British transplant Jeffrey House has long believed in the appeal of a pint of fermented apple juice.
But when he landed in California in the 1980s, he found few Americans willing to venture outside the familiar territory of beer and wine.
Fast forward a few decades. Add drinkers who have been groomed by the craft beer movement. Throw in a dollop of gluten avoidance. Now, House’s business is producing 1 million gallons of hard cider a year under the brand Ace Cider, quadruple what he was making in 2008.
“Cider is growing, and it’s becoming very popular,” he said. “Big time.”
The drink once favored by colonial America has been rediscovered by hipsters nearly a century after Prohibition helped kill the cider buzz.
Its rising popularity among U.S. consumers pushed sales of domestically produced cider to $600 million last year, more than tripling sales from 2007, according to research firm IBISWorld.
Small cider producers are popping up around the country. Giant alcohol makers such as Heineken, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev have bought or rolled out their own cider brands. Many bars have added ciders on tap to meet the demands of adventurous drinkers.
“There is going to be a huge opportunity for cider in particular to grow,” said Nick Petrillo, an analyst at IBISWorld. “A lot of consumers now prefer to have something a little different.”
Ryan Sweeney now offers cider on tap at five of his Southern California bars, including the Surly Goat in West Hollywood and the Phoenix in Beverly Hills.
Sweeney said there’s been a “huge uptick” in cider drinkers. He’s held cider events to accommodate growing interest in the drink.
At Sweeney’s Pasadena drinking hole, the Blind Donkey, Robert Rust was sipping a glass of pear-flavored cider on a recent Tuesday night.
The construction worker from Eagle Rock said he tried cider for the first time a year ago after seeing more varieties at the grocery store. Now, Rust said, he occasionally buys a six-pack and orders it sometimes when out drinking.
“I’ve heard more people talking about cider, and more options in the market,” the 25-year-old said. “I like it. It’s refreshing.”
Cider was once wildly popular in the U.S.
Immigrants to the New World brought the knowledge of cider making when they sailed to the Americas. John Adams was said to break his fast every morning with a tankard of the stuff. William Henry Harrison, who ran for president in 1840, became known as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate for relying on those symbols of rugged Americana.
But Prohibition, which began in 1920, put a stop to a lot of cider production; some farmers who were fans of the temperance movement even cut down their orchards to keep cider lovers from making their own drinks.
Even after most Americans were allowed to imbibe again starting in late 1933, cider never regained its former level of popularity. One theory is that German immigrants who moved to the Midwest introduced tasty beers, which were quicker and easier to make than cider.
Only in recent years have U.S. drinkers begun embracing cider once again after first expanding their tastes with microbrews and specialty cocktails, observers said.
“Cider right now is becoming an alternative to beer,” said Paul Thomas, president of Julian Hard Cider in the San Diego County town of Julian, known for its devotion to the apple. “There is a customer base who has grown up having expectations of finding something that is new and unique, but flavorful. Cider is that next phase.”
Craft cider makers have begun rolling out more exotic flavors of the drink, which is made by pressing apples to make juice, then letting that liquid ferment into alcohol in a process similar to making wine. Then other types of juice are added to the mix to give it a distinct taste.
Julian Hard Cider, which ferments some batches of cider in an apple packing and juicing facility from the 1940s, has rolled out cherry and raspberry flavors. The company is launching a version soon that tastes like apple pie. In the fall, the cider maker is expanding into a bigger space that will double its production capability.
Cider enthusiasts said the beverage’s comeback has been bolstered by people with gluten allergies who can’t drink beer, which is usually made of grains such as barley or wheat.
“Gluten-free is huge,” said House, the Brit-turned-Californian cider maker. “Everybody thinks they have a gluten problem.”
House came to the U.S. to start his own business importing cider and beers from Britain and Belgium. In 1993, he started making his own drinks, founding California Cider Co. in apple-orchard-rich Sebastopol, Calif.
The company has enjoyed sales growth of 30% annually for most years since it was founded, House said. The company’s Ace Cider brand can be found in bars, liquor stores and grocers, including Trader Joe’s.
“People try cider and like it,” House said. “You don’t have many people who say, ‘That stinks.’”
Cider and beer vary in alcohol content, but have a similar range, normally below 10%. Most wines have higher alcohol content, between 10% to 20%.
Cider has gained a lot of fans among female drinkers who don’t like the taste of beer, analysts said. But the drink’s reputation as a girlie beverage is a double-edged sword for alcohol makers that want to attract new customers but still sell to guys who like to drink a bottle of suds.
MillerCoors made a big play for male drinkers by rolling out its Smith & Forge Hard Cider in March.
The new offering comes with a higher alcohol content and is not as sweet as many ciders. The accompanying ads features a man with mutton chops — who describes the drink as “strong, sturdy” — watching robust activities such as a blacksmith banging on metal and a lumberjack chopping down a tree.
“The male demographic and cider, there weren’t a lot of options,” said Royce Carvalho, brand manager of Smith & Forge. “It was an underserved customer that nobody was talking to.”
But the arrival of big players such as MillerCoors has squeezed many artisanal cider makers that have been in the business for years.
Woodchuck Hard Cider, which has been making cider for more than two decades, reported flat sales in its last fiscal year, said Dan Rowell, chief executive of Woodchuck maker Vermont Hard Cider Co. “Cider shelf space and distribution is growing, but the number of entrants is growing faster,” he said.
But Rowell said he’s optimistic that his company will enjoy the fruits of the cider boom. He predicts that within five years, cider will seize 5% of the total beer market — that’s how the beverage industry measures the tiny cider business — up from 1% currently.
“Cider is starting to pull in wine drinkers as well,” Rowell said. “It’s an exciting time.”