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The centuries-old drink that's made a comeback? Hard cider

Posted at 1:33 PM, Mar 26, 2015

When it comes to enjoying a drink, it seems everything old really is new again.

When it was time for a drink in Colonial America, historians have said the settlers reached for a tall, frosty hard cider. Legend goes that President John Adams liked to drink hard cider with breakfast.

About 200 years later, hard cider is coming back in a big way among American drinkers.

The market research firm IRI estimated that in 2013, alcoholic cider sales grew 75.4 percent to $366 million in a 12-month period ending November 2014. In January, the data-driven news blog declared hard cider “the fastest-growing segment of the beer and flavored malt beverages landscape, by a mile.”

Compared to the craft beer industry, which collected $2.3 billion and represented more than 7 percent of the approximately $32 billion American beer market during the same 12-month window. Ask the head cider maker at Boston Beer Company’s Angry Orchard about the resurgence of the drink and he’d say it mirrors the explosive growth of craft brews.

“We’re sort of where craft beer was maybe 30 years ago,” David Sipes told the Scripps National Desk this week. “Drinkers are still discovering ciders.”

From a process standpoint, hard cider making has more in common with wine than beer. Apples are pressed similarly to making normal cider or apple juice but the alcohol comes during fermentation, which then leads to a carbonation process, similar to soda.

“At a very basic level, we’re making light white wines,” said Marcus Robert, cider maker at Tieton Cider Works, based in Yakima, Washington. “Technically, we are a winery.”

Tieton ciders, which are offered in 18 states, is a small operation compared to Angry Orchard, which sells its drinks in all 50 states, but Robert believes his company is located in the perfect state for the ongoing hard cider renaissance.

“If a craft cider movement is going to culminate, it’s going to emanate from Washington state,” Robert said. He’s a fourth-generation orchardist who said more than half of the nation’s apple crops come from the area around Tieton’s recently-opened 35,000 square-foot facility.

Robert credited large cider makers like Angry Orchard and Vermont’s Woodchuck Hard Cider with “growing the industry to what it is today.”

This promotional image shows some of the primary offerings from Tieton Cider Works.

Like with craft beers, cider makers are experimenting with a wide variety of flavors. Tieton offers 13 different varieties, including Cherry, Apricot and Smoked Pumpkin. Angry Orchard’s offerings include Green Apple, Ginger Apple and the cinnamon and cocoa-infused Cinnful Apple.

“There’s a broad range of intensities and character,” Sipes said of Angry Orchard’s selections. “I find [ciders] to be very versatile.” Robert agreed, adding that drinkers who’ve maybe had one cider that didn’t agree with their palette shouldn’t give up on the style as a whole.

“There’s a misconception that all ciders taste the same but a lot of what goes into producing ciders are the nuances you put in during fermentation,” Robert said. “You can have everything from a dry, crisp, clean beverage to something that tastes like an over-ripe cantaloupe.”

If getting drunk is a priority, both men said hard cider will do the job. Robert said a “true craft cider” will be higher in alcohol content than most craft beers, adding that an apple will produce up to about 8 percent alcohol by volume on average. Sipes pointed to Angry Orchard’s potent Cider House collection, a limited series that ranges from 7 to 9 percent A.B.V. per bottle.

For drinkers wondering how to properly pair hard ciders with food — or as a cocktail ingredient — Angry Orchard offers a guide on its website. Sipes recommended pairing ciders with barbeque and mixing with “brown spirits like bourbon or even brandy.”

“I think people underestimate how well cider pairs with food,” Robert said.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.