to introducing - reintroducing - people in this country to the idea that there's pleasure in a drink made from apples at all. Even with this, you know, exploding interest in cider, people don't really know what it is.

ROSE: Still, new craft cider producers are popping up anywhere you can grow apples, which is to say almost everywhere. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

RATH: This is NPR News.

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