Hard cider is back again after some hard times. Fermented apple juice was the all-American beverage of choice during the Colonial era, but in the 19th century, cider lost its heady fizz to the growing popularity of beer. It’s now enjoying a serious revival.
“Cider is the original American alcoholic beverage,” says Kim Bruso, bar manager at Capitol Cider, a bar and restaurant that styles itself as a cider destination in Seattle. “Old Johnny Appleseed was going around planting mostly cider apples—not dessert apples.”
Fully half of Capitol Cider’s 33 taps are devoted to the eponymous quaff; house-made ginger beer occupies one handle, and the rest are craft beer. The bar stocks more than 120 ciders by the bottle, in varying sizes, priced from $9 to $75. “Cider is going through a big change right now,” says Bruso.
Indeed, statistics bear this out. Hard-cider volume was up a whopping 66.9% in 2012 (the last year for which number were available), according to Beverage Information Group, a unit of Cheers’ parent company. Category leader Woodchuck, produced in Vermont, was up 25%; Irish import Magners demonstrated equally respectable growth at 24%; and the English Strongbow was healthy at a 17.3% increase.
Cider is still just a drop in the beer bucket, a tiny fraction of the market, but it’s making a big splash with many on-premise operators—with good reasons.
Hard cider is following much the same trajectory craft beer did, holding similar appeal and attracting comparable attention. For example, former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall caused a stir with the start up of Virtue, an artisanal cidery in Michigan.
“Sourcing is easier,” thanks to the craft-beer movement, says Gianni Cavicchi, beer director for the restaurant group Tour de France NYC. “Before it was a lot harder to find ciders, now beer distributors carry them and even wine suppliers are coming in with ciders.”
Beverage menus vary at the seven Tour de France restaurants in New York, but flagship Café D’Alsace list about 15 ciders on its 110-bottle beer list, and Cavicchi always offers at least one cider on tap. Draft cider is $7 and bottles range up to $52 for exotic, large-format items.
“Drinkability” is a positive characteristic often attributed to the cider category. But just as in craft beer, there’s more to explore beyond the entry-level ciders.
“Ciders are a little bit softer than beer for the most part, and consumers know they will have that familiar apple base to it,” points out Tony Smith, assistant general manager at Timothy O’Toole’s. The sports bar concept, with two locations in the Chicago area, carries six to a dozen bottled ciders, while two to four of its 48 taps pour cider.
“Our cider menu does very well,” says Smith, who is in charge of the beer program. “When I first started at Timothy O’Toole’s, we had Woodchuck on draft and Strongbow in bottles; that was it for cider,” recalls Smith.
Upon taking over the beer program, he immediately added three more ciders, Magners and Magners Pear, and a rotation of Woodchuck seasonals. “Those really took off,” he says.
Cider’s appeal is across the board for the most part, says Smith. “Craft-beer aficionados come in all the time to check out our cider menu. But cider is also skewed toward women who want to hang out with the guys and drink something out of a bottle or draft.”
GONE WITH THE WHEAT
Unlike most beer, cider is naturally gluten-free, and that’s a key selling point for some operators. “A couple of our Tour de France restaurants have a focus on gluten-free menus, and cider certainly fits that aspect,” says Cavicchi.
“One reason we chose to focus our beverage program on cider is that it is gluten-free,” points out Chad Newton, founder and culinary director of San Francisco-based Asian Box Holdings. The five-unit Asian Box fast-casual chain styles itself as a gluten-free dining destination.
“We also knew that cider would be exciting and new for most people; it hasn’t caught on too much yet in the mainstream across the country,” notes Newton.
On draft at Asian Box is local Sunnyvale Red Branch Hard Apple Cider, offered in “shorty” or “tall” sizes priced at $4.95 and $7.95. Three bottled ciders are also available: Spire Mountain Cider and Pear Cider from Washington State, and Stella Artois Cidre (priced $3.95 to $4.50).
Capitol Cider also presses the beverage’s gluten-free advantage. Its food menu is 100% gluten-free, and cider is a natural beverage choice for wheat-intolerant customers.
“We are in a unique position right now, catering to a niche in Seattle,” says Bruso. Indeed, the operator’s cider sales on a weekend outnumber beer by about five to one. It runs through an average of six kegs a night, mostly cider.
Operators also appreciate hard cider’s food-friendliness. “Cider is very similar to wine when it comes to pairing with food,” explains Cavicchi, who has also worked as a sommelier and uses many of the same criteria for cider matches.
For instance, he says, “a dry, minerally cider goes fantastic with sauerkraut and bacon lardons” because the acid cuts through the fat. Hard ciders with residual sugar, work like pinot gris or gewurztraminer, “which are awesome with the salty pork,” Cavicchi says.
“Cider pairs very well with our food; it has a bit of sweetness and a bit of tartness,” says Newton at Asian Box. “The Red Branch is crisper and somewhat drier, with a bit of fruitiness that works well with some of our spicier dishes.”
Cider finds its way into some food dishes as well, and even a couple of cocktails. It’s an ingredient in a number of gluten-free food items at Capitol Cider, says Bruso.
As an example, he cites Fish & Chips, an item that in the Northwest is usually breaded with microbrew beer and panko crumbs. But Capitol’s chef coats the fish with a batter of rice flour and Strongbow cider.
The chef at Café D’Alsace has prepared sauerkraut with cider, and is planning to use it as the base liquid in a mussels dish. Cavicchi also devised a cider sangria, which proved popular last summer.
“Cider adds either acidity or sweetness to a drink, so you don’t have to go crazy adding citrus juice or simple syrup,” says Cavicchi. He also substitutes sparkling ciders in drinks that usually call for Champagne. And a brunch cider-cocktail special recently sold so well that the bar ran out of the Calvados called for in the recipe.
At Timothy O’Toole’s, one of the most popular shot combos is Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and Angry Orchard Cider called Angry Balls. “It’s huge,” says Smith.
As with some craft beers, getting customers to try ciders often requires promotional efforts, including free tastes, flights and festivals. “We promote the ciders with in-store signage, and offer samples of the draft,” says Newton at Asian Box. He and his team are also working on a Happy Hour program.
At Timothy O’Toole’s, beer and cider are listed on a paper menu insert that’s easy to reprint as selections change. “Cider producers have ornate tap handles that really stand out at the bar,” Smith notes. The operator also participated in a Cider Fest weekend last summer that featured 35 examples accompanied by cider-infused foods. “We had a great turnout,” he says.
Capitol cosponsored the Seattle Cider Summit this past September, with 20 ciderys represented. At Capitol Cider, the draft list updates automatically as kegs are changed out; it’s displayed on the website and on a wide-screen TVs in the restaurant. Capitol Cider’s flights show off the bottle selection; one highlights local producers ($16), the other spotlights flavored ciders ($18). Three 3-oz. pours are served in wine glasses to emphasize the ciders’ complexity. Bartenders will offer free tastes of anything on tap.
Café D’Alsace offers several cider flights, backed by hand-selling from Cavicchi and staff. The restaurant signed up for the New York Cider Week and held its own cider and sausage festival in-house. “In previous years, we ran a Sausage, Apple and Beer Festival, but last fall we decided to feature cider,” says the beer director.
In general, “people are really responding to cider,” says Cavicchi. He has plans for another collaboration, this time for a barrel-aged cider to complement the Tour de France’s Stinky Cheese Festival.
“I think cider is going to get more and more popular,” enthuses Newton. “It’s a great product.” ·
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who writes about all things drinkable.
Cider Styles: How Do You Like Them Apples?
Those who think hard cider is just apple juice with a kick will be in for a pleasant surprise when they sample the varied range of types available today: tart and funky sidras from Spain, Champagne-like cidres from Normandy, dry but fruity English ciders and American ciders that are all over the map.
“The most exciting cider I’ve tasted lately is from Aaron Burr, a New York State producer who forages for heirloom varietal apples in neglected orchards,” says Gianni Cavicchi, beer director for the restaurant group Tour de France NYC. “It’s full of funk and terroir,” he says.
At Tour de France’s Café D’Alsace, cider selections are 50/50 domestic and European. Cavicchi has lately become enamored with Spanish sidras, as more are imported to the U.S. And he likes the Champagne dryness of Farnum Hill ciders from New Hampshire. Cavicchi collaborated with Warwick Valley Wine Co. (producers of Doc’s Hard Ciders) last fall to create a version with locally harvested “wet hops.”
Indeed, “a lot of cider makers especially in the Northwest are using hops, introducing floral and citrus notes,” says Kim Bruso, bar manager at Seattle bar/restaurant Capitol Cider. Seattle’s Schilling Cider, for example, produces a Chocolate Oaked Nitro Cider; the nitrogen gives the cider a creamy mouth feel.—THS
Buffalo Wild Wings’ Beer/Cider Cocktail
Here’s a unique twist on a beer cocktail: Casual-dining chain Buffalo Wild Wings this past fall offered the StrongCastle, a seasonal, limited-time offering that’s half Strongbow hard cider, half Newcastle Brown Ale. The program was part of Buffalo Wild Wings’ Newcastle Beer-of-the-month program. It ran in 12 metropolitan New York locations operated by its franchise partner Four M Capital throughout November. Both Strongbow and Newcastle are owned by Heineken USA. Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings is known for its beer selection, as well as its namesake Buffalo, New York-style chicken wings.—MD