Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 15, 2014

Ag Forum: Hard cider sees huge gains in popularity

By NIKKI ROTHWELL
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The fourth annual Cider Conference was held in Chicago, Ill. last week. This year’s event moved to a larger facility to accommodate the growing number of attendees. The growth of this conference mirrors the growth in the cider industry. In 2012, hard cider sales in the U.S. jumped over 60%, and sales in 2013 are expected to be close to a 100% growth.

Those types of numbers are staggering, yet exciting for a newly revitalized industry.

Hard cider was the drink of choice for most Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the drink fell out of favor during Prohibition. In addition, new waves of German immigrants came to the U.S. and brought with them a culture of beer drinking, which is cheaper and easier to produce than cider. However, cider is back, and it is now the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverage market.

Robert Vale, of Angry Orchards, a division of Boston Beer Co. that makes Samuel Adams, said cider sales in 2012 were $601.5 million, outpacing all of the Sam Adams’ beer varieties in the last year. In fact, Boston Beer Co. is spending $1 million per month on advertising its Angry Orchards brand.

Vale represented the bigger scale of hard cider producers at CiderCon, but many new, smaller cider companies are sprouting up across the nation. Washington is the largest producer of apples in the U.S. and currently boasts the largest number of cider operations in the country. However, the number of Michigan cider makers is also on the increase.

Mike Beck, owner of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in downstate St. Johns, represents the Midwest on the newly formed United States Association of Cider Makers. He said, “Michigan is certainly recognized across the country when it comes to producing high-quality cider. We currently have over 30 brands of cider on the market, and I don’t see this trend slowing any time soon. We are excited to be growing good fruit here in Michigan and turning those apples into great cider. At this time next year, I don’t see why we wouldn’t have twice the number of cider brands in the state.”

The first CiderCon was held in the Pacific Northwest. It was organized to give the commercial cider industry an outlet to meet, share ideas, collaborate, and affect positive changes in cidermaking, cider fruit production, the cider market and cider regulations. The conference was designed to help new cider producers discuss and exchange ideas on practices, innovations, and trends to provide the foundation for a strong and diverse cider industry in the U.S.

The educational component of the conference has grown over the past four years. This year, there were four tracts from which participants could choose: cider making, business, marketing/sales, and academic/orchards.

Michigan State University participated in the academic tract where ongoing research efforts on hard cider varieties planted at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center were discussed. The future research needs of cider producers were also addressed. In collaboration with Washington State University, Virginia Tech, and University of Vermont, Michigan State University will submit a USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) pre-proposal outlining new projects that will support this new and growing industry.

Dr. Nikki Rothwell is the District Horticulturist and NWMHRC Coordinator at Michigan State University’s extension office in Bingham township.