Hard Cider — From Hype To Here To Stay

Hard Cider — From Hype To Here To Stay

A bird's eye view of construction on Angry Orchard's new cider research facility in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

A bird’s eye view of construction on Angry Orchard’s new cider research facility in the Hudson Valley region of New York. (Photo credit: Angry Orchard)

I’ve been following the hard cider industry for as long as I’ve been writing for our magazine. It’s been really thrilling for me to see how the apple industry is responding as the demand and interest with consumers grows.

Christina Herrick

Christina Herrick

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So I was fascinated to talk with Ryan Burk, head cidermaker for Angry Orchard, one of the nation’s leading hard cider companies. Located in Cincinnati, OH, it is owned by the Boston Beer Company. I was interested in the new research facility the company is building in New York’s Hudson Valley.

This facility is going to be part research, part education, and it is located on a 60-acre property previously owned by Jeff Crist, our 2007 Apple Grower of the YearSM. At the moment, most of the land is planted, and Burk says Angry Orchard is planning to slowly plant more with the focus on heirloom and traditional hard cider varieties.

Visitors will be able to try out some of the experimental ciders created on-site with small-batch fermentation and different yeast trials.

“We really want people to come there to experience what cider is, what cider it can be, the history of cider,” Burk says.

Ryan Burk (Photo credit: Angry Orchard)

Ryan Burk (Photo credit: Angry Orchard)

Burk, who grew up in Williamson, NY, has watched this interest in hard cider grow in the five years he’s been in the industry, and growers are now starting to understand the potential of this renewed interest in hard cider.

“This isn’t a fad. It’s worth the land consumption to put fruit in the ground for cider that commands a higher price,” he says. “The hype is not hype anymore. The hype is real and cider is here to stay.”

Find Your Cidermaker
Burk says it’s really important for growers looking to get into growing apples for hard cider to establish a relationship with a cidermaker. It makes sense, really, to first have a place for your fruit. But, also to open a discussion of what varieties you have already in production and what type of growing challenges you’d be willing to take.

“The best opportunities are really collaborative efforts between grower and cidermaker to see what the cidermaker wants and what the farmer is willing to grow,” he says.

A challenge that is also coming to a head is what price this type of fruit is commanding. Is it juice? Is it fresh? It’s something Burk says the industry is starting to discuss.

But the real important focus, Burk says, is for the American industry to establish some sort of parameters for the types of hard cider varieties that will grow well regionally.

“We, as an industry, know that in order to get people online, we have to make it easier. The industry has taken off like crazy in the last four years and now everybody wants this fruit and we haven’t made it particularly easy for growers to know what to plant,” he says.

And, it’s not just varieties that are typically known for hard cider, either. Burk says there are a lot of “culinary” apples that add unique characteristics to beverages.

“Everyone wants the traditional cider fruit, but that’s not to say that existing varieties don’t make sense. We’re an innovative group of people. We’ve had to be,” he says.

Gold Rush is a popular apple with cidermakers and farm marketers. But, there are some varieties you might not suspect as being of any value to cidermakers — like Johnathan and McIntosh.

“I love McIntosh. After it is fermented, it has this really beautiful floral character,” Burk says. “Some people love working with Jonathan. It’s a culinary apple; it’s not a cider apple. What necessarily is a cider apple? If you can make cider out of it, it’s a cider apple.”