Brut IPAs have been flying off the shelves as of late, as breweries around the country race to churn out their own versions and cash in on the craze. Now, U.S. cideries are pushing their own crisp, effervescent brut ciders. A number of these new debuts proudly bearing the label “brut” come in packaging suspiciously similar to their hop-heavy counterparts. Both forms of dry, pale-golden bubbly hover around an ABV of 5-7% and invite comparisons to Champagne.
“Brut cider gives you the sensory experience of a nice dry Champagne or prosecco,” says Dave Rule, head of marketing at Austin EastCiders in Texas. The company’s brut cider, which combines apples from Normandy, France with fruit from the Pacific Northwest, has more carbonation and roughly a third less sugar than their standard offerings. It’s also helping to win back some of those naysayers who may have tried one of the cans of saccharine hard cider crammed with additives that dominated the small domestic market for years.
“Most of the people who have had a cider experience have had one with one of the old mass-produced sugar-bombs and decided it wasn’t for them,” Rule says. “We want people to know that you can have this really great, dry cider that doesn’t have an unnatural bubblegum flavor.”
Brut ciders may find themselves displayed alongside brut IPAs on craft beer shop shelves, but "brut" is where their similarities end. While brut IPAs may be the result of an innovative new technique, brut ciders are centuries old. The French have been making ciders since the 12th century in Brittany and Normandy, where they are still as revered as fine wine and can be ordered doux (sweet), demi-sec (semi-dry), or brut (dry, with an ABV of at least 5%). Though Spanish may use different terminology, the sidra served in Asturias is every bit as dry. Waiters often pour it from several feet in the air in order to aerate it and bring out its effervescence.
Even the United States once had long, proud history of making dry, alcoholic ciders, but this tradition and the orchards that went with it was all but obliterated during Prohibition. Now, after nearly a century of neglect, American cider is in the midst of a resurgence, with sales climbing steadily for the past five years and the number of American cideries doubling from 400 to over 800. All that renewed interested is giving U.S. cideries added incentive to revisit these classic styles and introduce Americans to the pleasures of sipping on brut.
Small, craft cideries aren’t the only ones who see the marketing potential of slapping on a “brut” label. This month, MillerCoors debuted a new Crispin variety 12-pack containing three Champagne-colored cans of brut cider. Late last year, Sycamore Brewing launched Wild Blossom Cider and immediately started pushing its brut option. The Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Virtue Ciders has been selling a Michigan Brut option for the past couple of years.
Much of that has to do with the fact that for decades, marketers in the United States haven’t quite known what to do with cider. Cider closely resembles wine in terms of its production process, and in countries such as France and Spain it tends to be sold in wine bottles. Since cider is still a niche product, however, liquor stores in the United States frequently stock it with beer. Until the last few years, virtually all of the hard ciders from brands like Angry Orchard came in six packs of bottles or cans, usually with label designs reminiscent of a pale ale rather than a pinot. Some cideries have even gone as far as to try and play up the connection by dry-hopping ciders.
Brut ciders may find themselves displayed alongside brut IPAs on craft beer shop shelves, but 'brut' is where their similarities end.”
“[Brut cider] is similar to the hops cider in that it’s kind of a gateway cider,” says Marc Smith, who heads up Austin EastCiders taproom. “With hops cider, you’re usually not hopping it to the bitter point of IPAs. You’re just giving it this little bouquet of florals and spice.”
All of this mixed marketing has led to a fair share of confusion over the years.
“We still have people calling it ‘cider beer.’ Fans will sometimes post online saying, ‘We made it to our favorite brewery,’ even though we don’t actually brew anything,” Rule says. “Education about cider is low nationally. We’re sort at this boom in craft cider right now, where craft beer was maybe 15 years ago.”
By pushing the term brut IPA stateside, U.S. cideries are attempting to distance themselves from whatever negative perceptions the phrase “hard cider” conjures up. Think of it as a back-to-the-roots rebranding campaign. Even if the term “brut” is a bit of a marketing gimmick, it’s helping to turn a generation of Americans back onto cider’s potential. It’s easy on the palate and cozies up comfortably with the same sorts of dishes that pair well with clean acidity of Champagnes and brut IPAs.
“On the high end, you can pair brut cider with oysters, soft cheeses, and foie gras,” Smith says. Previously, he worked as a wine sommelier and now he uses the same skill set to pair ciders in the Austin EastCiders taproom with different plates. “On the lower end, brut goes great with fish tacos. It goes great with fried chicken—personally, that’s what I like to eat with it.”
Brut cider is so food-friendly that Austin EastCiders has started popping kegs next to some of the biggest local food trucks. Locals are often surprised at first, but quickly warm up to the idea of a crisp cider with their barbecued brisket after a few sips.
“When we get together as a team, we’ll drink those super funky, eccentric ciders with notes of blue cheese and hay. We’ve done things like wild fermented cider from a single apple varietal. For the most part though, we want to be accessible,” Rule says. “Our mission as a team is to bring craft cider to everyone.”