By Lara Creasy
Locally made hard cider is becoming “a thing” in Georgia. This should come as no surprise to anyone, given the overall trend in the American beverage market toward craft and local beer and spirits.
Other apple-growing states, such as Washington and New York, have enjoyed locally made craft ciders for years. In fact, Seattle and New York City both boast entire establishments devoted to serving only cider in all its forms. (See Wassail, www.wassailnyc.com, and Capitol Cider, www.capitolcider.com).
Early Americans drank a lot of cider. Settlers brought apple seeds from England and planted orchards as soon as they arrived. Orchards grew well in New England, far easier than grains did, so cider production far outpaced beer. President John Adams was said to drink a tankard of cider every morning. Somewhere along the way (Prohibition anyone?) that tradition got lost. But several new Georgia craft producers are bringing it back.
Despite the fact that Mercier Farms has been growing apples in Blue Ridge, Ga., and selling its fresh-pressed cider since 1943, local hard cider is new to the Georgia market. Currently, there’s just three cideries in the state right now.
Treehorn Cider, which buys pressed juice from Mercier to make its cider, started out in Marietta in 2014. Mercier then decided just two years ago that it was time to get into the hard cider game themselves. And last but not least, Urban Tree Cidery, located on Howell Mill Road in West Midtown, opened in 2016, producing cider from apples grown on the Cathey Family Orchard in Mountain City, Ga.
Hard cider as a category had a brief moment of explosion a few years ago, when brands such as Angry Orchard, Strongbow and Crispin made a big push in the market. Large cider brands saw double-digit growth between 2012 and 2015, according to consumer-information company Nielsen. But sales of hard cider overall dipped 10.2 percent between 2015 and 2016, despite the fact that craft cider sales were up 39 percent during the same time frame.
“You kind of saw it in the craft beer world where the big guys, the Sierra Nevadas and Boston Beer Companies, were slipping a little bit,” says Shawn Trauger, beer manager for Savannah Distributing Company. “Now cider is doing the same thing. People aren’t drinking things that are in commercials; they are drinking things that are more local.”
Matt Moore, craft beer and spirits specialist for United Distributors, explains that while it’s true that craft cider sales are up, they have not yet grown enough to offset the decline in big brand sales. “Craft breweries are picking up the slack for the decline in overall beer sales,” he says. “The same thing is not happening in the cider category.”
Variety and Price Point
That may all change in the coming years. It makes a lot of sense for bar managers to have a cider available to guests as a gluten-free option, and more and more innovative cider products are hitting the market to satisfy the consumer thirst for unique and imaginative products. Treehorn has introduced a ginger cider, a habanero cider and a dry-hopped cider on draft and in cans. Mercier produces a cider called Black Bee, made from Arkansas Black apples and clover honey, as well as Grumpy Granny, which is made from only Granny Smiths. Original Sin cidery in New York has introduced heirloom varietal ciders, based on the Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy apples they grow. Even Crispin has single varietal ciders made from Gravenstein and Honeycrisp apples.
Different cideries distinguish themselves further by their choice of yeast strain, which can give their ciders a unique flavor profile. According to Moore, various brands he represents use Champagne yeast for a drier style cider, beer yeast and even white wine yeast, ensuring that none of the ciders taste exactly the same.
“When I started in the industry 7 years ago, there were three or four cider options. Now there are 30 or 40,” says Moore.
He says part of the challenge for craft cider in Georgia has been getting consumers to take a chance on a more expensive product. Compared to other states like Washington and Michigan where apples are a commodity, Georgia’s apples are very expensive, so craft cider producers are starting with a more expensive base product.
Off-premise, this isn’t as big a deal, as consumers might take a chance on a $12 or $15 6-pack of Treehorn, says Moore. But on-premise, the keg prices are a little higher than what many bar managers may be comfortable spending. “You have to know if you have the customer willing to pay $10 a pint for a local cider, versus $5 for Crispin or Angry Orchard,” he says.
“I think that in the accounts where drinkers are on the cutting edge of craft, [local ciders] are very well received,” Moore adds, explaining that The Brick Store Pub in Decatur and My Parents Basement in Avondale Estates are two very big accounts for Treehorn.
Savannah Distributing’s Trauger suggests that most bars have limited tap space, so getting them to devote taps to cider can be a challenge. “It’s rare to see many accounts carrying more than one, two or three ciders, compared to some that have 25 IPAs on the wall,” he says.
Package does make a difference at many accounts, however, with on-premise buyers often more willing to invest in a case of cans rather than devote a tap handle. Moore mentions that many craft ciders were originally bottled in 750 ml, but that package is going out of fashion in the beer world overall. Bars and restaurants can’t sell them, and liquor stores don’t want to devote the shelf space to a slow-moving category. Much like in craft beer, the 12-oz. cans are where it’s at. “Treehorn says they are so happy they went with cans,” he adds.
Supply and Demand
So far, supply has not yet been an issue for Georgia ciders, like it can be for popular local breweries, according to Trauger. However, cider, unlike beer, is an agricultural product, meaning production is dependent on the year’s harvest. “Making cider is a lot like making wine. It takes good grapes and good apples to make good wine or cider,” says Trauger. With beer, “a good brewmaster can make a good beer anywhere.”
Though it’s true that orchards only get one harvest per year, they can self-distribute if they want to, just like a winery can, as long as they grow their own apples. (This is the case for Mercier and Urban Tree, but not Treehorn. Because they buy their juice from Mercier, they are registered with a brewery license.)
In its early days of hard cider production, Mercier used to self-distribute out of its North Georgia orchards, according to Trauger, and their accounts used to get the product delivered along with a box of pies. “People are always asking us [at Savannah], where are the pies?” Once the hard cider business grew enough that their lone delivery driver became overwhelmed, distribution through Savannah was the next logical step.
However, this farm mentality might be just the thing that saves cider producers from going down the road that craft breweries have gone, being gobbled up by larger beverage companies looking to round out their portfolio.
“As a big company, you could come and buy the cider production, but if the family retained the orchards, they could go on with their business,” says Trauger.
Moore adds that a lot of the big beer companies already have a cider in their portfolios (Boston Beer Company owns Angry Orchard, for example), which is another thing that might keep local cideries independently owned.
The local cider industry is still tiny, especially compared to the Georgia craft beer industry, and it’s still trying to figure itself out. None of the local cideries or their distributors could begin to predict what the future holds for their industry, but no doubt they all hope that people in Georgia keep drinking more cider.
Old #3: The original blend made from Gold Rush apples
Grumpy Granny: Made from Granny Smith apples
Black Bee: Made from Arkansas Black apples with clover honey
Available from Savannah Distributing Company in kegs and 12 oz. bottles
Adele’s Choice: A crisp, dry cider made from early apples
Rock Steady Red: Made from red apples and strawberries
Lone Tree: Made from late season apples
Pearody: Made from blackberries and pearsAvailable only at the cidery
Dry: Needs no explanation
El Treeablo: Cider with habanero
Ginger Reserve Dry: Cry cider with ginger
Hoppy Little Trees: A dry-hopped cider
Available from United Distributors in kegs and 12 oz. cans
Urban Tree Cidery
Original: A dry and crisp European-style cider
Classic: A sweeter, Southern-style cider
Barrel-Aged: Fermented with Champagne yeast and aged in Nicaraguan rum barrels
Currently self-distributed; please contact the cidery at 404.855.5546 for more info
Available in kegs, 22 oz. bottles and 12 oz. bottles