If you lived on eastern Long Island before the American Revolution, chances were that you would have been drinking cider—hard cider—as your beverage of choice (or at least when the rum ran out).Fear of polluted water made alcoholic beverages a necessity for public health. With apple orchards in abundance, families fermented their own cider and drank it with every meal.
In the mid-19th century—when Temperance activists railed against drunkenness as Americans moved away from their orchards into the cities and as German immigrants introduced bottom-fermentation techniques for better beer—hard cider was abandoned and beer became 19th century America’s working-class beverage. After Prohibition, when beer, wine and distilled alcoholic beverages became available again, there was no similar resurgence of cider. Until now.
In the past few years, hard cider has become a booming business.
In 1991, the Vermont Hard Cider Company introduced “Woodchuck,” filling the void in this category, which soared to over 5 million cases by 2011. Since then, beer makers such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have jumped onto the hard cider business, pushing growth by more than 60 percent since 2011.
Overall, cider sales approach $90 million. Though this amounts to only 0.2 percent of the beer market, there is plenty of room for growth as both men and women who don’t like beer, or don’t tolerate the gluten in beer, embrace cider as a more casual, “fun” beverage than wine or distilled spirits.
Artisanal ciders have followed the craft beer movement. There’s a wide variety of styles on offer, from dry to sweet, from plain to flavored.
Here on Long Island, Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue led the charge into hard cider with the introduction three years ago of “True Believer.” It’s a robust, spicy cider (“honest to the core”), soon matched by the softer styled “True Companion.”
These ciders are packaged in dark brown ale bottles with amusingly ironic labels, sort of a frontier look that’s distinctly anti-snob. Asked about the inspiration for these beverages, Peconic Bay’s general manager, Jim Silver, told me, “I simply thought up a product that I thought [winemaker] Greg [Gove] could make easily and quickly and using the equipment we already possessed, timed for the bottling period in the summer, that way the tanks were empty,” he replied.
“The style was important to me,” he continued. “I don’t like traditional cider. The dry, bitter, light and flavorless ciders are unpleasant to me. I preferred to make something more commercial, and if you’ll excuse the expression ‘more American.’ So my cider has a distinct sweetness and acidic cut to it, plus plenty of apple flavor that people just love.”
“You see,” Jim added, “Americans haven’t decided yet what they think cider is, or is supposed to taste like. Perhaps we’re helping to define a style for the present day.”
Peconic Bay Winery has avidly promoted these ciders and those from other producers with cider festivals, along with food and music, on its Cutchogue property. Recently, they sold their two cider brands to The Brotherhood Winery, in upstate apple country.
Also embracing the public’s new enthusiasm for cider, this summer Wölffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack introduced two new hard cider products, “Wölffer No. 139” Dry White Cider and Dry Rosé Cider.
The Wölffer hard ciders represent the innovative energies of Joey and Mark Wölffer, who took ownership of the estate after the tragic death of their father, Christian Wölffer, and have developed the new products with their partner and winemaker, Roman Roth. Both products are made from apples sourced from Bridgehampton’s Halsey orchard.
While both are delicate and sparkling, the rosé is slightly sweeter, prettily colored with grape skin extract. These ciders are fancifully packaged in beach-ready four-packs, designed to be whimsical, bold and spirited. Wölffer’s label design is a collage of “beach memories,” deliberately “bohemian” and, to my mind, distinctly feminine.
Back on the North Fork, Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue has expanded its offering of apples and non-alcoholic cider with several iterations of hard cider. This family-owned farm now serves tastings of four styles—traditional, sweet, apple raspberry and cinnamon apple—all made from its own apples. Visitors can buy 4-ounce tastes, or full “growlers.”
Recently, New York State Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed new federal laws to make hard cider production more economically viable by reducing punitive taxes on sparkling ciders or those with over 7-percent alcohol. With more than 29.5 million bushels of apples harvested in New York orchards, and about 36 apples making 1 gallon of cider, the economic imperative of hard cider trumps the temperance invective that quashed it back in 1840.