David White did not enjoy his first taste of cider. “It took a couple of tries, but then I started to crave that stuff. Kind of like red wine, it doesn’t grab everybody at first,” says the owner of Olympia’s Whitewood Cider Company, which opened in late 2011. Now he’s betting his savings that a significant portion of Western Washingtonians have acquired a taste for cider as well.
He’s not the only one.
Capitol Cider will open soon on East Pike Street, affirming the fact that cider is gaining popularity—not just here, but across the country. New cideries are opening, and more orchard acreage is being set aside for cider apples. In the past few years, sales of U.S. hard ciders have increased tremendously, from four million gallons in 2004 to more than 17 million in 2012.
This growth may be new, but cider is an old drink, once more popular than beer. British colonists brought it when they settled in the United States, and began to produce it as well: By 1700, the average American drank 35 gallons of hard cider each year, and New England produced more than 300,000 gallons of the stuff. Its popularity faded with the onslaught of German and Eastern European immigrants, who preferred beer, and was further suppressed by Prohibition. It’s taken this long for cider to make a comeback.
For its part, Washington produced almost 200,000 gallons of cider in 2011. It makes sense, given Washington’s apple production, that the state would be at the forefront of this resurgence. Yet it’s not all about the apples. Local producers have their own theories on what else may be contributing to the rise.
“Five or six years ago, you couldn’t buy cider anywhere,” says Colin Schilling, who started Schilling Cider in Seattle last year. He remembers seeing cider more and more often in stores two or three years ago, and he knew he needed to get a jump on the trend. Discontent at his day job (“I pretty much hated my life,” he says) and some success making cider as a hobbyist helped too.
Now Schilling believes that the increasing number of people with a gluten allergy or intolerance, and a strong locavore movement in the alcohol industry, will bring in the customers. “Up here in the Northwest, it’s just an absurdly local product,” says Schilling, who uses only Washington apples in his cider. “It’s very intimate, and you can know the owners, know the growers, and it’s incredibly local. It’s gluten-free, so that’s huge. We sell a lot of cider to people who used to drink beer, and we actually have certain types of cider that are targeted to those people”—like his hopped cider, which ropes in IPA lovers.
Schilling wants to hang his hat on unique ciders made from recipes he’s honed over the years as a hobbyist. “I’ve definitely tried some weird things that I’ve dumped down the drain. But in the process, I’ve found some really interesting things,” he says, including a ginger cider, an oak-aged cider with notes of scotch, a chai cider, and a chocolate nitro cider made with Ecuadorian cocoa nibs and caramelized sugar.
White, of Whitewood Cider Company, says that adventurous craft-beer drinkers are leading the way for cider’s expansion. “This gluten-free thing doesn’t hurt, but a lot of it’s come from the beer drinkers and their willingness to explore. We always thought it would be the wine folks, because it’s the same process and the same characteristics, but it’s a lot harder to convert a wine drinker to a cider drinker than it is a beer drinker,” he says.
White is experimenting with a cider CSA, a play on the community-supported agriculture boxes delivered to buyers from local farms. He hopes a creative approach to self-distribution will help him compete.
He also sees promise for his cider and for the industry in general in drinkers’ growing interest in knowing where their beverages come from. Small companies like his and other cideries are inherently more accessible, White says. “People become fans of small companies, and it’s nice to know the owners and have that connection.”
The cider industry’s expansion has not been without its growing pains. One of the biggest struggles is with sourcing; though Washington is known for its apple-orchard acreage, only a small percentage of it is dedicated to cider apples rather than to culinary apples like Pink Lady or Red Delicious.
The NCA has taken the bull by the horns, partnering with the Northwest Agriculture Business Center to encourage cider apple production. The NABC, which runs certification courses for aspiring cider-makers, is helping recruit orchardists and connect them with cider-makers. “A lot of the cider-makers up until this point have had to plant orchards,” says White, who also helped found the Northwest Cider Association (NCA) and serves as its president.
There’s some public-relations work to be done, too. “What work we have to do yet, I’ll be honest, is increasing our visibility and our availability on restaurant wine lists, on tap, [and] in pubs, and getting people to understand what cider is and what makes it special,” says Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of the NCA.
But she sees momentum building and things coming together in a big-picture way. “Every few weeks a new cidery is opening in the Northwest. There’s this exciting sense of momentum—you can just feel the energy. My inbox is filled every day with people inquiring about cider in some way or another,” she says. “Everybody loves a comeback story.”