Seven years ago, Scott Donovan bought a neglected apple orchard near the shores of Lake Ontario, took a risk and became the architect of his own brews of hard cider.
His BlackBird Cider Works tasting room in Barker now has honey-sweetened cider, dry British style, and a “Buffalo Bluegrass” batch aged in bourbon barrels. As it turned out, he also had excellent timing.
Hard cider, the beverage that America’s pioneers, colonists and early presidents drank daily long before beer entered the popular culture, is making a comeback. And there are a lot more brewers – and consumers – of hard cider popping up in New York and across the nation. More than 20 small outfits are brewing hard cider in New York, the second-largest apple producing state after Washington.
And from 2007 through last year, hard cider revenues nationwide jumped 27.5 percent, from $178 million to $601 million. The hard cider spike is a higher growth rate than either wine’s 4.3 percent or beer’s 1.8 percent, according to Agata Kaczanowska, beverage industry analyst with the market research firm IBISWorld.
She credits distribution agreements that have made cider more available at liquor stores, bars and restaurants. Taste seems to have something to do with the growth, too. As the public’s thirst for the beverage has grown, so has interest in reviving centuries-old expertise and adding modern twists.
People in the upstate hard cider world talk of foraging for wild apples and growing a “museum” of heirloom cider apples.
“I reach for it, generally, when I’m a little bit thirsty,” said Carl Schmitter of Chateau Buffalo, an “urban winery” and hard cider maker with a shop at the Niagara Frontier Food Terminal.
His “Dancing Buffalo” cider is tart with a lot of flavor from a blend of three kinds of apples. “It’s low in alcohol, so it’s easy to drink,” he said.
Lenny Ciolek of Orchard Park noticed the trend as trade development director for Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The sparkling McKenzie’s Hard Cider he launched two years ago after collaborating with West Seneca cider maker Mayer Brothers comes in four flavors – from lemon to black cherry – and is available in 13 states.
“It’s all hands on deck this time of year,” Ciolek said by phone in between travels to new markets, which lately have included Rhode Island, New Jersey and Virginia. “It’s definitely our time to shine.”
Elmwood Avenue’s Village Beer Merchant used to keep cider stashed in the walk-in cooler. In the last two years, demand has gone up so much – about 10 percent – that 10 kinds are now displayed in the store’s middle.
“There’s more and more brands growing,” said Brian Nelson, manager. “It’s not just ‘hard cider’ anymore.”
Cider sells in big and small bottles, flavored with ginger, Belgian yeast, sake. It comes sweet, dry, effervescent and still. Orchards have revived old cider apples, some closer to crab apples. They are classified as “bittersweets,” and “bittersharps” rather the “sweet” and “sharp” preferred for eating.
Andrew Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider in Wurtsboro has even taken to foraging in the woods for intensely flavored wild apples.
“Once the seeds escape and get into the forest,” he said, “it becomes a variety unique to itself.”
Hard cider, once more popular than beer and safer than public water, was the preferred drink of the British-American colonists.
Sometime in the mid-1800s, it lost out to the German immigrants’ beer. Modern versions languished with a reputation as unremarkable, sweet and fizzy drinks.
“Business has turned on its head, which is pretty amazing,” said Gidon Coll, founder and president of 16-year-old Original Sin dry cider, based in Ancram.
Since 2006, his sales have grown about 34 percent a year and his cider is carried at Premier Gourmet, Trader Joe’s, 30 states, Japan and England.
He gives three reasons for the modern love affair with the old beverage: The craft beer movement led to more experimenting with and appreciation for a sophisticated range of flavors. The increasing taste for gluten-free foods and wheat-intolerant conditions, like celiac disease, makes hard cider an appealing alternative to beer.
And, people are captivated by its place in early American history. President John Adams was said to have a big mug, a “tankard,” in the mornings and lived to 92.
Thomas Jefferson grew famous hard cider apples – “Newtown Pippin” and “Virginia Crab” – which Coll is now growing in an orchard of heirloom varieties for his hard cider.
“The idea is almost to develop an edible museum of an apple orchard,” he said. “Every apple has such unique and awesome history.”
So why did cider’s popularity plummet?
David Williams, an English professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, mapped out some of the complicated forces. In a 1990 research paper titled “Hard Cider’s Mysterious Demise” that he wrote for a class in popular culture, he chronicles the ease of beer brewing and shipping from light-weight grain and then the 1820s-era emergence of the temperance movement that led to Prohibition.
Anglo Protestants led the nationwide effort to ban drinking and the effort turned out to be particularly effective against the WASP’s own hard cider rather than the beer of German immigrants.
When Prohibition finally ended, “… a younger generation in rebellion against the teetotaling habits of its parents, rejected those things which smacked of that quaint old Currier and Ives culture,” he wrote.
But hard cider stayed popular in regions of Europe, where the Celts introduced the beverage. This includes Northern Spain, Brittany and Normandy, France and Frankfurt, Germany, where it is dryer than U.S. versions, said Anthony Belliveau-Flores, co-owner of Rowan Imports, of Queens.
“They’re very stylistically different,” he said. “The American cider is finally getting drinkable. It was so sweet for so long.”
Easing the tax on hard cider
In the United States, the drink became so inconsequential that no one bothered to fix its jumbled U.S. regulations. Until now.
Last month, Sen. Charles Schumer filed a bill intended to make things easier for cider makers, Current law taxes fermented apple juice – hard cider – at $1.07 per gallon if it is more than 7 percent alcohol. If bubbles reach 39 percent carbon dioxide, like champagne, taxes rise to “luxury” level of $3.30 a gallon
Schumer proposes treating all hard cider the same, with a more modest 23-cent-a-gallon tax, so long as it’s less than 8.5 percent alcohol.
Wendy Oakes Wilson, president of Medina’s Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, is all for it.
“Why do we have to pay more for bubbles?” Wilson said. “The apple cider joins two worlds of wine and beer.”
Her winery estate recently began offering hard cider, developed by her nephew, Jonathan Oakes.
He came to the family farm after college and began experimenting with “just kind of fermenting things in his grandmother’s basement.”
He’s developed a line of cider and called it “Steampunk.” The name is a tribute to the cider-drinking days of the Industrial Revolution and steam-powered cider mills. The dry-and-sweet taste comes from its blend of 11 different apples and is the Oakes’ top product, outselling their 23 wines.
“People are just crazy over it,” Wilson said.
Donovan’s fascination with the drink led him to open BlackBird Cider Works and involved a similar pull of the farm, reverence for the past and urge to create.
“You live to the rhythm of the seasons,” he said. “That’s the engine of this business.”
A former corporate audit executive, Donovan now revels in the smell of apples, a row of trees that remind him of a Tuscan landscape, tastings with staff that feel like parties and workshop-esque experiments with apples, barrels and bubbles that led to a habanero-infused prototype.
He came up with Buffalo Bluegrass after older farmers told him how they once aged cider in bourbon barrels they bought for $1 at the Clinton Bailey Market in the 1930s. He describes that cider, debuting at a launch later this month, as bold, dry with fizz and notes of American oak.
“It’s kind of like an artist having a palette of colors to work with,” he said. “That’s why I call it the ‘cider works.’ ”