Hard Ciders Blossom Across Vermont

Through grassroots encouragement and the popularity of craft beer, the popularity of hard cider is back and on the rise. 

“There’s definitely a boom happening in the cider industry,” said Kris Nelson, cofounder of Citizen Cider in Essex. “If you look at any of the industry magazines, cider is the fastest growing segment (of the alcohol market) nationwide.”

While he often references them, Nelson doesn’t need industry magazines to tell him about the growth of the hard cider industry. He’s experienced the boom first hand.

In 2011, Nelson, Justin Heilenback and Bryan Holmes — while working as a wine salesmen, farmer and chemist, —started making test batches of hard cider in Holmes’ basement. Pleased with their results, the trio tracked down a 1950s cider press, produced 5,000 gallons of hard cider and released Citizen Cider’s flagship brand, Unified Press.

“As it happened, our cider was popular and it sold out quickly,” the partners explain on their website. “We spent the summer of 2012 trying to figure out how to make and get more cider to the people.”

That effort resulted in the production of 28,000 gallons of Citizen Cider last year, but even that didn’t seem to quench the thirst of local cider lovers. With apple season nearing its prime, Nelson, Heilenback and Holmes are gearing up to produce 100,000 gallons of cider this year.

“It’s a pretty dramatic jump in three years,” Nelson said of the 20-fold increase in production. And while Citizen Cider’s rapid growth does seem dramatic, it’s not completely out of line with what other Vermont cideries have experienced over the past few years.

“Hard cider is the fastest growing part of our business, although it represents a small percentage of our revenue at this point,” explained Ben Calvi, a hard cider maker at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham. “Three years ago, we put out a test batch of 1,000 gallons…and last year we put out 10,000 gallons. The market (for hard cider) is obvious, so we’re investing a lot of time and resources into growing that part of our business.”

While cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage in colonial days, its resurgence would have been hard to imagine a decade ago. Vermont Hard Cider Co., producer of Vermont’s most widely distributed cider, Woodchuck, was hemorrhaging
around $300,000 a month at its nadir in 2003. But that’s a distant memory for the company that sold 2.2 million cases of cider in 2011 and is currently constructing a $30 million dollar cidery in Middlebury, Vt. Vermont Hard Cider Co. produces about 60 percent of the nation’s hard cider market.

Company spokesman Nate Formalarie attributes Woodchuck’s recent success to a number of factors, including the increasing
presence of gluten allergies, the popularity of craft beer and “a grassroots effort to get people to try hard cider.”

Those same factors have led to increased competition in the industry amid the ongoing cider boom – a boom that has prompted brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, Boston Beer and MillerCoors to debut cider lines and inspired the influx of craft cideries in Vermont.

“When we came on the scene (in 1991), we were really the only game in town,” Formalarie said. “Now the secret’s out.”

Despite its growing presence in Vermont, hard cider still represents only a fraction of the beer sales in the United States. But local cider makers are making strides to move beyond the organic growth they’ve experienced over the past few years.

“[Sustained growth] will depend, in part, on the expansion of interesting heirloom varieties available to cider makers,” Holmes noted. “There needs to be a lot of variety in taste and style to keep people’s interest.”

Calvi agrees, and Champlain Orchards plans to put that theory to practice.

“We started growing hard-cider-specific apples, things you’d never see in a grocery store, about five years ago and this will be the first year we’ll have access to those fruits,” Calvi said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of experimentation with different styles and tastes to show people all that Vermont apples can do in the alcohol world.”

As more styles of cider hit the market, cideries are hoping they can appeal to an even larger audience.

“There’s a lot of people out there who like cider and don’t even know it,” Holmes said. “We’re always meeting people who have never tried cider or who have tried cider and didn’t like it, but then taste a certain style of our cider and get turned on to it.”