Hard Apple Cider

Hard-cider production is seeing a revival at breweries and wineries across the country.

There was a time not so long ago when orchards of bittersweet apples were plentiful. Varieties such as Dabinett, Yarlington Mill and Tremlett’s Bitter, which are low in acid and high in tannins, were natural choices for producing dry hard cider – especially since the flavor of bittersweet apples makes them unsuitable for eating.

When British colonists arrived in the New World, they brought the rich tradition of cider-making with them. By the early 1800s, hard cider was a staple in many rural areas in America, with thousands of families keeping a barrel of it by their front door for everyone in the family to enjoy. Many of the apple trees planted by John Chapman, or “Johnny Appleseed,” in the Ohio Valley were specifically intended for cider-making.

Fast forward to 1920, when Prohibition banned the production, sale and transportation of alcohol and restricted the production of nonalcoholic cider, effectively eliminating the need for bittersweet apple orchards. Today, more than 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, these orchards have yet to see a true comeback.

“Because there is [little] bittersweet apple production in the U.S. right now, there’s very little traditional cider being made in the country and no traditional cider being made in Missouri,” says Dan Kopman, co-founder of The Saint Louis Brewery, the maker of Schlafly Beer, which began making hard cider in 2003.

Kopman spent eight years working at a brewery in England that owned part of a cider company. He describes the infrastructure for hard cider production as a long-term commitment.

“Think about growing barley [for beer],” Kopman says. “It’s a cereal grain, so a grower can say, ‘I’m going to grow wheat this year and barley next year,’ as opposed to a farmer saying, ‘I’m going to commit these acres for the next 25 to 50 years to these trees. For a farmer it’s all about dollars per acre. Why are they going to put in a bunch of trees if they don’t have a commitment [from cider producers]?” Because bittersweet apples are only used to make cider, farmers need to be guaranteed that if they plant an apple orchard, they will yield a profit.

Despite the dearth of bittersweet apples, hard-cider production is seeing a revival at breweries and wineries across the country, averaging a 73 percent increase each year since 2008. Many producers either make do with a blend of apples widely available in America – cooking or dessert varieties such as Gala, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith or Fuji, which are sweet but low in tannin – or source a blend of apple juice.

Temperature and Time

When Schlafly Bottleworks opened in Maplewood, Missouri, in 2003, it was the first new production brewery to open in St. Louis since the end of Prohibition (although the brewery first launched in 1991 with a Downtown brewpub, The Schlafly Tap Room). Prior to Bottleworks’ launch and subsequent changes in state law, Kopman says brewers couldn’t make cider unless they had a separate wine license.

“With the opening of Bottleworks, it was like, ‘Great, now we can make some cider so I can drink some cider,” Kopman says. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, the cider market is going to be the next big thing for us as a business.’”

Kopman says producing hard cider at a brewery can be tricky. When The Saint Louis Brewery first experimented with making hard cider, it used local apple juice, but the juice proved to have too much wild yeast, which yielded unstable (and unusable) liquid.

Today, The Saint Louis Brewery sources a pasteurized and stable 100 percent juice concentrate blend high in Granny Smith apples. The juice is fermented in one of two fermenters in the cellar of The Schlafly Tap Room using an American ale yeast similar to wine yeast. After fermentation, apple or other fruit juices or purées are blended in, depending on the cider variety. Production takes three to four weeks, averaging about 930 gallons of hard cider per month.

“It’s a pretty straightforward process, but it took a number of years to get straight because we were looking for a very dry finish to our cider,” Kopman says. “It’s about the fermentation temperature, the time and the yeast strain we’re using. Because we’re 7.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), that helps.

“The response for our hard apple cider has been really good. The challenge is that it’s not something you’re going to drink five of in a night with the higher ABV. It’s like a wine as opposed to a sessionable alternative to beer.”

In addition to its dry hard cider, The Saint Louis Brewery also makes fewer than 500 gallons of fruit-variant ciders annually. In 2015, that included cherry and red currant, blackberry, raspberry and sour black cherry. The ciders are sold in limited capacity throughout Missouri but only on draft. Although the cider is popular at the brewery’s restaurants, distribution is limited, so consumption is small compared to its beer.

“If we’re going to see the artisanal or traditional cider business develop in the U.S., it’s going to take a long time to educate the consumer that there’s a difference between the bulk cider market and the traditional cider market,” Kopman says.

Kopman is currently working with a good friend and cider-maker in Devon county in England to begin importing bittersweet juice for blending in 2016, and he visited this month to better understand the harvest and pressing process. This fall the brewery produced a trial run of dry-hopped cider by dry-hopping a keg of its hard apple cider with the Australian hop Ella. Much like a dry-hopped beer, dry-hopped cider is produced by adding hops to fully fermented cider to impart a floral aroma and flavor. Kopman says there will likely be tweaks to the dry-hopped cider as time goes on.

The Saint Louis Brewery is also working to bring its ciders’ ABVs under 7 percent. Next year, it will experiment with producing barrel-aged cider in used white wine or bourbon barrels, which will likely appear at one of the brewery’s festivals, such as Hop in the City. Further out, Kopman hopes to stably bottle the brewery’s ciders.

“The goal for artisanal cider-makers in the U.S. is to have a reliable source of raw materials for cider – an orchard of bittersweet apples,” Kopman says. “Whether that’s Schlafly or someone else is hard to say, but we’d love to work with a U.S. grower who can guarantee a great bittersweet juice product.”

Winemaking Meets Brewing

At Crown Valley Brewing & Distilling in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, which is owned by Crown Valley Winery, cider-making has been a team effort since opening in 2008.

“It’s fun because our winemaker touches it, and our brewmaster has a lot to do with it,” says Bryan Siddle, Crown Valley’s director of operations.

Siddle has been a fan of international ciders since the early ‘90s. Armed with a winery license through Crown Valley Winery and relationships with apple orchards in Illinois, Siddle thought it would be an easy transition to begin making cider. Crown Valley initially made two ciders, a dry and a strawberry. It has since eliminated the dry and focuses on blackberry and strawberry flavors year-round, plus other seasonal varieties, all of which clock in at 5 percent ABV. Siddle says demand has been steady since 2012, and there was even a three-week shortage this year.

“We had supply issues because of the national cider craze,” Siddle says. These places where we’re going for ingredients, a lot of people were gobbling them up quicker than we could reserve them. We were sold out for the first time in a long time. It was very hard.”

During the first few years of production, though, sales were slow, and Siddle admits he considered getting rid of the product altogether.

“I’m sure glad I stuck with it,” he says with pride.

Around 2012, the Illinois orchards were no longer able to keep up with Crown Valley’s demand, so the winery began sourcing its apple base from Washington state. The juice, a sweeter blend of mostly Fuji and Jonathan apples, is filtered and fermented at the winery. Once the hard cider is made, it goes through a quality-control pasteurization process to kill bacteria and yeast. Strawberry or blackberry purée is then added, and cider is left to age and assume the aroma, color and flavor of the fruit. Crown Valley grows 32 acres of blackberries, which it uses to flavor its cider as well as some of its wines and vodkas.

Crown Valley’s pumpkin seasonal variety was released in early September (and quickly sold out), and will be followed by a gingerbread cookie cider in December, made with allspice, cinnamon and ginger.

Siddle forecasts Crown Valley’s cider production will be up to 60,000 gallons, or approximately 600,000 bottles, this year. Its ciders are distributed in bottles in 16 states in the Midwest, the South and on the East Coast. Siddle has been experimenting with eight new flavors, along with some small releases of ciders aged in the winery’s Chardonnay barrels and the distillery’s whiskey barrels.

“We’re trying to figure out where the cider craze is going,” he says. “You see millennials and a lot more people drinking it. For us, it’s been a challenge to figure out where should we go – with these [fruit] flavors, the aged program or intense, crazy flavors?

“We know consumers lean toward the sweeter side, whereas more of the industry and restaurant [folks] lean toward the drier side,” Siddle says. “The ciders I prefer personally are bone-dry. I think they’re very refreshing and very food-friendly. But, we don’t [create products] for just ourselves to consume; we’ve got to [create them] for everybody.”

Let Them Drink Cider

Like Kopman and Siddle, producing hard cider started out as passion project for Bryce Schaffter. He opened Cinder Block Brewery in 2013 in North Kansas City and has been making cider from the start. His wife told him that if he were to open a brewery, he had to continue making hard cider, which he’d been doing at home since 2010.

Schaffter says the combination of sweetness, acidity and tannins of various apple varieties remind him of combining grains and hops when brewing beer. The yeasts he uses to make cider have a different fermentation cycle than those used in brewing beer, so learning how flavors develop over time has been an educational process.

In his early home-brewing days, Schaffter used a small basket press and hand grinder to press apples. As he refined his palate with different apple varieties to balance out levels of acidity and sugars, he began working with local orchards to source apples. Now, when seasonally available, Schaffter gets a variety of tart and sweet apples from Louisburg Cider Mill in Louisburg, Kansas, as well as from orchards in Oregon and on the East Coast. This year he’s working to source heritage apple varieties from an orchard near St. Joseph, Missouri.

Because yeast consumes all of the apple juice’s sugars, it produces a fermented product that is not sweet at all. At that point, Schaffter adds fresh-pressed apple juice to balance the cider’s flavor profile.

Cinder Block produces 50 to 100 barrels of its tap mainstays – Cider Block French and Cider Block (English Cherry) – each year. The French cider has a dry finish due to the strain of yeast used to make it and a slightly different fermentation cycle. The English is a fairly dry, pub-style cider, to which the brewery adds Michigan cherries to create a very tart cherry flavor.

This fall, Cinder Block introduced a cyser, or honey cider, and a dry-hopped cider. Schaffter has also been experimenting with aging cider in Chardonnay and brandy barrels, as well as whiskey barrels that previously aged a cherry imperial stout. “When you’re brewing beer and making cider, there’s opportunity for overlap,” he says.

The brewery pulled six barrels of aged cider in September to celebrate its second anniversary and another six in early October.

Cider Block French and Cider Block (English Cherry) are on tap at the brewery, as well as a few bars around the city, and can be purchased in growlers for customers to take home. Not a fan of gluten-free beers, Schaffter sees the brewery’s cider as a good alternative for those who request gluten-free options.

“When we started producing cider, I wasn’t sure what the uptake would be,” Schaffter says. “It’s been interesting to see who the cider drinker is. A lot more men drink cider than I would have expected. People who watch soccer drink a lot of cider.”

As hard-cider production continues to grow across the country, producers like Schaffter are redefining it with ingredients and flavors all their own. It’s not the same cider English colonists pressed and poured in the 17th century, or even what was produced a hundred years ago. It’s something altogether new and distinct for today’s craft beverage industry.

Cinder Block Brewery, 110 E. 18th Ave., North Kansas City, Missouri, 816.298.6555, cinderblockbrewery.com

Crown Valley Brewery & Distilling Co., 13326 State Highway F, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, 573.756.9700, crownvalleybrewery.com

The Saint Louis Brewery and Schlafly Beer, multiple locations, 314.241.2337, schlafly.com