The bar where Austin Harvey works goes through one keg of Chicago-based Virtue Red Streak cider each week.
That might not sound like a lot, but consider Harvey's employer— Goose Island's Clybourn brewpub, where the cider holds its own between drafts of made-on-premises special release beers and favorites such as 312 wheat ale.
"[Cider] is on the same trajectory craft beer took," Harvey said. "It's something that's certainly welcomed to the table or the tap handle."
Nationwide, hard cider is the popular new kid on the block. Sales have gained steam in the past few years, especially among millennials and those with gluten sensitivities, since cider is naturally gluten-free. U.S. cider production increased 65 percent in 2012 over the previous year, according to Nielsen data, though it's nowhere close to rivaling beer as America's booze of choice. In Chicago especially, cider makers have found drinkers thirsty for something new.
"[Chicago] was one of our first markets," said David Sipes, a cider maker with Angry Orchard, a division of Sam Adams that launched nationally in the spring and currently is the best-selling hard cider in the country. "There are sophisticated consumers [in Chicago] that are more likely to know cider and there's certainly an established and aware craft-brewing community."
Members of that community—about 2,000 of them—turned out for the first Cider Summit Chicago, held in a Navy Pier convention room Feb. 9. More than two dozen producers from as near as Chicago and Michigan to as far as New Zealand and Spain poured glasses of their ciders, which ranged in color from apple-juice yellow to rose pink to cloudy brown. The ciders' tastes, too, were varied, from crisp and bubbly to slightly sour and funky.
It was discovering this rainbow of ciders that gave Virtue Cider founder Greg Hall—a former Goose Island brewmaster whose father, John, founded the Chicago brewery—his cider epiphany. He traveled to England in 2000 and stumbled upon a cider festival, where more than 40 ciders ranging in style and flavor were on cask. When he came back to the U.S., he couldn't find that same diversity.
"You'd walk into a place like Binny's and there would be 5,000 wines and thousands of beers and 500 whiskeys and only four ciders," Hall said.
That's quickly changing. As manufacturers see increased demand for ciders on both shelves and taps, everyone from independent producers to the major beer makers are bringing new styles to market.
In the next few months, Chicagoans will see new releases from Angry Orchard, Virtue Cider, Michigan-based Vander Mill and Uncle John's, as well as Vermont-based Woodchuck. Cider makers have expanded beyond apple-based brews to include pear, raspberry, apricot and peach juices in their blends. Uncle John's will release an apple-blueberry variety this summer, while Angry Orchard Elderflower cider hit shelves in six-packs this month. Piggybacking on a technique that's usually associated with craft beer, both Woodchuck and Virtue have experimented with aging their ciders in barrels, resulting in Virtue's The Mitten—on tap now—and Woodchuck's Private Reserve Barrel Select.
And while these techniques, styles and even packaging often are designed to court craft beer drinkers, many cider makers agree that the process is closer to winemaking than beer-brewing.
"We're fermenting juice," Sipes said. "It's an acid balance which, in the case of wine, comes from the grapes you select, and in the case of cider, which apples you select."
Each blend of apples and strain of yeast results in a different flavor, meaning some ciders are best sipped with certain foods, while others pair well with dessert or are designed to be enjoyed solo. It's this versatility, said Greg Hall, that explains the current cider boom.
"Today's drinker drinks everything. They might go to one bar and start off with a cocktail and then have a meal and have some wine, then watch a game and drink some American lager," Hall said. "They drink everything, and they drink cider too. It may not be their main drink, but it's going to be one of them."
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