Thursday, March 30, 2017

An Update on Cider in Oregon

On Monday, Cider Riot's Abram Goldman-Armstrong put 63 hectoliters--nearly 60 barrels--of cider in cans for the first time. Yesterday he had a media event at his pub and cidery to introduce Everyday Cider and it made me realize some things have changed since I last checked in on cider. Time for an update.

Lest we bury the lead, Abe dropped this remarkable stat that could be inferred, perhaps, by his large canning run: in the city of Portland, cider now accounts for 6% of the beer market. Not the craft market, but all beer sold in Portland. As a handy point of comparison, the craft segment of beer did not hit the 6% mark nationally until 2011. There are surely many towns where craft constitutes a smaller share than 6%.

This is surprising. It was as recently as five years ago that you couldn't reliably find a handle with cider in your local pub. Now that has inverted; it's rare to walk into one that doesn't have at least one cider, and they're in a majority of the restaurants I walk into, too. Still, the bottom fell out of cider a couple years back, as the shelves started to fill with very sweet, soda-like mass market offerings. The driver of the segment, Angry Orchard, was everywhere, and it took the brunt of that slowdown. I wasn't sure how thing were doing and frankly feared the worst. Quietly, however, local producers have continued to solidify a base of support in places like the Northwest and New England, and sales are clearly still strong.

Companies like Cider Riot are one of the reasons. Abe makes dry cider--completely dry in nearly every case. (Everyday Cider is the first exception--it has a touch of sucralose, but is still drier than most products out there.) Apple juice contains yeast-friends simple sugars, and left alone, all will get consumed. What's left behind is alcohol and whatever flavor and aromatics the apple contained (tannins and acids principle among them). Fermentation can produce esters which, along with some of the aromas, suggest sweetness, but these qualities are very far from the soda-like sweetness you find in supermarket ciders.

To palates new to cider, naive and somewhat jejune in aesthetics, sweetness is a bridge, a point of familiarity. But it's a blunt force, and as palates mature, people want ever more dry ciders where the flavors and aromas of the fruit are exposed. Abe, like most cider-makers, doesn't have access to the amount of good cider fruit he'd like, but he's made a specialty of producing great, palatable cider from simple culinary apples. I actually think this stage is still a bit young, and as the fields start to bear more interesting fruit, our collective palates will get even more sophisticated. (Cider Riot does have access to some cider apples, and releases bottles of these from time to time.)

EZ Orchards has led the way in this kind of cider, but others are catching up. 2 Towns just yesterday released Afton Fields, one of their rustic ciders made with good fruit. Baird and Dewar, Wildcraft, Art+Science, Rack and Cloth, Runcible, Slopeswell, and others are beginning to push the envelope for what quality and craft will look like in the next decade. I don't know if there are any official counts of cidery numbers in Oregon, but it's well past fifty at this point, and a number of them are shooting to make world-class products.

I asked Abe what he thought the high-water mark for cider might be, and he guessed it would top out at about 10% of the beer market. That seems about right to me. Cider has never been a volume product, and the more it inclines toward quality, the less volume will matter.

FX Matthieu. So many
hops it has a head!
When I first started touring cideries and visiting cider-makers for Cider Made Simple four years ago (on sale, for the moment, for eight bucks at Amazon!), I wondered which direction it would develop. The answer is starting to become evident. The "mass" end of the spectrum is drier, more consistent, and more interesting than it was in 2013--stuff like Cider Riot's Everyday Cider is leagues better than the first Angry Orchards. Ciders that seemed gimmicky then, like hopped ciders, have become credible products. Abe has one called FX Matthieu on tap that uses a pound per barrel of hops and is vivid and alive in a way the early versions weren't. Fruited and flavored ciders are getting more sophisticated, too--and drier!

But more importantly, cider is developing that critical high-end tier that has always buoyed successful product categories. We need to know what a thing is capable of before we can assess any given example. If cider's ceiling was Angry Orchard, that's one thing. If it's EZ Orchard's Cidre, that's another. Knowing how good cider can be, we expect even easy-drinking supermarket examples to satisfy.

That's happening. It may have not drawn the headlines it did a couple years ago, but cider is coming right along.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

All About Cider

It occurs to me that I never posted a link to a nice podcast Patrick and I did after Cider Made Simple was released. I think it's a great intro to cider, and possibly a preview to the book. Give it a listen.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Greg Hall Speaks

Correction: in an earlier version of this post, I wrote "John" Hall rather than "Greg." John Hall founded Goose Island, and Greg, his son, founded Virtue Cider. I have no idea what caused the mental hiccup that caused me to transpose the names in my brain. 

For those of you who follow cider closely, the curious case of Greg Hall's adventures with Virtue Cider have been a source of endless fascination. Hall launched cider with a showman's flair, a ton of bravado, and bottle prices that were at least 50% above the competition. He knew beer and he was confident he understood cider as well--a view some long-time cidermakers rightly chafed at. So, when Virtue ran into a host of troubles a few years ago, there was more than a little schadenfreude. Well, today Jason Notte has an interview with Hall that's well worth a read.  A few of the highlights, with my commentary sprinkled throughout.
Then, all of a sudden, boom, [cider] was everywhere, and everybody wanted it. We felt like pioneers and missionaries again in 2011 and 2012, but by 2013 we had markets all over the country looking for cider...
Pioneers in 2011? Steve Wood is really going to love that comment.

We were in Costco by Year 2, which is unbelievable. We just didn’t plan that there would be that much demand early on. We had to kind of restructure the way we were doing things and figure out what was the best way to do this and which markets we could support.
I doubt this very much. I interviewed Hall in Portland in 2011 or '12, and he was there to do an all-out launch. He wanted his cider to be national immediately. I think what he didn't understand is that scaling cider looks very, very different than scaling beer.
We overreached a little bit, and we couldn’t support some of the markets that we went into. It’s always hard for a brand to say no to new markets when they want you, so we maybe overreached a little bit and were unable to support some of the markets, and [so] we regrouped back to the Great Lakes. We continued to do well in Chicago and some of the surrounding areas, and now, with additional resources and the High End team and the Goose Island team, we’re able to do a better job supporting the brand in the marketplace while still making all the cider at our farm up in Fennville and doing all of the brand work and all of that. 
It's a good thing ABI infused the cidery with the money to hang on, because the "bit" of overreaching would have ended Virtue without it.
The other great advantage is that we get to send all of our cider down to Chicago and they bottle it for us and they keg it for us. We don’t have to make the big capital investments in a bottle line. We can use the bottle line that I put in in 1995 for Goose Island and that’s been upgraded since then. We get that wonderful capital asset, and that probably puts us at an advantage over a lot of our brethren in the cider business who are still hand bottling like we were 10 months ago. That’s the way it started out, but we were fortunate that we were able to ramp things up quickly.
Virtue was originally intended to be a farm-based cidery making artisanal European-style products. That model can work, but it's very difficult to make it work in the mass market. Now that Virtue is an ABI line, will the focus be on those same high-end products, or a slightly higher end portion of the mass market currently owned by Angry Orchard? I know where I'd place my bets.

There was some talk of Goose's consideration of doing a cider back in 2000, but scrapping the idea. We pick it up from there.
Now, I look at it and I see all these cideries popping up, and the ones that I think are the ones that are leading things — if not on the sales side, on respect in the market — are the guys on the farms. That’s the way it’s always been done back in England, France and Spain. The timing allowed me to do it that way, which, for me, is the right way to do it: Make cider on a farm, and really focus on cider above all.
This is an accurate description of the market, but it perverts the timeline. Cider predated Hall's consideration of it. He has a weird instinct--as he did with Goose Island--to place it at the beginning of the narrative. But Virtue Cider came decades after cider reemerged in the US, and Goose Island was founded well into the craft brewery movement (1988). The one place he's happy not to take credit? Being the first brewery to sell out to AB InBev.
I think that whole “Goose was the first ...,” well, if it wasn’t Goose, it would have been somebody else. It was just a matter of time. 
Aw shucks. He concludes this way, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
And then the timing on the cider thing. It couldn’t have been better. If we had opened five years earlier, it would have been too early, but if we opened five years later, we would have been a me-too cidery. I’d love to say I planned all this timing, but I’m glad that for me it’s worked as well as it has.
There's more there, so go have a look.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Establishing Cider Orchards Will Not Be Speedy

There's a nice piece at Fruit Growers News about the challenges facing the burgeoning cider market. It nicely illustrates the quandary. To begin with, the growth in cider is far outpacing orchardists' ability to get new trees in the ground. But more importantly, the growers don't have any experience with cider varieties.
Rothwell said the U.S. industry not only needs more apples, but better varieties. And those varieties need to work for the three main parties: cider makers, growers and nurseries. Cider makers want varieties that are small, high in tannins and either bittersweet or bittersharp. Growers want disease-resistant, high-yielding, consistent croppers. Nurseries don’t want to bud thousands of different apples. What all three groups need to do is agree on the 10 or 20 varieties that work best for all, she said.

“We need to figure out how to whittle thousands and thousands of apples down to something that’s manageable.”

Keep in mind that this is the growers' view. I was reminded of the first time I toured a hop field back in the late 1990s. I asked a grower which varieties he liked best, and he started ticking off an idiosyncratic list of unrelated types. When I asked why, he said the same thing these growers did--those were the varieties that produced the most pounds per acre and gave him the fewest pest and disease headaches. Of course, those varieties aren't what drive the beer industry, much like the highest-producing cider varieties may not be what cider makers want.

But the larger point is right: there are hundreds of cider varieties out there, and growers and cideries aren't sure which ones to select. The next difficulty? Growers don't know which varieties will do well in which regions.
There are plenty of traditional hard cider varieties in other parts of the world, but their availability in the United States is limited, and little is known about their growing habits or susceptibility to disease – especially fire blight and apple scab, Rothwell said. An MSU research team is working to develop best recommendations for planting and managing hard cider orchards, as well as coming up with the best recommendations for (regionally specific) cultivars.
When I toured Kevin Zielinski's orchards, he showed me the different (mostly French) varieties he'd planted. Many were healthy and robust and produced wonderful cider apples. But not all of them. Some just didn't flourish. And Normandy's climate is quite similar to Oregon's. If not every variety can flourish here, what about the very different climates of Michigan or New England? We just don't know.

And then there's the expressiveness of the fruit. When the pioneers of Oregon winemaking started planting vineyards in the 1970s, they quite reasonably took their cues from California and planted grapes that grew well in Napa. But Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes don't pop here in the cooler climate. It took growers years to discover that pinot grapes flourish in this climate and produce amazing wines. 

Upshot: it's not going to be a quick process.

Monday, February 1, 2016

CiderCon Takes Portland

Tom Oliver (l) and Jarek Kuzelka (r)
For the past few years, the cider world's annual conference has been hosted by the Windy (and snowy and frozen) City. Someone realized that there are far better February choices, and so this week balmy, sunny Portland takes over.* Actually, it probably has more to do with the fact that Wandering Aengus' James Kohn is a bigwig with the organizing body. And also, we're a pretty good cider town.

Apropos of that last point, CiderCon offers quite a lot of opportunities for Portlanders to scratch their apple itch over the next weekend. There will be events happening all over the city, starting today. (Even the cannabis crowd is getting in on the action.) Here's a full run-down of all the events. If you click on an item, a dropdown menu appears with more details--it's a handy list. There are tons of tap takeovers and tasting events. There are some special events worth checking out.
  • On Wednesday, Feb 3 at 8pm, Nat West will host Tom Oliver at his taproom (Reverend Nat's/1813 NE 2nd Ave). Tom is one of the most accomplished English cider-makers, and almost certainly its best perry-maker. He's a charming and very smart guy. He is also featured centrally in my book Cider Made Simple.
  • On Thursday at 5:30 there's a meetup of the Pomme Boots Society--a group devoted to promoting women in cider-making. It was inspired by the Pink Boots Society, which does the same thing for women in beer (and was also formed here in PDX). That will be at the Portland Hilton's Hop City Tavern, 921 SW 6th Ave.
  • On Friday at 8pm, Abram Goldman-Armstrong is hosting a party at the site of the future (but as yet-unrenovated) Cider Riot at 807 NE Couch. A west-country cider band, the Skimmity Hitchers, will be rockin' out.
If you have any interest in cider at all, you should have a look at the listings and find your way to a tap takeover, special tasting, or something cool. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Finally, if you want to tune up your cider knowledge in advance of the events (aside from buying a copy of Cider Made Simple, which of course you should do), here's a great primer, if I do say so myself.

*Weather humor: only marginally less annoying than puns. Mid-forties and rainy--welcome to the Rose City, everyone!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Understanding American Cidermaking

I think I've been a bit remiss about linking to some pieces I've posted at Good Beer Hunting. They are longer treatments of cideries you've seen discussed here--and they have the very large advantage of containing Michael Kiser's beautiful photography and layout.

It won't be too long until another one goes up on Reverend Nat, and that will be followed by a piece on Bull Run. The idea for the series came from Michael, who flew out to take the photos. I chose the cideries to give a sense of the scope of what's happening in American cider (the interesting stuff, anyway).
  • Rack and Cloth - This illustrates the revival of farm-based, small-batch cidermaking, of a kind that was practiced when the first settlers hit the new world.
  • EZ Orchards - A look at a cidery making very traditional European-style cider (in this case French) with bittersweet fruit, natural fermentation, and long maturation times.
  • Reverend Nat - Perhaps the most American of the American makers, Nat West challenges drinkers to reconsider what cider is.
  • Bull Run - This Willamette Valley cidery is on the vanguard of the industry, planting acres of cider fruit they hope to supply to other cidermakers.
Also, an on-the-horizon note: CiderCon is coming to Portland in early February. I'll definitely be getting more material up before, during, and after the year's signature event.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cider Made Simple Book Launch This Thursday

If you have even a passing interest in this cider phenomenon that has been on a slow boil for the past few years, I strongly encourage you to come down to Reverend Nat's this Thursday for what is going to be a spectacular evening. The headline event is the book launch for Cider Made Simple, but in fact, it's going to be a full-immersion cider experience, tickling your brain as well as your senses.

I'll begin by talking about the book and giving an overview of cider's terrain, including European archetypes as well as modern American expressions. I will be aided in this endeavor by four of the best cider-makers in America who will be in-house with their ciders as examples of this terrain:
  • Kevin Zielinski of EZ Orchards, who will have a traditional French-style cidre for us to try.
  • Abram Goldman-Armstrong of Cider Riot!, who will have an English-style cider.
  • Silas Bleakley of Rack and Cloth, who will be bringing an example of what I call a "modernist" American-style cider in Cider Made Simple.
  • And of course, the host, Nat West, who will have more than one example of what I call "experimental" ciders in the book.
During the program, these four gents will describe their ciders and discuss American cider-making. It should be an incredibly enlightening evening, and having this kind of expertise on hand, along with this range of ciders, is extremely rare. Whether or not you want to buy a copy of the book, do yourself a favor and come on by for some great cider and cider discussion.