Hopped cider—is it straight gimmickry, meant to attract beer drinkers? Or could it be something greater than the sum of its parts?
The cidermakers who are doing it know exactly where they stand in that discussion.
“My approach to hopping cider is not to consider it a ‘hopped cider,’” says Yann Fay, head cidermaker at 1911 Established Cider House in Lafayette, New York, “but actually coming at it from the angle that it’s a fruit cider, where the fruit component is coming from the hops rather than another fruit itself.”
“When somebody tries [hopped cider] without knowing there are hops in it, they actually really love it,” says Nick Gunn, who founded BenchGraft Cider Consulting after running Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem, Oregon, with wife Mimi Casteel. Gunn brewed beer for a long time before he began cidermaking, and his Anthem cider was one of the first commercially available hopped ciders back in 2007.
“Most of the time, hops are really complementary flavors, bringing out a lot of depth, fruity notes, a floral category.” Hops and fruit, he says, “play really well together.” However, the word “hops” can cause some confusion—and, perhaps, some unpredictable expectations—when it appears on a can or bottle of cider.
Gunn says that some cidermakers are even incorporating hop flavors without necessarily broadcasting it—hopped cider, on stealth mode. That strongly suggests that hops have much more to add to fermented apples than a marketing gimmick or recognizable word on the label.
Familiar Ingredients, New Flavors
It’s been a while since anyone picked cider to be a hot trend, but the reality is that it’s been a steadily growing category—including during the pandemic. NielsenIQ market research found that cider, overall, has continued to trend upward in the past two years after growing more substantially over the past decade.
Broadly, drinkers have been prioritizing flavors over types of drinks and looking beyond beer—for example, seeking alternatives without gluten. Drinkers are exploring drinks such as seltzers, kombuchas, sodas, cocktails—and cider. Hops offer an enticing gateway to those drinkers who are more familiar with beer.
However, does adding hops risk putting off drinkers who were trying to get away from beer in the first place? It’s unlikely, says Beth Demmon, a writer (and frequent Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® contributor) who’s currently working on a book titled The Beer Lover’s Guide to Cider, due out in Fall 2023.
“I don’t think cider as an industry needs to worry as much about alienating existing cider drinkers as they should about how to attract new cider drinkers,” Demmon says. “Hopped cider can be an entry point for someone trying to find a familiar foothold. [It isn’t] an exact replacement for hoppy beer. Hops are used completely differently in cider than they are in beer, and I think the real value of hopped cider is for beer drinkers to be able to experience hops in a brand-new way.”
Hops in Cider Are Not the Same
Cidermakers are capitalizing on hops’ flavor contributions (and not only their label appeal), allowing those flavors to attract new drinkers. Many describe the finished product as one in which the drinker—even one well-versed in beer—doesn’t actually pick up on the presence of hops. The focus, rather, is on the distinctive flavor-and-aroma bouquet achieved by combining fruit and hops.
Integral to this flavor-and-aroma component is understanding that hops behave differently in cider than they do in beer.
“If you take hops and put them in water, and take hops and put them in apple juice, the expression is going to be different,” says Nat West, founder of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Portland, Oregon. “What is different between those base liquids?” Mainly, he says, that difference is acidity.
Patrick Combs, beverage director at Stem Ciders in Lafayette, Colorado, explains more about why and how that acidity matters. Cider apples are more intense, he says, with more tannins—perfect for fermenting dry with funk, tartness, and complexity. However, those apples can be more difficult for cidermakers to source. Stem, for example, uses culinary apples—and those have more acidity than cider apples. The aromas of hops react differently to that acidity than they do beer’s malty sweetness. “I would liken it more to a sour IPA than a normal IPA,” Combs says, “because we have all that malic acid from the apples.”
Because the cidermaking process doesn’t normally include a boil, bitterness isn’t a big part of the equation; some acidity and restrained astringency are built into the fruit. Instead, what cidermakers want from hops are their fruity and floral aromas.
For example: West says that while Cascade hops can add bitterness and pine to West Coast–style IPAs, their character that really shines in cider is grapefruit.
“I have a cider that has four different citruses, so we amplify grapefruit with Cascade,” West says. He compares this to beers such as Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin IPA, where actual citrus gets layered with citrus-forward hops.
On the flipside of layering is complementing—which is how West uses Idaho 7 hops to add tropical-fruit notes to the straightforward apple of his Revival Hard Apple; or how he taps Mosaic hops for peach notes, getting a sweetness from them that works well with tartness and acidity.
In the view of Fay, at 1911 in New York State, Noble hops are off the table. Those earthy, herbaceous notes are not a proper fit. “Once cider becomes herbaceous,” he says, “you start trending into the fault realm of ciders, compared to beers.”
Because cider’s usual process doesn’t include a boil and because cidermakers mainly want those fruity and floral notes, dry hopping is the usual method—but there are exceptions.
At 1911, Fay does incorporate a boil for some ciders. He adds dry hops post-fermentation with hops that are high in alpha acids. During that time, he takes a portion of that cider and does a light boil for isomerization, and then he blends it back in. Fay says he does this to make a cider that gets “more than just the aromatic compounds” from its hops.
“We do want bitterness, but we don’t want it to be over the top,” he says. Those partial boils “make the cider slightly more beer-like without crossing that line.”
BenchGraft’s Gunn says he sees the merit of adding that bitterness—especially if cidermakers are using culinary apples that lack the tannins and astringency of cider apples. It may be tricky to balance because cider ferments to dryness and lacks beer’s residual sugars. However, a cider with a few IBUs may indeed be the kind to appeal to beer drinkers.
While dry hopping is the main method, there are plenty of decisions to make based on the aromas and intensity desired.
At Bad Seed Cider in Highland, New York, cofounder Devin Britton says they wait until their cider is just about ready to package—the last three or four weeks of secondary fermentation—and then start tasting, to fine-tune when it’s ready to transfer to the brite tank. “The hops will be in there two weeks minimum, usually in the two- to three-and-a-half-week window.”
Says Gunn: “I generally don’t add hops until the cider is dry because I feel like fermentation is a very violent activity. It will blow off a lot of those critical aromas we’re looking for. I like as much surface area as possible, so [I] recommend not putting hops inside a hop cannon or hopback but [throwing] them into the tank for a direct soak anywhere from one to two weeks.” Less than a week won’t yield enough extraction, Gunn says, while going much longer than two weeks doesn’t seem to offer much advantage.
At Stem, meanwhile, Combs finds that dry hopping much longer than four days starts to yield more vegetal flavors. He tends to dry hop once the cider is fermented and filtered, at about 55°F (13°C). There are exceptions to these times and temperatures, of course, depending on the hop varieties and yeast strains. Combs says that Stem dry hops at warmer temperatures when using a strain ideal for biotransformation, which can contribute some of those tropical hazy IPA–style flavors. The Stem team tastes the tank daily to decide the best duration for each specific hop-and-yeast combo. “You’re putting [hops] in a very acidic liquid—3.6 to 3.7 pH,” Combs says, “and all that acid [tends] to extract things out of those hops [that] normally you wouldn’t necessarily extract in beer.”
Filtration also affects when cidermakers dry hop. Many use crossflow filters, which hop particulate can damage, so dry hopping after filtration is best. During this period of clarification, 55°F (13°C) seems to be widely agreed-upon as a temperature—but, again, that and the contact time can vary depending on the hop variety and yeast strain.
So, how much hops? Cidermakers tend to dry hop at lower volumes than we typically see in IPAs. At Bad Seed, Britton says they hover around one pound per barrel—that’s about 2.6 ounces per five-gallon batch, or 78 grams per 20 liters—and a bit more for their India Pale Cider. At Stem, Combs says they range between one and two pounds per barrel, but it also depends on the variety; Sabro needs less, while Citra needs more. At Reverend Nat’s, West says they hop Revival at about one-third pound per barrel.
In terms of multiple hops, Britton and Fay say they combine whatever hops they’re using into one dry-hop addition. West, meanwhile, prefers to layer the varieties, with a five-day dry hop followed by a two- or three-day session, then proceeds to packaging on the fifth day of the process. This helps to extract more aromas because West prefers to leave the pellets in the sack instead of soaking them directly.
Pellets also are the more popular choice for reasons of efficiency and availability. Britton, Combs, and West all say they have used fresh hops—and they all warn about how easily cider can take on grassy, vegetal flavors.
Gunn takes a different approach: Because whole-leaf hops tend to go into the boil or whirlpool with beer, he achieves that approachable, pleasant bitterness in cider by making a hop tea. He steeps the whole hops at about 170–190°F (77–88°C), adding the tea to the fermented cider to taste. (He also says this hop tea adds some pine and resin notes that many beer drinkers can appreciate.)
What’s Next for Hopped Cider?
Some cidermakers also have been experimenting with new hop products, where it makes sense—considering cidermakers aren’t after the same hop blast that brewers often want. Combs, for example, is a fan of Spectrum—the flowable, cold-side extract from John I. Haas—for how much hop aroma it delivers at a lower cost.
At first glance, hopping cider appears to be a relatively simple process: Focus on fruity and floral aromas to complement and/or bolster your fruits, dry hop after fermentation or during secondary fermentation, taste until the aroma and flavor are where you like it.
From there, however, it can get as complex as you want. Do you want to include some restrained beery bitterness with a side boil or by blending in some fresh-hop tea? Want some tropical notes with a warmer dry-hop, or more potential complexity with layered hop additions? Once the cider is packaged, do you announce the hops’ presence, or do you let the drink speak for itself?
Whatever route you take, enthusiasts of both cider and beer are bound to respond to a hybrid that smells and tastes more like its own thing entirely.