Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 16, 2013

Ag Forum: Hard cider industry growing

By NIKKI ROTHWELL Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The third annual Cider Con was held earlier this month in Chicago, Ill.

This year’s conference was attended by 240 cider makers and apple growers across North America — attendance was up more than 60 percent from last year’s conference. The trends in the Cider Con attendance match the trajectory of this burgeoning industry: hard cider sales are up 65 percent over last year and U.S. cider sales for 2011 were estimated at $90 million.

There is much enthusiasm in the hard cider world and a feeling of rejuvenation for the American tradition of producing hard ciders. Cider is often considered America’s first homegrown beverage, and apples were initially spread through the colonies to drink, not eat. Cider was consumed with all meals, including breakfast. By late 1600s, New England apple growers were producing 300,000 gal/year, and in the 19th century, consumption of hard cider was 32 gal/person/year.

Unfortunately, cider’s heyday started to wane at the turn of the 20th century. The demise was likely due to a combination of factors. First, there were increasing numbers of German immigrants that brought the tradition of drinking beer, and this cheaper/easier beer production appealed to commercial manufacturing. More people were moving and living in urban areas, and there was less land for apple production. Finally, the National Prohibition Enforcement Act was passed in 1919, and prohibition was really the final straw for the U.S. cider industry.

Despite these past challenges, there is renewed interest in producing hard cider and perry. First, hard cider fills a niche in the U.S alcohol market because it is new, and different drinks often appeal to the emerging market and the millennial consumers. Hard cider also dovetails with local food movements, such as farm to table and “know your farmer.” Recent cider sales have shown that this drink appeals to both sexes, as it drinks more like a beer but is made more like a wine. Cider is also gluten-free, and a growing number of Americans have allergies to wheat and wheat products. Lastly, producing hard cider fits in with the craft brewery movement and model, which is well established in many states in the U.S.

The upward trends in cider production and consumption have led cider makers and growers, many of which attended the recent conference, to think ahead as to how to support this new industry. At Cider Con, the group formed a United States Association of Cidermakers to gather and share information about cider and perry production, regulations concerning the production of hard cider and perry, and pear and apple growing and associated research and outreach programming that will support this industry. This group will also help members improve their operations, raise the public’s awareness of the hard cider and perry products produced by its members, and promote the interests of the cider and perry producers in the United States.

USACM’s inaugural board of directors reflects the industry’s diversity of regional distribution, production volume and growth: Steve Wood, Farnum Hill Ciders, New Hampshire; Brad Page, Colorado Cider Company, Colorado; Mike Beck, Uncle John’s Cider Mill, Michigan; Dan Rowell, Vermont Hard Cider, Vermont; Robert Vail, Angry Orchard, Massachusetts; James Kohn, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, Oregon; and Charlotte Shelton, Albemarle Cider Works, Virginia.

A research sub-group was also present at the meeting in Chicago. Researchers organized the educational session that included apple variety evaluation, assessment of juice and fermented products made from hard cider apple varieties, enterprise budgets for starting a hard cider production facility, and current and future offerings of educational programs. Researchers from Michigan State University, Cornell University, Virginia Technical University and Washington State University also collaborated to develop a survey that was given at the start of the conference and will be used as a baseline to develop grant proposals that will support this new industry. We look forward to seeing a new agricultural value-added industry grow across Michigan and the rest of the country.

Nikki Rothwell is Michigan State University Extension district horticulturalist and coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. She also co-owns Tandem Ciders in Leelanau County.