FORT WORTH, Texas — Cider was once America’s drink, but after getting buried by beer and trampled by the temperance movement, one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages is fermenting a rebirth.
“After more than 100 years in decline, cider is making a massive comeback,” said Will McClatchey, director of research at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, who has been studying cider orchards around the world since 2005.
Now they are popping up around him in Texas.
Englishman Ed Gibson, who rolled out the first batch of hard cider two years ago from his company, Austin Eastciders, says: “The renaissance is happening right in front of us. Even the big guys like Anheuser-Busch and Stella-Artois are bringing out ciders.”
This isn’t the sweet, unfiltered apple juice that most Americans think of as cider. The hard stuff is usually fermented from the myriad varieties of tart, bittersweet apples grown for drinking, not eating, McClatchey said.
While cider is still a niche market, the rise in U.S. sales is an eye opener. According to Impact Databank, which tracks statistics for the wine, beer and spirits industry, the top 10 cider brands in the U.S. collectively grew by 62 percent in 2012.
The cider comeback has been driven by the same foodie mindset that cherishes local products and that has sparked an explosion in craft beer and micro distilling, McClatchey said.
Traveling to 23 countries, he interviewed nearly 500 cider makers, most of whom are small farmers, about their methods of producing a beverage that goes back thousands of years.
“We were trying to understand how people managed these cider operations before the industrial age,” said McClatchey, who started the biodiversity project with colleague Dave Reedy at the University of Hawaii and then brought it with him to BRIT in 2010.
Along the way, the pair compiled in-depth tasting evaluations of ciders from 1,500 small farmers and 1,000 commercial operations.
“The flavors and colors are all over the place. Some of them I hated and others were delicious,” McClatchey said.
The BRIT scientist recently poured an around-the-world tasting of a dozen or so ciders. The samples ran the gamut from Appalachian “rocket fuel” to nuanced French and Spanish “apple wines,” as well as traditional dry ciders.
The liquid tour of far-flung fermented apple derivatives vividly illustrated that the bubble-gum sweet hard ciders Americans might have experienced are far removed from what Europeans are drinking.
Or what our American ancestors were downing.
But great-great-grandpa and -grandma weren’t necessarily drinking cider as a “means to get sauced” — they were sanitizing polluted drinking water, McClatchey said.
Orchards across America were growing hundreds of cider apple varieties to crush, ferment and create alcohol that was mixed in a 50/50 blend with water to kill bacteria.
“People would be drinking a gallon a day of low-alcohol cider,” he said.
McClatchey has found a few remnants of those heritage orchards still producing fruit in North Texas. Most of them were atop two shallow limestone outcroppings where the soil is conducive to orchards.
He and his wife based their house hunt on that geology when they moved here. Now he’s growing 80 apple trees and 100 grapevines on his 2-acre lot in Aledo.
What really started the decline of cider in America was the advent of deep-water drilling methods that lessened the dependence on surface water or shallow wells, McClatchey said.
Two other factors helped kill cider: The preference for beer by many new European immigrants and the spread of the temperance movement, which eventually led to many of the old cider orchards being chopped down during Prohibition.
Gibson in Austin and two young entrepreneurs in Houston and Dallas are working to reboot the tradition in Texas
“There’s a renaissance in the cider industry right now,” says Jake Schiffer, 24, who started Texas’ first licensed cidery, Leprechaun Cider Co., three years ago in Houston with money his parents had saved for his college education.
Schiffer, who was introduced to ciders in Ireland and Italy, teamed up with the largest apple orchard in Oregon to produce his recipes for six ciders. Now he’s working to convince people that cider is more than a sweet “girl’s drink.”
“In Italy it’s like apple champagne. In my introduction to it in Ireland, it was these big rugby players drinking pints of cider all night long,” he said.
But when he came back home he noticed that although there were hundreds of craft beers and micro-distilled spirits on the shelves, there were only a few mass-market sweet ciders.
“I decided I wanted to do something different,” Schiffer said, adding that it was the sales job of his life when he convinced his parents he was serious about cider. Because he was only 20 at the time, his folks had to be on the state licensing paperwork. They signed it back over to him when he turned 21.
Schiffer started selling to just three bars. Then he “got very lucky” when his distributor landed Leprechaun in Whole Foods Markets within two weeks.
Last year, the company sold 50,000 gallons of cider, which takes a mountain of apples. Producing just one bottle requires 80 apples. That amounts to 120 tons of fruit for every 15,000 gallons of cider, Schiffer said.
Marketing is still challenging, he said.
“Cider is the redheaded stepchild of the alcohol industry. People don’t realize ciders are like wines and craft beer,” Schiffer said.
Another sign of the evolving U.S. cider market is CiderCon, a convention of about 250 cider makers last week in Chicago that drew Schiffer and Gibson.
Gibson, 40, moved to Austin four years ago, leaving in friends’ hands his acclaimed cider bar, The Apple, in Bristol, England, which opened eight years ago just as the old beverage was coming back into vogue.
“It suddenly became the most fashionable drink in England. Everybody was drinking it – all the pop stars, celebrities and the cool kids. It went through a renaissance at that time and now it’s about 15 percent of the beer market in England,” Gibson said.
His Austin Eastciders is selling draft kegs in Austin and San Antonio, and Gibson hopes it will be available in bottles and cans in Dallas-Fort Worth this spring.
Gibson is shipping Texas apples to England, where they are blended with several dozen traditional cider apples. That juice is sent back and fermented at an Austin winery. Gibson expects to open his own cidery in Austin this year.
Joel Malone, 26, said he hopes to open Bishop Cidery in Dallas in late March, to produce ciders for bars and restaurants and sell directly to customers.
He’s been working on the plan for two years and expected to be going months ago, but wrangling with city officials has delayed his launch. For now, he’s keeping his day job at an advertising agency.
Malone was first interested in home beer brewing but decided to branch into cider after trying the “sweet commercial” brands.
“I tried a lot of recipes and I enjoyed the science behind it and how small increments changed the product,” he said. His two initial ciders will be “middle-of-the-road” varieties that are slightly sweet and dry with an alcohol content of 8 to 10 percent.
Even without any advertising, Malone said he has 75 bars and restaurants “wanting to get their hands on the stuff.”
“People are looking for a local beverage,” he said. “I think our recipes will really appeal to the beer crowd.”
Gibson is betting the attraction will be even wider.
“I think the original drink of America is going to be a big, big thing. It’s a rebirth with a direct connection to the history of America.”