Creative Cidermakers: Taking a Page from the Craft-Beer Story | Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine
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Creative Cidermakers: Taking a Page from the Craft-Beer Story

In the spirit of craft, today’s creative makers are looking both to history and to the playbook developed by craft-beer brewers to make unique and exciting ciders.

Emily Hutto June 19, 2017

Creative Cidermakers: Taking a Page from the Craft-Beer Story Primary Image

Cidermaking tends to mirror the winemaking process. Generally speaking, cider isn’t boiled before fermentation, and it’s made from fruit and not from malt and hops. Cider as a beverage, though, is very similar to beer—it’s sessionable and effervescent, and even the sweeter varieties have an alluring crispness that keeps us coming back for more.

Much like cider consumers, many cidermakers have discovered the beverage by way of craft beer. Companies such as Virtue Cider and Seattle Cider Co. stemmed from craft breweries, Goose Island Beer Company and Two Beers Brewing Company, respectively, while other companies such as Colorado Cider Company were launched by former brewers. These cidermakers weighed in about the overlap in the Venn diagram of brewing and cidermaking, and they revealed ways in which the burgeoning American craft-cider business is often inspired by craft beer.

Brewer-Turned-Cidermaker

One of the better known brewer-turned-cidermakers is Greg Hall of Goose Island Beer Company and Virtue Cider (Fennville, Michigan). His father founded Goose Island in 1988, and he worked there as the brewmaster until 2011 before launching Virtue.

His cider epiphany actually came in 2000 when he took his brewing team to England to taste English beers. They stumbled into a pub that was having a cider festival, and as the saying goes, the rest was history. “Most of the ciders we’d tried in the States were sweet and one-dimensional,” Hall remembers. “But the ciders on tap in this pub were dry, spicy, sour, and funky. This was the moment we realized that cider could have the same wonderful characteristics that beer had. We ended up drinking cider there all night and going back the next night to try everything else they had.”

Hall and team would focus on beer for another eleven years before Virtue came to fruition. “When Goose Island became part of the AB-InBev family in 2011, I got the opportunity to go off and make cider. I was excited about buying apples straight from the farm,” he says, explaining that a lot of commercial beer ingredients used at larger craft breweries are further removed from their agricultural origins. “You can make great beer far away from where the malt and hops are grown. They are very portable crops,” he says. “Whereas cider is so much more like wine because it’s so orchard-based. We’re in the age of provenance. Where ingredients come from matters so much.”

To date, Virtue Cider owns a farm in Fennville, Michigan, where apples are grown for ciders such as the dry, crisp Michigan Brut and the slightly sweeter Michigan Harvest. Both are aged on French oak.

Another cider company with brewery roots is Seattle Cider Company, which shares a tasting room in the Industrial District with its beer brother, Two Beers Brewing. The brewery and cidery’s founder, Joel VandenBrink, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease years after Two Beers opened, and he found himself searching for ciders that finished dry like his beer—not to mention ciders that wouldn’t break the bank. “He started looking at how to make cider more accessible and even drier than what he was finding,” says Seattle Cider Company and Two Beers Brewing President Caitlin Braam. That accessibility came in the form of a new cider company serving dry, affordable ciders that are available in cans. “We all love hiking, and we want cider drinkers to be able to pack cans in the outdoors like beer drinkers do,” she says.

At Seattle Cider Company, Braam sees beer drinkers converting to cider daily in the shared tasting room that has twelve ciders and twelve beers on tap. “It’s common that a couple comes in, the guy gets beer, the girl gets cider, and the next time they order, you see them switch. They tried each other’s and broke down the barriers,” she says. “Beer and cider share customers, and I think cider can learn so much from the craft-beer movement’s experimentation with new flavors.”

Beyond Seattle Cider Company’s flagship Dry and Semi-Sweet ciders, the company is exploring a bounty of culinary ingredients and creating ciders such as Basil Mint, Cold Brew (brewed with coffee from Fulcrum Coffee), Pumpkin Spice, and Three Pepper cider made with poblano, habanero, and jalapeño peppers. “Cider can be just as exciting as craft beer has been over the past 25 years,” Braam says. “We make cider that our beer drinkers would love—it’s dry, approachable, and just as unique as the beer we make.”

Barrel Aging

Cider has been barrel-aged as long as it has been around, Virtue Cider’s Hall points out. “Early ciders were barrel-aged out of necessity. Presently, we get to experiment with wine and whiskey barrels,” he explains, which is what he’d been doing with beer at Goose Island. His barrel-aging and blending background has yielded an array of unforgettable ciders such as the tart and funky, French oak–aged Lapinette and the bourbon barrel–aged The Mitten.

Greg-Hall-next-to-French-oak-barrels-aging-our-cider,-in-Cider-House-1-at-Virtue-Cider

Virtue Cider’s barrel–aged ciders are a natural extension of the work Greg Hall began at Goose Island with Bourbon County Brand Stout. PHOTO: COURTESY VITURE CIDER.

“Cider has been aged in barrels since cider was cider,” echoes Eric Foster, the cofounder and CEO at Stem Ciders in Denver, Colorado. “When we start to talk about bourbon barrels and other spirit barrels, that’s when cider starts to pull from the craft-beer industry.” Shortly after Stem’s opening, the cidery debuted a bourbon barrel–aged cider called Banjo and has since released the red zinfandel barrel–aged Le Chêne.

Dry Hopping

It seems every craft cidery has a dry-hopped cider these days, but five short years ago that just wasn’t the case. Brad Page, who launched Colorado Cider Company (Denver, Colorado) in 2011 after more than two decades working as a craft brewer, says, “traditional English, French, or Spanish cidermakers would never dry hop cider; in fact, I get a lot of flak from English cidermakers for it. But if hops are a gateway from beer to cider for consumers, then I’m all for it.”

Colorado Cider Company’s Grasshop-ah is made with lemongrass and dry-hopped after filtration. It was one of the first commercially available dry-hopped ciders and is still one of the cidery’s best-selling products.

Watermelon-press-day

The team from Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider juices fresh watermelons for a blend. PHOTO: COURTESY REVEREND NAT’S HARD CIDER.

The flagship cider at Rev. Nat’s Hard Cider (Portland, Oregon), Hallelujah Hopricot, is steeped with coriander, bitter-orange peel, and paradise grains, fermented with a Belgian saison ale yeast, and finished with pure apricot juice and Oregon-grown Cascade and Amarillo hops. Owner Nat West calls himself a die-hard craft-beer revolutionary and has experimented with beer yeasts, wild yeasts, Belgian ale spices, hops, and local fruits and flowers (including watermelon and elderflower) to craft his off-the-wall ciders.

Elderflower-trimming

The team from Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider trims elderflowers for a special release. PHOTO: COURTESY REVEREND NAT’S HARD CIDER.

Mixed Fermentation

Even newer to the craft-cider scene than dry hopping is mixed fermentation of ciders. In parallel to the sour- and wild-beer movement, ciders fermented with the likes of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus are gaining in popularity. Last year, Portland, Oregon’s Swift Cider released the first single-varietal, 100 percent Brett-fermented cider on the market. The cider, Portland Pippin, boasts fruit-forward Brett flavors reminiscent of citrus and jackfruit.

Colorado Cider Company has also been experimenting with Lacto and Brett. It recently debuted its Cherry Brett Cider. “We’re a little freaked out about contamination, though,” admits Page, “so we probably won’t do that again until we have more equipment we can dedicate to Brett fermentation.”

Brewery Collaborations

There are a multitude of craft-cider companies collaborating with craft breweries. In 2015, Colorado Cider Company created a beer-cider hybrid with Denver’s Wit’s End Brewing Company called Apple of My IPA. It was brewed with a combination of malts and Granny Smith, Fuji, and Utah Golden apples and then dry hopped with Simcoe hops. Lactose was added to showcase its apple notes and add body.

Last year, Nine Pin (Albany, New York) and Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, New York) released their beer-cider collaboration, The Lion’s Share, in limited 12-ounce cans. Its base was a blend of apples sourced from Samascott Orchards in Columbia County, and it ferments with Ommegang’s proprietary Belgian yeast. This complex cider was both fruit-forward and spicy, and at a sessionable 5.9 percent ABV conjured associations with Belgian table beer.

Rev. Nat’s gets the award for the most brewery collaborations and quite possibly another medal for most unexpected beer/cider projects. West has worked with Cascade Barrel House (Portland, Oregon) to create Strawberry Pippin, a blend of Cascade’s Strawberry Wheat sour ale and Rev. Nat’s Newtown Pippin cider; used wild Lactobacillus from the skin of English apples to kettle sour a Gose made by Baerlic Brewing Company (Portland, Oregon), collaborated with de Garde Brewing (Tillamook, Oregon) to create Deux Têtes, a sour wild American ale fermented with apples, and co-fermented his Granny Smith cider and watermelon juice with a blend of two sour beers from Culmination Brewing (Portland, Oregon), among many other brewery collaborations.

Drinking Local

Despite varying opinions about cider’s origin, ingredients, and production process, all of the cidermakers featured here agreed that cider’s most significant takeaway from the craft-beer industry is its sense of locality and agricultural roots. “Considering the locavore scene surrounding beer and food, it’s logical that cider be in the mix,” says Page at Colorado Cider Company. “I’ll reiterate that we’re in the age of provenance,” agrees Hall at Virtue Cider. “People appreciate buying products from specific farms—wine and cheese have always been sold like that, and now beer and cider are part of that conversation. They push value back down to the farmer, who is one of the real heroes in America.”

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PHOTO AT TOP: MATT GRAVES

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