Cider Explosion!

Small-batch, artisanal cider is booming all around you.In hindsight, my cider awakening was inevitable.I was at a music festival near Portland a few weekends ago, watching bands and drinking beer all day alongside a few thousand backwoods-Bohemian...

Small-batch, artisanal cider is booming all around you.

In hindsight, my cider awakening was inevitable.

I was at a music festival near Portland a few weekends ago, watching bands and drinking beer all day alongside a few thousand backwoods-Bohemian types. It was 105 degrees outside—welcome swelter amid a half-assed summer—and I was perspiring liquids as quickly as I imbibed them. By mid-afternoon, hours of music and daylight remained, but I’d reached capacity. Couldn’t. Drink. Another. Beer.

Overheated and under-buzzed, I considered the draft cider for sale alongside Oregon-made microbrews: Anthem Cider, from Salem, Ore., flavored with hops. At this point I was willing to try anything. 

I can’t call it a revelation. I knew what cider was and had enjoyed it in the past. But one sip rendered the past Paleolithic. This cider was something new—blessedly refreshing, bright and dry as the big blue sky above and equally weightless. Tangy-apple tart but not exactly fruity. A crisp, complicated, ultimately amiable beverage. I drank nothing else the rest of the weekend.

Upon returning to Seattle, I discovered I’m not the only one turned onto cider. The Northwest—and America at large—is right now in the midst of a CIDER EXPLOSION.

According to the two-year-old Northwest Cider Association (newly formed associations always signal an explosion), the national cider market grew by 30 percent last year, more than wine and beer combined. The number of regional cideries—plural for cidery, the magical factory where cider is made—has quadrupled in the last few years. More bars are serving cider on draft and more stores are carrying it in bottles. September also marks Washington state’s second annual Cider Week, beginning Sept. 8 with the third annual Cider Summit Seattle, a shindig that will host close to 1,500 drinkers and dozens of cideries from around the U.S.

Despite impressive statistics, cider remains a niche libation hugely overshadowed by beer and wine. The market is booming, but cider still accounts for only a tiny fraction of total beverage sales in the U.S. Years of confusion and misapprehension have hobbled its infiltration into the mainstream: I’m not espousing the cider of British soccer hooligans or the cider of annual family trips to the orchard. The former is mass-produced one-note swill, aka “six-pack cider.” The latter is non-alcoholic, cloudy juice.

Cider’s rebirth as a complex, small-batch artisanal product embraced by foodies and marketing departments alike stems from its rich early history. In colonial America, cider was a hugely popular, always-alcoholic drink made by British, Spanish and French settlers from heirloom apple varietals brought over from the Old World—small and bitter fruits grown from seed and unsuitable for eating off the tree. These were the trees grown by Jonathan Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, in nurseries throughout Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio in the early 1800s. At that time, the Federal government required frontiersmen claiming land to devote a portion of acreage to agriculture, so Chapman’s pre-planted parcels were highly valued.

Americans drank more cider than beer back then, but a mid-1800s influx of German immigrants and their lager beers shifted consumption habits. The temperance movement favored non-alcoholic cider as an alternative to the hard stuff, a malapropism ingrained during Prohibition. Which is why today you find kid-friendly “apple cider” next to Ocean Spray in the supermarket.

Though it’s carbonated and possesses similar alcohol content to beer, cider’s flavor profile and production have always been closer to white wine. This I learned from Marcus Robert, head cider-maker of Tieton Cider Works, a four-year-old cidery in Tieton, Wash. Last month, Robert, whose background is in winemaking, hosted a tasting event at Beveridge Place Pub as part of the West Seattle bar’s Cider Revival Week.

Washington’s Cider Country, Robert explained, is split between the Olympic Peninsula and Eastern Washington. The Olympic cideries, set amidst a damp, European-esque climate and lots of retired money, frequently use heirloom cider apple varieties. Those in the dry and hot East, famed for its industrial-sized apple production, use mostly newer stock. Both locales produce several award-winning ciders in very small batches served by local-focused establishments like Beveridge Place.

Seattleites—inveterate beer drinkers that we are—haven’t fully tuned in yet. I was one of only a handful at the pub sampling Tieton’s wares, including ruby-red and semi-sweet Cherry; balanced, amber Apricot; and gorgeous, straw-colored Yakima Valley Dry Hopped Cider. Beveridge Place, which regularly carries three on draft and dozens more in the bottle, is doing its part to conflagrate the cider explosion.

A mile north on California Street, so is the Beer Junction. On my way from Beveridge Place to a dinner party, I stopped to pick up something from the newly relocated bottle shop/tasting bar. Despite its name, I found that Beer Junction stocks 120 ciders, many local. Owner Morgan Herzog expects that number to more than double in the next few years. Along with increased quality, availability, and awareness, he says the cider explosion is happening because the stuff is gluten-free.

I bought a half-liter bottle of Tieton’s Dry Hopped for $7.99, which my friends and I drank with grilled pork loin and roasted vegetables on a deck overlooking the Puget Sound sunset. It was beautiful.

Northwest Cider Association
Cider Summit Seattle
Sept. 8, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
South Lake Union Discovery Center Lawn
Beveridge Place Pub
6413 California Ave. SW
The Beer Junction
4511 California Ave. SW
Photo by Nate Watters.