Hard Cider: An American Love Story
By Tracy Phillippi | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
If you’ve been noticing a lot more hard cider around lately, there’s a good reason. After three years of near triple-digit growth, the American hard cider industry is enjoying an epic and hardwon resurgence. In the wake of the craft beer movement, Wisconsin entrepreneurs have taken hold of the cider trend and are moving confidently into a future that recalls a long-past era when hard cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage in America.
If we were to consider hard cider to be a bona fide category of beer, it would now rank second in sales only to India pale ales (IPAs). Although cider is classified as a wine in Wisconsin, it is viewed as more of a beer in the popular imagination. It’s commonly carbonated, it has relatively low levels of alcohol (up to eight percent), and its history as a working-class drink draws sharp distinctions from the traditionally upper-class and overall boozier wine category. Plus, you’ll find ciders on tap and in beer bottles, which you can’t really say about wine.
Cider, in reality, is neither beer nor wine, and it attracts people from both camps. Not to be mistaken with apple soda or apple coolers, hard cider tastes markedly different from what we know as apple juice or “soft” cider, primarily due to the fermentation process, but also from the varieties of apples used. Often they incorporate cider apples, which are more tannic, astringent, bitter and not meant for fresh eating.
Historically, ciders have almost always been made from blending multiple apple varieties into a single recipe. The blend of the apple varieties used, transformed by the fermentation process, results in a complex range of flavors and aromas and a range of potential colors from clear light yellow to cloudy amber-brown. Cider is often described as fresh, crisp, sweet and refreshing, but it can also be described as dry, sharp, bitter and musty. Some styles of cider even achieve a spicy-smoky character. As you might expect, many ciders blend in other kinds of fruit such as peach or cherry. And let’s not forget about Perry, a cousin of cider made completely of pears. (continued after the break)
Hard Cider Cocktails
Although it may seem that many of Wisconsin’s modern crop of cideries are just now sprouting up to take advantage of a hot trend, they’ve actually been years in the making. Experimental orchards started taking root as far back as 2002 in Wisconsin, where growers focused on producing traditional varieties of heirloom cider apples long since taken out of production across most of the country.
Outside of Wisconsin, the seeds of the cider renaissance in America were planted in New England in the mid-1980s, when the craft beer industry was in its infancy. And while craft beer has enjoyed tremendous and steady growth each year since, it wasn’t until the Boston Beer Company’s introduction of their Angry Orchard line in 2012 that hard cider gained similar traction.
It seems obvious in hindsight that cider would capture the imagination of Americans at the time it did, fitting in nicely with some other powerful trends of recent years. Craft ciders are made from local food, are naturally gluten-free, require careful craftsmanship to produce, and because of their history in America, harken back to a simpler, more rustic time.
We can find hard cider in America as far back as the Mayflower, imported from England, and it was, for a long time, a staple of colonial life. New England homesteaders grew more apples than they could sell, so they fermented the surplus into cider, which lasted longer and acted as a safe alternative to potentially contaminated water. Further fermentation yielded apple cider vinegar, a staple for pickling vegetables for the winter.
Through the end of the 18th century, hard cider was the most common alcoholic beverage in the nation, but its near total demise began with the temperance movement of the 1820s, which demonized the drink, particularly within rural communities of British descent. At the same time, immigration and urbanization were ramping up, and breweries were springing up in the cities, driven by waves of German immigrants who were not only unswayed by the temperance movement, but arrived with new beer-brewing technology for producing lagers. As populations swelled, it was more cost effective to ramp up beer production than anything else, and beer took upon itself the title of America’s favorite working-class drink.
Many of the orchards and their heirloom varieties were lost over this period, but those that have survived to the present day are now the darlings of the hard cider renaissance, with modern producers taking cuttings of trees that are hundreds of years old in order to graft them onto new rootstocks. Other producers have looked to England and France to find the old cider apple varieties, where interest in cider never waned. We Wisconsinites are now reaping the benefits of these efforts and rediscovering a lost love.
Southern Wisconsin Hard Cider Roundup
Island Orchard Cider
The folks behind Island Orchard were inspired by the complex dry ciders available in Europe. For owners Bob and Yannique Purman, it was visits to see Yannique’s father in northern France that opened their eyes to the market opportunity awaiting them back in the United States. In 2005, they started their own orchard on Washington Island in Door County and began bringing traditional cider cultivars back from France and the United Kingdom.
“Caring for the trees puts you out in the field through the seasons,” Bob says. “Pruning in winter, planting in spring, training in summer, harvesting in the fall. You spend a lot of time outdoors getting to know a very small patch of land very intimately. I love the attempt at creating order out of the chaos of nature.”
They now work with a total of 30 apple varieties in their recipes, including Somerset, Kingston Black, Newton Pippen, Chisel Jersey, Roxbury Russet, and many more. Look for their award winning Oak Aged Reserve, their medium body Brut, their tart Apple Cherry Rosé, and their delicate Pear Cider at liquor outlets all across southern Wisconsin.
A recent arrival to the hard cider scene is the veteranowned Restoration Cider, which finds its terroir in the state’s Driftless Area. Owners Paul Asper and Lissa Koop fell in love with cider in 2011 when they took a trip to northwest Spain and found the ciders there incredibly dry like champagne. Paul was determined to re-create the style in Wisconsin and perfected his recipe over four years using apples grown in the Driftless Area, where he loves to go fly fishing.
“Five percent of our profits at Restoration Cider Co. will go directly to stream restoration projects,” says Paul. “We want to use our brand as a showcase of Wisconsin's natural beauty and as a platform for raising awareness of water quality and land use issues.”
Now on tap around Madison are Starkwater, an ultra-dry cider named for the creek that cuts through Madison, and the somewhat sweeter Sugar River which adds fresh-pressed apple juice after fermentation.
Keep an eye out for Ciderboys, Wisconsin’s largest hard cider export. Brewed at Stevens Point Brewery, this collection of blended ciders takes a more experimental approach and is already available in 18 states. Their ciders have fun with the category and include added ingredients like cinnamon, cranberry, peach, and pineapple.
Mershon's Artisan Cider
Launched in 2014, Mershon’s Artisan Cider owner Joseph Baird brings a hard cider primarily focused on simplicity. With Mershon’s, Baird relies solely on existing Stoughton-area orchards, locally sourced wildflower honey and naturally occurring yeast. Find it at most liquor outlets around Madison.
The Cider Farm
On a mission to make traditional dry cider from organic cider apples, Deirdre Birmingham and John Biondi started their cider journey in 2003. “We wanted to do a premium product and that meant having the right apples,” says Deirdre. With an eye toward true cider apple varieties from England and France, the couple planted cold-hardy dwarfing rootstocks and grafted scion wood of English cider apples.
“The tannic apples we use in our blends, known as English bittersweets and bittersharps, make all the difference,” says Deirdre. “Table apples just don't have the tannins. These give the cider mouthfeel, complexity and balance.”
Their first product was an apple brandy, and they’ve been making hard cider since 2015, even aging small amounts in their apple brandy barrels. Look for The Cider Farm ciders on tap at The Old Fashioned, in bottles at Harvest, and at other Madison restaurants.