In the past decade or so, the craft brewing industry has done a fairly effective job of securing beer’s rightful place at the dinner table. An unprecedented number of restaurants offer extensive, stylistically diverse beer lists, and their staffs have enhanced their education to the point where many servers and sommeliers can expound on flavor notes and recommend pairings with pinpoint precision. So, when will it be cider’s turn?
Before we ponder that question any further, let’s get something out of the way: You’ve probably read all of the headlines noting that, after a string of double-digit growth years, cider’s momentum has ground to a halt. That’s only about half true. Yes, overall cider volume is flat. But it’s the big, national brands that are really to blame for that. Boston Beer Co.’s Angry Orchard Brand, which accounts for more than half of overall market volume, has struggled for the past couple of years, after enjoying volume and dollar growth in the high double digits. In 2014, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors rolled out their respective Johnny Appleseed and Smith & Forge brands, which debuted strongly, but have declined ever since—primarily because the companies have backed away from the category and shifted their marketing emphasis to the burgeoning hard soda segment.
Nielsen CGA, a joint venture between consumer research giant Nielsen and on-premises intelligence company CGA, reports that cider volume in restaurants and bars rose a modest 1.7 percent in 2016; revenue was up 3.8 percent. (Cider had a much worse year in the off-premises segment, down more than 10 percent.)
However, if you strip out the large, national brands and focus solely on the craft/local/regional side of the business—the “long tail” that keeps getting longer—cider volume grew nearly 40 percent. The craft cider segment—which hasn’t been as publicly defined as its counterpart in the beer market—increased its dollar share of the overall category to nearly 17 percent from less than 8 percent just a few years ago (keep in mind that the overall cider category is still a blip, compared with beer, accounting for not even 2 percent of total beer volume).
And it’s within that sector of the cider market where the biggest opportunity lies for restaurants to up their pairing game.
That’s something Dan Pucci knows a thing or two about, as he’s the beverage director at Wassail, New York’s cider-centric restaurant and bar. He says that part of cider’s allure is the public’s general lack of exposure to the category.
“Cider has none of the baggage with it that you might find with other beverages,” Pucci explains. “With something like wine, there are lots of perceptions and ideas—the things people do know or think they know about it. But they approach cider with a blank slate.”
The only “baggage” associated with it, if you can even call it that, is that its core component—apples and sometimes pears—tends to be associated with the season in which its harvested. But cider, of course, is a year-round beverage and goes with foods of every season. For instance, ciders on the more bittersweet side of the vast flavor spectrum go well with summer squash, Pucci notes. The beverage, he adds, is also great for meats with charred, smoky elements. Pork, in particular, is a natural companion for cider.
“Cider really wants to nail down a pork pairing,” Pucci says. “Barbecue, pulled pork, things like that are really great cider pairings.”
The beverage, in a sense, represents the best of both worlds: the acidity of wine and the low-ABV, cleansing carbonation of beer. Those attributes enable guests to eat fattier foods, with the acidity cutting through and the carbonation scrubbing the palate, which fat tends to coat.
Cider also lacks the hoppy bitterness of some of today’s most popular beer styles. That makes it much more versatile than IPAs, which often dominate craft draft lists.
“It still has the cleansing effect with the acids and carbonation, but it doesn’t have the staying power of 100 [International Bittering Units] of Citra [hops], where the next bite is overpowered by the sip of beer you just had,” offers Bruce Nissen, founder and cidermaker at Stevenson, Washington–based Jester & Judge cidery. He also serves as president of the United States Association of Cider Makers (usacm).
He notes that cider is not just a fantastic accompaniment, it also works as an ingredient in many dishes. In addition to marinating a rack of pork ribs in apple-based cider, he incorporates pear cider (also known as perry) in his cole slaw recipe. “Since the cabbage is relatively neutral, you want a little more zip in your cider flavor,” Nissen says.
Salmon salad, another summer staple, also invites such innovation. It’s also a pairing and ingredient opportunity for ciders that combine other fruits with apples. The Jester & Judge portfolio includes a number of such options, including Sharp Cherry and Blackberry.
Summer also means more al fresco weekend brunch service, another significant occasion for cider’s crisp, refreshing elements. “I joke and say that cider is the best breakfast beer ever made,” Nissen reveals. “The best mimosas I’ve had have been made with cider. I know it’s blasphemous to half of the people who drink, but the beauty of it is that’s it’s not a high-ABV drink. It’s not, ‘Let’s have a couple of glasses and take a nap.’”
Despite predating beer as the fermented beverage of choice in the colonies that would become the United States, it’s fairly remarkable that cider only really came into its own in this country in recent years. Meanwhile, the country from which we fought for independence has quite a mature market for the product. And it would be a glaring omission to leave out suggestions from a place where selling cider has been a common practice for some time. Samuel Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster, England, is best known for its beer, but it also produces an award-winning line of ciders. Its Organic Cider matches well with vinaigrette-dressed salads. Its Organic Perry—pear cider—goes with Waldorf salad and blue cheese.
However, says Craig Hartinger, spokesman for Samuel Smith’s Seattle-based importer Merchant du Vin, recommending which dishes cider pairs with is only part of the server sales game. There are social and health angles as well.
Cider, Hartinger says, is a beverage of inclusion. “The server wants the table to have a good experience,” he says, noting that a table of five guests who love beer and one who generally avoids it might feel a little less like the odd-person-out if the server suggests a cider, which looks like beer and is served in the same vessel, versus a more incongruous-looking glass of wine.
“I remember when I was server, we had one cider, a few bottled beers, and mainly wine,” Hartinger recalls. “I could remember those days when there was someone ordering beer, if there was a non-beer drinker at the table, it was a minor downer for them. When I mentioned cider, it was a small solution to that.”
And sometimes it’s not a matter of personal preference, but one of wellness. Cider typically is gluten-free and for celiac sufferers, that could be a godsend.
Better staff education is what’s really going to move the needle on cider in restaurants. USACM recently launched what it hopes will be a key contributor to the cause: Certified Cider Professional (ccp) certification, essentially cider’s answer to beer’s Cicerone program.
“We, as an organization and an industry, have to come to a consensus on how we talk about cider,” says Nissen, “so the consumer has a chance to understand what the hell we’re talking about.”