Want proof that everything old really is new again?
Look at that crisp, golden drink that’s bubbling and foaming in glasses all over the Carolinas.
It’s alcohol, all right. But it’s not beer. Hard apple cider, the drink of colonial settlers, is taking off in both states.
“It’s the coolest thing to happen to apples in a long time,” says Trevor Baker, 37, one of three partners who have started Noble Cider in a tiny rented warehouse near Asheville.
From only a couple of cider makers a few years ago, there are now six in North Carolina and South Carolina, with at least two more on the way, Urban Orchards in Asheville and Durham’s Cider Bros (say like a surfer dude, bro).
At 29, Matt Guzmer is an old-timer in this scene. His parents, Fritz and Catherine Guzmer, got a winery permit to make hard cider at Windy Hill Orchard in York, S.C., about 30 miles southwest of Charlotte, in 1996. Matt grew up around the idea of turning apples from their 8-acre pick-your-own farm into an adult beverage.
For years, though, hard cider was a hard sell.
“I remember trying to sell it even 5 years ago and people would look at you cross-eyed,” he says. But then a few things came together: Craft brewing took off after North Carolina raised the alcohol limit on beers. Eating locally became a movement. And younger people got interested in older foodways.
Even health issues are playing a role: Unlike beer, cider is naturally gluten-free.
“The past two or three years have been explosive growth,” says Guzmer. “And I think we’re going to see that continue.
“People are looking for local, real products.”
A varied beverage
In Europe, where cider never fell out of fashion, “cider” only means one thing: A still or sparkling beverage with an alcohol content from 6 to 8.5 percent and a dry, or nonsweet, character similar to wine.
In America, where cider was washed away by the mass production of beer after Prohibition, we use the term “hard cider” to mean an apple-based beverage with alcohol, while “sweet cider” means freshly crushed apple juice.
Sweet cider only keeps a couple of days, which is why our forefathers made alcohol from it: Alcohol is a preservative, so it was an easy way to turn your apple crop into something you could keep all winter.
Although some people deride cider as “apple beer,” it has a lot in common with wine. Like grapes, there are many kinds of apples, so you can vary flavors, sweetness and alcohol levels.
“When I give it to people to taste, it reminds them of champagne,” says Michael O’Brien of Fishing Creek Hard Cider in Whitakers, about 70 miles northeast of Raleigh. O’Brien has a flower farm on land that has been in his family for eight generations. For years, he toyed with doing something with the apple trees planted by his grandparents.
After struggling through the paperwork – since cider falls between beer and wine, regulations get tricky – his hard cider got licensed this summer. Just last week, he made a single sales trip to Chapel Hill and got his product into A Southern Season and a half-dozen restaurants, including Crook’s Corner and Elaine’s on Franklin.
“It’s red-hot,” he says.
Cider in the mountains
In the North Carolina mountains, cider makers are excited about the financial boost they can give the state’s apple industry. Trevor and Joanna Baker and Lief Stevens of Noble Cider are working with the Henderson County Extension Service to plant old-variety apples in a research orchard. While cider was traditionally made with apple strains that were too bitter for eating out of hand, many of those are no longer being planted. Most Carolinas cider makers are using sweeter, locally raised apples, particularly Ginger Golds, many from Wilkes and Henderson counties.
Noble Cider’s start-up cidery began last summer, after Trevor Baker got laid off. The three of them play together in a wedding band, Orange Crush, but they needed something more.
At dinner, they had been struggling with finding a drink for Trevor’s wife, Joanna, who is gluten-intolerant. That’s when they started talking about cider.
Trevor remembers asking: “We’re in North Carolina, the seventh-largest producer of apples. Why is there no cider?”
Within a month, Trevor had enrolled in a national “cider school” in Washington state taught twice a year by a British cider maker, and Lief was putting together an apple crusher and simple equipment. They can’t afford steel tanks yet, so they age their cider for four to six weeks in 275-gallon versions of bag-in-box wine containers.
They made 2,000 gallons their first year and sold all of it. Half went just to The Wedge, a craft beer brewery in Asheville’s River Arts District. Now they’re trying to make 12,000 to 15,000 gallons this year to keep up with demand.
So far, all their cider is on tap at bars and restaurants around Asheville, but they’re working on getting labels approved for bottles. On Sept. 16, chef Adam Hayes of The Red Stag Grille in Asheville served Noble Cider at a dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York.
Joanna Baker, whose background is marketing, is trying to start a new catchphrase: “It’s ex-cidering!”
The problem of taxes
Not everything is rosy on the cider front, though. While there is no accurate count of the number of American cider makers – they’re licensed as wineries, so they can be hard to spot – the newly formed U.S. Association of Cider Makers is trying to organize them to lobby for at least one change.
The CIDER Act, for “Cider Industry Deserves Equal Regulation,” is currently before the U.S. House, seeking to change the way cider is taxed. Under federal law, cider that has more than 7 percent alcohol has to be taxed as wine, which is a higher rate than beer. And because carbonation usually defines sparkling wine, aka champagne, bubbly cider is subject to a luxury tax.
That makes it more expensive to make cider than to make beer, even though they’re consumed the same way. It also limits the styles they can make, by forcing them to keep down alcohol and carbonation levels.
“We are wine, but we’re generally lower in alcohol,” says Brad Page of the Colorado Cider Co. and the spokesman for the cider makers association.
The other issue is teaching Americans to reset their cider expectations. While supermarket brands like Woodchuck, Stella Artois’ Cidre and Hornsby have helped by establishing a cider market, they also have taught people to expect something that is sweeter than beer with a flavor that is dominated by apple.
Noble Cider’s Lief Stevens just got back from a tasting trip to England, where he tasted up to 100 kinds of cider. Some, he admits, he never wants to taste again. Some European ciders are described with phrases like “barnyard” or “smelly feet. And those are compliments.
“There is definitely a palate with cider, and some of them are shocking,” he says. For now, most American cider makers aim for something light, sparkling and refreshing.
“There are so many styles and versions,” says Matt Guzmer. “There’s endless possibility. Cider can be French-style, English-style, Spanish-style.
“Beer isn’t just Bud, and cider isn’t just Woodchuck.”
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