On Highway 127 in Michigan, Uncle John’s Cider Mill has acquired an excellent reputation. During the last weekend of October, 200 000 curious people beat the doors down to sample their cider and visit the enormous orchards. The owner, Mike Beck, is known as “the king of cider.” His family has worked with apples for five générations, but none of his ancestors have witnessed this sudden craze for a beverage made from fermented apples.
Between 2010 and 2018, the company’s sales of cider have increased sixfold, passing from 10,000 to 60,000 cases a year. As a former president of the United States Association of Cider Makers, Mike Beck wonders about this renewed interest: “Before I used to know the names of all the cider producers, I even had a list of them. At present, we are more than 820 at national level and around 87 just in Michigan, a number which increases every month!” The consumption of cider shows the strongest growth of alcohols in the country: Over 13 million cases of cider were sold by U.S. retailers, according to the figures of CiderCon 2019, the annual conference of cider producers.
Cider, the Drink of the First Settlers
Cider in America. Is it heresy in the country of beer and whisky? In fact, it’s more about back to basics. From the time of the pilgrims, cider reigned over the tables of the first settlers, suspicious of the often impure water at the time. Legend has it that President John Adams drank a daily mug for breakfast, as a potion for longevity… The man lived to be 90 years old, quite a feat at that period. “Cider was very popular between the 16th and the 18th century,” confirms Dale Brown, founder of the site CyderMarket.com, which uses veterans from the U.S. Army-based community in Alexandria, Virginia, and reconverts them in the promotion and sale of cider. “Its consumption suffered due to German immigration with its taste for beer, and many years later, from the Prohibition.” The ancestors’ drink then disappeared from American tables… until recently.
“The American consumer dreams of a return to consuming home-grown produce,” esteems Mike Beck. The slow food and locavore movements (consisting of eating healthily on local products) seduce Americans, who are more and more inclined to support the small producers of their region. Uncle John’s customers also notice an advantage to drinking cider: It’s gluten-free, a food trend gathering more and more followers all over the country. The “fermented apple juice,” as cider used to be called, particularly attracts young people (80% of consumers are less than 40 years old) and women (50% of drinkers, against barely 30% for beer). Advertising executives haven’t taken long to exploit the idea of an ideal drink for the apéritif, containing a lot less alcohol, better for the health, more easily digestible and its bubbles providing a festive dimension.
The Giants of the Beer Industry Take a Gamble on Cider
With the approach of summer, advertising campaigns for cider (on television, in magazines, on advertising billboards) monopolize the space: Michelob Ultra Light Cider, Johnny Appleseed, Crispin Cider, Angry Orchard… The common feature of these brands? They are all owned by the big beer companies: Anheuser-Bush, MillerCoors, and even the Boston Beer Company. The most recent, Smith & Forge (part of MillerCoors) targets men this year, with advertisements representing virile, smiling characters with mustaches, holding a can of cider. Even the Dutch Heineken is having great success with its brand derived from cider: Strongbow. Its strategy: Cider is drunk on ice. Unthinkable in France, the marketing claim is invincible across the Atlantic, where summer drinks must be served iced.
As with wine, the quality of cider is judged by where it comes from and the varieties of fruit used to make it. Traditionally, a good cider must be produced from special apples, called “spitters” from the verb “to spit.” “This general term indicates varieties with a high content in tannins,” explains Gregory Peck, a professor at Virginia Tech. “Tannins are unpleasant if you bite into the apple, but they add a pleasant long taste to cider in the mouth.” In France and England, these varieties of apple are common. But in the United States, this variety disappeared at the same time as cider, in the middle of the 19th century. Since then, the varieties cultivated for American cider are the same as those intended for consumption: large apples with a pronounced flavor called “dessert apples.”
“Unfortunately, numerous cider factories use these apples because they have no choice. It is what grows here,” regrets Mike Beck, who encourages his colleagues in Michigan to convert to spitters. Many producers long to use these varieties imported from Europe in the 1970s to improve their cider, but they come up against prohibitive prices.” “Spitters are rare and are more expensive to produce,” explains Gregory Peck. “To make up for this, more and more cideries are deciding to plant varieties of spitters in their orchard.”
Partisans of the American Apple
Benjamin Crow did not take this route. This young man with a bushy beard has acquired the farm where he’s worked for the past eight years, to transform it into an organic farm. Defender of the cider from his county, he will not use “spitters.” “Customers like local products, and I want to pursue this tradition with varieties which were already in the domain.” In Michigan, producers now have the choice of about thirty local varieties. The dessert apples which Crow uses give a dry, not too sweet cider which leaves a taste of the scent of autumn in the mouth, of flavorful, freshly-pressed apples.
As for Mike Beck, he uses varieties of spitters which he has imported and produced on American soil, the French Bedan, and English varieties such as Porters’ Perfection. “I can’t yet produce enough to make a cider composed of 100% spitters, so I try mixing them with other American varieties,” he specifies. The combination of the European and American varieties offers a juice with a pronounced but still mineral apple taste. Despite the enthusiasm of producers for spitters, the investment is expensive and an apple tree needs from three to five years to offer its first harvest. Dessert apples still have a bright future in United States’ cider.
Anyway it’s out of the question to copy French or English traditions, as every manufacturer tests his own varieties, mixes, and ages his cider in his own personal way. Concerning packaging, some people prefer cans, which sell better, and even add fruit flavors (blueberries, red berries, orange) and additives to give the drink a lift. Whereas others swear only by glass bottles and bio. Everyone has their own method to (re)invent the cider made in America.
By Yona Helaoua and Nastasia Peteuil