SCRIBBLES TMI - RECENT HISTORY OF CIDER

Plenty of short histories have been written about American cider: its origin, decline, and resurgence. This post focuses more on the recent history of cider in America since 2000 or so, particularly the growth of larger scale commercial producers (as opposed to smaller-scale traditional producers).

In the recent history of craft beer, there was a rather large gap between the founding of the first craft breweries in the 80s and the more recent explosion in the 2000s (craft breweries numbered eight in 1980, 537 in 1994, 2,800 by 2013, and over 5,000 in 2016).

Cider, on the other hand, started extremely slow, and then blew up in a relatively short time frame. The first commercial craft cidery in the US was Woodchuck (VT), founded in 1991, followed thereafter in 1993 by Ace (CA) and 1996 by Original Sin (NY). The early 2000s saw Fox Barrel (CA) and Crispin (CA), both founded in 2004, and Vandermill (MI) in 2006. Despite the presence of these cideries, growth remained tepid.

The early 2010s were the tipping point, where we see an enormous growth in cider producers, launching brands that grew rapidly to become regional powerhouses. In 2010 we saw Bold Rock (NC/VA), Two Towns (OR),and Tieton Ciderworks (WA). In 2011, Citizen (VT) and Downeast (MA) along with the launch of Sam Adams’ cider brand, Angry Orchard. In 2013 Seattle Cider (WA), Nine Pin (NY), and Sonoma Cider (CA) were founded. By 2017 there were 658 total cider producers in the US.

Brands and sales grew in line with the customer base. The craft beverage movement as a whole played a role, with customers looking for the next cool thing, as did the rise in gluten-free diets, as cider provides a better straight alternative to beer than wine or mixed drinks: it’s carbonated, cold, and served in pints. Angry Orchard’s success also played a role in the success of cider as a whole. With the logistical and financial backing of Sam Adams, they brought cider to places it hadn’t really penetrated before. Suburban Applebees, for example, were for the first time pouring cider on tap. Before this time bars would typically have packaged product of either Crispin, Woodchuck, or a European import like Strongbow, but cider on draft was a rare sight. Angry Orchard changed this, to everyone’s benefit, and allowed smaller producers to reach into less “craft specialty” locations, taking cider out of the outer echelons of the craft world and into the mainstream.

The early 2010s also saw a lot of acquisitions, which can be read as large companies betting on the rising tide of cider that we saw in this time period. Woodchuck was purchased by the C+C group for $305 million, Crispin acquired Fox Barrel in 2010 and then was itself acquired by MillerCoors two years later.

While these larger brands have seen declining sales in recent years, it doesn’t mean every part of the cider category is declining--just the  brands at the top. Angry Orchard dropped 14% in 2014, Woodchuck dropped 14.5% in 2015, and the full cider category dropped in off-premise sales by 10% from 2015-2016. But in that same time period off-premise sales for craft cider, excluding larger “macro” brands like Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, Crispin, grew 39%! So if you happen to read anything in the news about the “decline” in cider, it typically means the decline of the larger brands and obscures the continued growth of the smaller regional cideries.

Sly Clyde is happy to be in Virginia, one of only five states where cider sales at bars and restaurants surpass 3% of beer sales (the others are Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Maine). We’d like to get that number higher, so next time you’re at a bar ask for the local craft cider--soon it will be ours!

SCRIBBLES TMI - SULFITES

You’ve probably seen the phrase “contains sulfites” on the last can of cider or bottle of wine you drank. But do you know what sulfites are or why they’re used in cider and wine, but not in beer?

Sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is the main one produced by and used in cidermaking. Small amounts of SO2 are a normal byproduct of fermentation, and SO2 is added to cider, generally in the form of Potassium Metabisulfite.

It used to be added to empty barrels by burning sticks of elemental sulfur:  “Lay brimstone (sulfur) on a rag, and by a wire let it down into the cider vessel, and there fire it: and when the vessel is full of the smoak the liquor speedily pour’d in, ferments the better!” (John Evelyn’s Pomona, 1664).

Unfortunately we aren’t that cool anymore.

You may be asking, “ok, but why is this in my drink?” SO2 acts in two key ways: as an antiseptic and an antioxidant.

SO2 is added after pressing the juice but before adding yeast in order to eliminate any spoilage organisms, such as bacteria or wild yeast, from growing uncontrollably and ruining the sweet sweet apple juice. This allows the yeast we choose for fermentation to flourish, and therefore better cider to be produced.

As SO2 binds with oxygen, SO2 is also added after fermentation in order to prevent oxidation. This prevents wine and cider from tasting like wet cardboard, which you’ll recognize if you ever left a half open bottle of wine in your fridge for a few too many days before finishing it off.

So why doesn’t beer use sulfites?

1) the boiling that takes place in the brewing process is their antiseptic step, it gets rid of bad bacteria and yeast.

2) beer contains hops, which among other things (such as smelling glorious and adding bitterness) serve as antioxidants.

At this point you may also be asking, “I’ve heard of wine hangovers, is that a thing?” No, it’s not. First off, ‘There is no medical research data showing that sulfites cause headaches.’ Unsurprisingly, drinking too much of anything causes a hangover. Additionally, the amount of sulfites in cider and wine are extremely low compared to other food items (usually below 200ppms, as compared to over 3000 in dried fruit--see chart below).

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So the next time you wake up having drunk perhaps one too many ciders or glasses of wine, remember that, given what you learned here, you unfortunately only have yourself to blame.

SCRIBBLES TMI - IS CIDER WINE, OR BEER, OR BOTH, OR NEITHER?

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We can’t tell you how many times someone has asked us how to brew cider. It’s a question that used to get on our nerves. You don’t “brew” cider. Unlike beer, you don’t need to heat anything up to extract sugar from your raw material. You make cider, adding yeast to the apple juice, whose sugars are fully fermentable. Because it’s fermented fruit juice, cider is considered a wine for tax purposes, and the production process shares much more with wine than it does with beer.

We don’t think people ask winemakers how they brew their cabernet sauvignons, so where is the disconnect?

After fielding this question a number of times we realized it stemmed in large part from the complicated way cider is marketed and sold. For many people, their first interaction with cider was with the big companies--Angry Orchard, Strongbow, Woodchuck. These are often sold as alternatives to beer, and with the introduction of “Apple Ales” (beer or malt liquor with "apple flavoring") it became all the more confusing for consumers.

According to a survey conducted by Angry Orchard, of those respondents who could name a cider brand (37% couldn’t) almost 7% named Mike’s Hard Lemonade (which is not a cider) and 6% named Redd’s Apple Ale (again, not a cider).

But when you start getting into cider, you see that there is an extremely wide range of styles and approaches that run the spectrum from “wine” to “beer.” There are $25 750ml bottles of ciders fermented for 6 months and then aged for another 6 using 100% estate-grown cider apples. There are ciders in 6-pack 12oz cans made with wine yeast and even others made with beer yeast. There are ciders fermented with bacteria, like lactobacillus, whose closest flavor cousins are sour fruit beers.

To us, the intrigue of cider is precisely this range of possibilities. Wine is wine, beer is beer, but cider can be whatever the cidermaker, the apples, and the yeast want it to be.

It also leaves a lot more agency with the consumer. Thirsting for a celebratory New Year’s bubbly with lower alcohol content? Pick up one of those $25 bottles with the cork and cage. Fancy a drink after work? Grab a can or a pint from the bar or fridge. (Yes, we will have cider to go available at the tasting room this spring.)

To answer the question in the blog’s title: cider is cider, but sometimes it’s produced/marketed/drunk like wine and sometimes it’s produced/marketed/drunk like beer.

SCRIBBLES TMI - YEAST

We talked last time about apples, those round beauties without which we would not have cider. But it takes two to tango, and the other indispensable dance partner in cidermaking is yeast.

To mix metaphors a bit, if apples are the actors who get all the fame and reap all the rewards, yeast is the director who works tirelessly in the background and make sure the actors live up to their full potential.

Yeast works to turn apple juice (relatively boring) into cider (very sly, and exciting). In a process known as fermentation, it converts sugar into alcohol and CO2, and has been doing so for thousands of years.

Besides producing alcohol, yeast directly contributes or modifies 58% of aroma descriptors and 79% of the flavor descriptions of alcoholic beverages (i.e., CIDER)! This means that two ciders fermented with the exact same apple blend using different yeasts will taste drastically different.

This is a fun place of experimentation for American cidermakers, who don’t always have access to the abundance of apple varieties that they still do in, for example, England and France.

There are several ways to “use” yeast, or rather ways of letting yeast do its thing.

One method used by some cidermakers is to do nothing. If you find yourself visiting cideries in the West Country of England, you'll find that this is the approach. Focus is placed on the blend of apples going into the fermentation vessel, and then the cider is left to sit and ferment using a combination of yeast present on the apple skins and in the air and in the fermentation vessel (especially if it’s an old barrel).

Another method is to choose a commercial yeast strain, which has been bred to ferment in a certain way and have certain flavor and aroma characteristics. Cidermakers, especially in America, aren’t bound by as many of the traditions and norms as their American winemaker brethern or their English and French cidermaking counterparts. This means that we experiment with white wine yeasts, red wine yeasts, ale and lager yeasts, as well as wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces to give extra oomph and flavor to our apples.

On a related note, people often ask us, “What is harder, beer brewing or cidermaking?” And while it’s not a question that we can effectively answer, because they are so different, we tend to respond that the hardest part about beer is the brewing process (soaking the barley in hot water to extract sugar, which is then boiled). There is no equivalent in cider, which is why cider is “made” not “brewed.” The apple juice blending process pre-fermentation is more of an art than a science, but the brewing process is extremely complex and small variations in water, temperature, grain bill, and hop additions make huge impacts on the final beer.

However, relative to cider, beer fermentation is fairly straight-forward. Ales typically finish fermenting in several days, whereas cider needs a minimum of a few weeks depending on the temperature (some traditional cidermakers will do “low and slow” 6-month fermentations). Beer is chock full of nitrogen and other nutrients that yeast love, whereas apple juice is nutrient deficient, so you have to baby it and give it a lot of love in order to prevent off-flavors. So we tend to say that beer is harder on the front end, and cider is harder on the back end: yet another reason yeast is so important to cidermaking!

To learn even more about yeast on a more technical level, check out Shea Comfort’s 2015 CiderCON presentation.

SCRIBBLES TMI - Apples

Here at Sly Clyde, we love apples. In fact, they’re the core of our business (see what we did there). All of our fruit comes from a family-owned orchard in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We’ve spent a lot of time eating, thinking about, and fermenting apples, but how much do you, dear cider lover, really know about apples?  

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Did you know that there are four traditional categories of apples?

Sweets are low in tannin (more on that later) and low in acid. Note that the sweet moniker is not related to sugar content, but has to do with the lack of acidity. A familiar example would be Golden Delicious or Honeycrisp, anything typically used as an eating apple.

Sharps are low in tannin and high in acid. Note that this does not mean that these apples have sharp edges, but that they have a “sharp” acidic taste. The best example in the United States is Granny Smith, Pink Lady, or anything that your grandma uses to make the best, most flavorful pies.

Sweets and Sharps are collectively known as “dessert” apples. They can be eaten, cooked with, or made into cider. These two categories, being the most prevalent categories in American apple growing, will constitute part of Sly Clyde’s ciders.

Bittersweets are traditional cider apples which are high in tannin and low in acid. (Here’s where we can talk about tannin).

Tannin is a complicated subject but, in the simplest terms, it describes a group of compounds in apples and grapes that contribute to body, mouthfeel, color, bitterness (hard tannins), and astringency (soft tannins). The best way to conceptualize what tannin actually does is to think about drinking strong, oversteeped tea. Feel that drying sensation in your mouth? That’s the tannins.

These are rare in America except on traditional cider apple orchards, but form the key foundation, for example, of England’s West Country ciders.

Bittersharps (you guessed it) are HIGH in tannin and HIGH in acid. Referred to by some as the perfect category because it’s capable of being fermented as a single varietal without the need to blend in acid. Similar to Bittersweets, these are rare in America.

Bittersweets and Bittersharps are traditional cider apples in that they are not typically eaten out of hand and grown primarily for fermentation, similar to wine grapes--when is the last time you bought a bag of Pinot Noir grapes at the grocery store?.

American Heirloom fruit doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories, as they are more complex than a standard sharp apple such as a Granny Smith, which has led some to call them Sharp-Sweets, as they are high in acid but have a small amount of tannin. We love these apples and you’ll see us making ciders with as many of them as we can get our hands on, including Gold Rush and Jonathan.

 Want more information? Check out Chris Lehault’s great series on Serious Eats here, here, and here for more. If you want to read a whole book about it check out the Apple Bible, Tom Buford’s Apples of North America And keep an eye on our blog for more in our TMI series.