Robust British ciders are as ubiquitous as ales in London pubs; cloudy, unfiltered Spanish ciders command as much reverence as sherries in the Basque region; and France boasts more than 500 cideries in Normandy alone. Yet for years, hard ciders have failed to catch on in a truly meaningful way across the United States. Most American bars still only offer one or two token syrupy, mass-produced bottles—if any at all.
“There’s a lack of appreciation for the artistry behind high-end cider. You don’t get people asking what’s the terroir or who made it,” says Annie Bystryn, who founded the online startup Cider in Love in an attempt to change precisely that. “The first taste people have is often a sweet option at a bar offering it as an alternative for people who don’t like beer. Cider deserves to be its own category.”
It wasn’t always this way. The history of cider in this country predates the Founding Fathers. Before signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams probably downed a tankard of the stuff with breakfast, as was his habit. Early New England colonists hauled apple seeds with them across the Atlantic. Unlike vineyards, which withered in the rocky soil and punishing winters, the hardy crabapple trees thrived and produced a low-proof beverage that was a safe alternative to unsanitary water. By the start of the 18th century, the region was producing more than 300,000 gallons of cider annually. Within a few decades, citizens in Massachusetts were consuming an average of 35 gallons each per year.
Even kids were into it. Parents would pour the little ones “applekin,” a lower-alcohol version. Cider’s history links directly to that of Western expansion. Frontiersmen and pioneer families in the 1700s would sow apple seeds in order to obtain land grants. Those orchards that Johnny Appleseed—also known as the missionary John Chapman—planted were for booze rather than baking.
Then along came the 20th century, bringing with it a wave of beer-loving German and Eastern European immigrants, followed by the wrath of Prohibition. Apple orchards, which at the time focused on the tiny, tart varieties best used for fermenting, made for an easy target and teetotalling fanatics burned more than a few to the ground. Pragmatic farmers unwilling to lose their crops converted many of the trees that survived the purge into “eating” apples.
After languishing in near obscurity for the better part of a century, America’s original favorite sipper is on the rise again, with dedicated bars like Brooklyn Cider House in New York and The Northman Chicago cropping up across U.S. cities in recent years. Hard cider sales rose earlier this year and at the moment, more than 800 cideries are pressing fruit around the nation. The best of these produce a complex beverage that has about as much in common with apple juice as natural wine does with squashed grapes. When done correctly, these heirloom ciders can be funky, wonderfully nuanced, and as amenable to food pairings as any pinot noir.
Yet while there’s no shortage of artisanal cider-makers, their products can still be tricky to find. When Bystryn sampled an exceptional cider in the Hudson Valley, she searched for it back in New York City, only to give up in dismay more than 10 bottle shops later. Bystryn, who had developed a taste for cider while living in Dublin and London, was frustrated that her home country produced some of the world’s finest specimens, but that hardly anyone had access to them. Determined to change that, she launched Cider in Love in June 2018. The online startup allows consumers to buy directly from small-scale farms that might otherwise be out of reach. Much like Etsy, the money from each order goes straight to the cideries, allowing them to take home a much larger profit than a liquor store would.
“Spiked apple juice is not part of our conversations. I’m looking for the best of the best and for me, that means heritage cider,” Bystryn says. “For the people who make it, cider is an art and the apple is their canvas.”
As much as she enjoyed drinking cider, Bystryn was still something of a novice, which is why she spent two years conducting research around the country prior to the launch. Many of the farms she encountered had never had a proper website, let alone the bandwidth or budget for any marketing. Meetings were sometimes canceled at the last minute due to a sudden frost and tracking down specific makers was often a challenge.
In the process, Bystryn visited as any cideries as possible. She wandered through Hicks Orchard in the Adirondacks, which has been home to apple trees since the 1880s, with graphic artist and carpenter Dan Wilson, and reached out to Eric Shatt, founder of Redbyrd Orchard Cider and the orchard manager at Cornell University, who started out making wine in upstate New York. After his first try at making cider with wild fruit gleaned from abandoned orchards, he decided to branch out.
“I really still see myself as a winemaker—I just changed my medium. Apples and grapes both possess the sugars, tannins, acidity, and complexity necessary to make an interesting fermented beverage,” Shatt says. “I think it’s a misconception that one is inferior to the other. Rather, there are varieties of apples that are improperly suited for fermentation. I want people to understand more about these heritage apples.”
Heritage apples have nothing in common with the mushy, insipid Red Delicious at your local supermarket. Shatt favors varieties like Porter’s Perfection, an English cider apple with big, gutsy tannins, as well as Wickson Crab, which boasts what he calls a “lofty citrus acidity,” and Golden Russet, which features subtle notes of persimmon and tropical fruit. His most prized crops come from wild apples that he has painstakingly grafted into his orchard.
“Wild apples are really extraordinary. Every apple seed grows a completely unique tree, like a snowflake,” Bystryn says. Because each apple tree is so genetically different from its parents, farmers have learned to sidestep the natural process in order to produce more consistent results. Granny Smiths and Galas are essentially clones made by grafting onto existing trees rather than sowing seeds. “Most of the apples grown in this country are geared for eating. The questions are: Is it good for shipping, is it pretty, will it fit in a lunchbox?”
The trouble with heirloom varieties is that they tend to be none of the above. Irregularly shaped, challenging to cultivate, and sometimes as small as berries, they’re impractical in the extreme. Most have lower yields than commercial varieties and some only produce fruit every other year.
“Quite often, you can’t eat these cider-specific apples—they’re too tannic, too bitter. They’re called ‘spitters’ because if you ate them you would spit out,” Bystryn says. She distinctly remembers foraging near the Finger Lakes for tiny, tart wild apples with Steve Selin, a musician-turned-cider maker behind South Hill Cider. “We walked through these overgrown hedgerows and picked apples out of the trees. We would take little bites and spit them out to get a sense of their potential flavor profile.”
For Shatt and other artisanal cider-makers, all the inconveniences intrinsic to heirloom varieties are simply part of a long, complicated process. He sweats fruit for two to four weeks, then ages the cider for up to 18 months before bottling. Each step of the way requires careful decision-making as to whether to age in oak barrels or brite tanks and whether to force carbonation or allow for a second fermentation for a Champagne-style cider.
“We work to the clock of the fruit and typically don’t get to decide exactly when we want to do things,” Shatt says. “It really is a long timeline from tree to bottle.”
Unfortunately, that long timeline also makes heirloom apples a tough sell to farmers, who worry that these strange fruits worthy of expectoration won’t pay the bills.
“These people need to make a living off the land and it’s hard to gamble on apples that don’t have the proven track record of commercial varieties,” Bystryn says. “This is a tree, so it takes an average of five years to bear fruit. So you’re talking about an investment that has to weather a lot of literal storms.”
In the long run, Bystryn hopes that the Cider in Love will dispel some of the misconceptions, as well as convince farmers who might have been previously leery of raising heirloom apples to take the plunge. The business is still growing, but consumers are already becoming bolder and ordering crates of unconventional ciders to their door—sometimes with a little bit of hay or bramble still clinging to the sides. And the more people are willing to dare to drink something different, the more American farmers will be willing to get in the game.
“There’s been a cider renaissance. People are realizing that cider can be savory, that it can be smoky, that it can be herbaceous,” she says. Most importantly, it’s ours. “Cider is profoundly not exotic.”
It may have been all but lost, but cider is every bit as American as apple pie. It’s a part of our history and cultural heritage, one that Bystryn thinks it’s high-time we reclaim.