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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.

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