The air is getting cooler, the trees are turning vibrant reds and yellows, and pumpkins – and pumpkin spice – are everywhere. Fall is here, and that also means it’s apple cider season. Or at least that would normally be the case.
Now, it seems like every season is cider season, as hard cider has grown in popularity dramatically over the past decade. Before hard seltzer and ready-to-drink cocktails became fashionable, hard cider was on the rise. And while it still represents only a fraction of the US alcohol market compared to beer, its growth over the past decade has been significant in the alcohol industry.
In 2021, cider generated $553.6 million in revenue, down slightly from $566 million in 2020, but up more than $517.8 million in 2019, according to NielsenIQ. In North America, the market is expected to grow by 3.5% between 2022 and 2027, largely driven by US consumer adoption of hard cider.
Traditionally produced by fermenting apples — and now pears and other fruits — hard cider can range from 1.2% to 12% alcohol by volume, or ABV. It can be still or sparkling, dry or sweet, summery or autumnal. Whether you drink it or make it, cider is accessible, a gateway to a whole world of craft beverage making.
Malcolm Purinton, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern who studies the history of alcohol, says cider’s recent popularity is partly tied to the rise of craft beer after the 2008 recession.
“You had a lot of people starting a lot of breweries, and then you had a lot of people wanting to be part of that artisan crowd as well,” Purinton says. “Part of the idea is that independence and innovation and community were growing around that, but [some consumers] didn’t like beer.
The cider renaissance, which began in 2010 and 2011, also overlapped with several other trends at the time, says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association.
“There was a synergy of the craft beer movement, a new gluten-free trend, and an interest in local food — and you get all of those things with cider,” McGrath says.
Although local and regional cider houses had been operating for years, cider officially entered the market after Boston Beer Company, producer of Samuel Adams, noticed that the cider trend was beginning to hit the market. The company purchased 60 acres in the Hudson Valley and launched Angry Orchard, its own brand of hard cider, nationwide in 2012.
“It paved the way for independent and regional cider houses to come online,” McGrath said.
Since then, unlike the world of beer, regional and local brands have grown to the point of eclipsing national brands like Angry Orchard in terms of dollar share. The market continued to grow steadily and was minimally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to its local ties and distribution networks.
“At its core, cider is a local or regional drink because it’s tied to the orchard, and today’s consumer wants an experience,” says McGrath. “There is no better experience than intimately understanding where the apple of your product comes from.”
With increased visibility, consumers are also beginning to be better informed about cider. McGrath says people are starting to understand the difference between low-acid and high-acid cider and how different types of apples impact the flavor profile.
But hard cider is far from new to the United States. It has been part of American life since the arrival of the first settlers.
Although there were a few wild varieties of apples in the Americas, European settlers brought their own apples and apple cuttings with them. Apples are nutritious, can last a while, keep well over winter, and contain plenty of vitamin C to help ward off scurvy. Hard cider is so easy to make, Purinton says, that for many settlers, even if they didn’t drink it in a tavern, it was easy enough to make and keep a batch at home.
Apples ferment naturally when left alone; it’s just a matter of coaching the process. And when it comes to start-up costs, even now the biggest cost is the apples themselves (since most cider houses don’t grow all their own apples).
“When I made cider myself, I got five gallons of cider from a local orchard in Vermont, added five pounds of honey, used champagne yeast, let it ferment for months, and months and months – I ended up with a 14% dry cider,” Purinton says. “It’s super easy to do.”
In Massachusetts around 1700, the average cider consumption was 35 gallons per person per year, Purinton says. One in 10 New England farms had their own cider press. Cider was an integral part of early American life, to the point where “everyone was a bit buzzy for several decades of American history,” including the Founding Fathers, Purinton says. Thomas Jefferson was known to drink two mugs of hard cider every day – with breakfast.
Purinton says cider remained a part of American drinking culture until Prohibition in the 1920s. Government agents destroyed entire orchards to discourage alcohol production, which was really just ” destroy what people produced almost entirely for themselves”.
Now cider is back, and that’s changing.
At its core, the drink is the same — apples are pressed, juiced, fermented, aged, and bottled — but cider makers are starting to embrace “dual-purpose apples.” Red Delicious, Winesap, Gravenstein: These are apples that can be eaten on their own, used in a pie, or made into cider. Traditionally, cider makers have focused on using bittersweet and pungent, English and French cider apples that are coveted by cider nerds but can be off-putting to newcomers.
McGrath calls this the “next cider revolution” because it’s not just about changing how cider makers approach the process, but also how people view cider.
“It’s super important, and it’s really exciting to see cider makers start to play more with apples that the everyday apple eater has heard of, because it’s a gateway for them. to understand that apples are hugely important in cider,” says McGrath.
Cider may never rival beer for market share, but its recent return to the mainstream proves its longevity and legacy in American culture. Call it a comeback or a return to form — even when fall turns into winter, cider isn’t going anywhere.
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