Hard cider is big news in the beverage world. After a period of exponential growth across the board in the category, the last couple of years have seen a surging interest in local and regional ciders.
Drinkers are increasingly open to tasting diverse varieties and pairing ciders with food.
“Restaurants and bars are starting to realize just how food-friendly cider is as it gains popularity,” says Peter Yi, head cider maker at Brooklyn Cider House in Brooklyn, New York.
The cider landscape
Going way beyond the straightforward sweetness of mainstream varieties, the range of types and flavors in cider available today is impressive. The number of U.S. cider producers doubled to 800 between 2014 and 2017, according to the United States Association of Cider Makers. And sales of local and regional ciders are booming as makers continue to explore new styles and techniques.
There are two main types of hard cider that restaurants should know about, says Emily Ritchie, executive director of the Northwest Cider Association. The first is modern ciders made with dessert apples like Gala and Honeycrisp, which are sweet and simple and have that typical cider taste. The second is heritage ciders made with cider apples—akin to crab apples—that have more tannins and greater complexity. Cider makers in both categories, however, are adding unique ingredients and experimenting with new brewing methods.
Popular ciders of the moment—which restaurant patrons may be on the lookout for— include rosé, hopped, and sour ciders.
“Rosé ciders are absolutely on fire,” says Marc Sawyer, director of brewery and distributor relations at the beer-focused restaurant chain World of Beer. Rosé ciders are pink-hued ciders, either due to added ingredients such as berries or the color of the apple flesh.
A popular way of making rosé cider is adding hibiscus, Ritchie of the NCA says. “That makes a gorgeous pink color, and there are tannins there, so it makes an interesting and balanced cider.”
Another popular cider style uses dry-hopping, a method that involves throwing the hops in, “almost like a tea bag,” instead of boiling them as one would with beer, Ritchie says. “Instead of that bitter quality you get in the IPA, you get these wonderful floral aromas that are citrusy,” she says.
And Mark McTavish, president of producer 101 Cider House in Los Angeles, is seeing a lot of demand for his sour ciders. “They’re looking for funky flavors, things that are bone dry, not much sugar,” he says. 101 Cider House ciders are modeled on traditional Basque-style ciders, fermented for as long as four months to make a rich and creamy drink. McTavish then blends the cider with variety of flavors such as pineapple, basil, and spearmint.
The perfect pairing
“I think cider is the best alcohol pairing with food that exists,” says Mattie Beason, owner of Black Twig Cider House in Durham, North Carolina. He notes that due to cider’s relatively low alcohol content—about half that of a glass of wine—restaurants are likely to sell more of it. It’s also lighter than beer, which some diners find too filling to go with a meal. Cider is a perfect complement to food, Beason says.
Yi of Brooklyn Cider House agrees with Beason’s sentiment: “What food doesn’t pair well with cider?” he says. Dry ciders work with vegetables, salads, and heartier dishes. An acidic, traditional cider can cut through the richness of fatty dishes, too. Especially when steering clear of the large commercial brands, which tend to add sugar, “most ciders are light, crisp, and pair well with both rich and delicate foods alike,” Yi says.
Due to the versatility in style, ciders can work for every kind of restaurant from casual burger joints to fine dining.
Yi of Brooklyn Cider House recommends that restaurants have as many ciders on their menus as they have beers. Simply looking at cider as a beer replacement for gluten-free clientele is a missed opportunity, he says.
Ritchie of the NCA recommends restaurants, especially those more casual in atmosphere, stick with modern ciders made with dessert apples. They tend to sell quickly due to fun variations and a friendlier price point. Additionally, they usually have a higher margin than beer, since people are willing to pay more for cider.
Beason of Black Twig likens cider to fine wine, seeing the ideal tableside cider offering as a 750 mL bottle of well-made, traditional cider. It brings a sense of sophistication and flavor subtlety to the meal, he says.
Sawyer of World of Beer recommends offering at least one local cider, as well as one of the cider varieties that incorporate a flavor like rose, hibiscus, or lavender.
Regardless of the style chosen, a menu with a full cider selection can entice diners with the excitement of new opportunities to taste this expanding category.