Pressed for Success: Hard cider hops on the craft beer trend

Photographer: Steve Kale / Fly Magazine

From the Orchard to the Glass

 

In a little over a year, Ben Kishbaugh and Troy Lehman have turned a part-time passion into a full-time enterprise, crafting a drink that’s currently staging a centuries-in-the-making comeback. When they met in the auto industry 10 years ago, they each had their hobbies – Lehman made wines and ciders, and Kishbaugh did home brewing. Now, the two are co-owners of Big Hill Ciderworks in Gardners, just north of Gettysburg. Big Hill is a fast-growing brand whose quick rise in popularity is emblematic of the growth of craft cider’s profile nationwide.

“I think [hard cider] is growing so much because it’s latching on to people’s anticipation for discovering new and exciting things,” says Kishbaugh. “People are really experimenting right now with what they want to drink.”

Hard cider’s rise to popularity has been nothing short of meteoric. In an industry that claims success when seeing single-digit annual growth rates, cider’s share of the marketplace has roughly doubled annually for the last few years – and 2014 saw a massive 71 percent growth, according to Cider Journal.

One of Manhattan’s hottest new bars this year is Wassail, which serves only craft cider and features more than a dozen taps and 80 bottled varieties.

And the ubiquitous Angry Orchard brand has proven to be pure gold for the Boston Beer Co., best known for its line of Sam Adams beers. Analysts estimate the cider makes up about 20 percent of the company’s output, and has likely matched – or even eclipsed – the flagship Boston Lager in terms of street cred.

Central PA hard cider - Fly Magazine

Local beer fans are noticing the influx of apples into their hop-heavy tap lists, too. Lancaster’s Federal Taphouse recently started devoting about 10 of its 100 taps to ciders, for example.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Central Pennsylvania, with its rich history of apple cultivation, is turning out to be something of an epicenter for the craft cider trend, with nearly a dozen cider makers in the Susquehanna Valley.

There are plenty of reasons for people to turn to cider. Kishbaugh cites the appeal of gluten-free products, and points out that today’s craft ciders are a far cry from the sugary-sweet flavors many people expect.

Speaking of which, don’t look for the flavors of a supermarket apple in a Big Hill product – Kishbaugh and Lehman use American and Western European heirloom apples in their ciders. Those apples are high in tannins, which suck out the moisture, making them less sweet to eat but perfect for hard cider.

 

LOCAL FLAVORS

If Big Hill is one of the new kids on the Central PA cider block, Jack’s Hard Cider is the elder statesman.

Jack’s is made by Hauser Estate Winery in Adams County and was the first local cider brand to break into the market. Starting its seventh year of brewing Jack’s, company president Jonathan Patrono says there has been a steady increase in popularity since they came out with the product.

“The boom is great, but it hasn’t changed too much of what we do,” Patrono says.

While Jack’s has always been made with apples grown on the Hauser property, the classic culinary apples (originally grown for applesauce production) are being replaced with more traditional cider varieties to allow Jack’s to offer different kinds of ciders in addition to its flagship brews.
 
“Cider, in my opinion, has always been a great drink,” Patrono says. “We see it as a segment of the craft beer movement. It’s just natural that cider was finally picked up in all of that.”

 

“Cider, in my opinion, has always been a great drink,” Patrono says. “We see it as a segment of the craft beer movement. It’s just natural that cider was finally picked up in all of that.”

Indeed, many local cider makers have a craft beer connection. Big Hill makes a cider called Little Round Hop, which is dry-hopped with Columbus, Centennial and Cascade hops. The Vineyard & Brewery at Hershey makes The Decider, a peanut butter and caramel apple cider.

And Dallastown’s Wyndridge Farm – another recent local success story (and York County’s first cider maker) – brews top-notch beers right alongside its cider production. They source apples from Brown’s Orchards, right down the road in Loganville.

 

LEGAL HURDLES

Technically speaking, Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize cideries as distinct licensed entities – all of the state’s cider producers are licensed as either wineries or breweries.

That’s just one of numerous oddities in the way the state and federal governments treat cider, according to Carla Snyder, a marketing educator with the Penn State Extension in Adams County. Snyder has been educating farmers on just how to get into the cider business.

Regulations dictate everything from the wording and font size that can go on each label to limiting the alcohol by volume to 5 percent.

The latter restriction causes cideries to jump through a variety of production hoops. For example, Wyndridge’s flagship cider naturally ferments to 7 percent ABV, according to co-owner Steve Groff. It’s then diluted with apple juice to bring it back to the legal range.

There’s currently a bill working its way through the state legislature that would raise the alcohol limit to 14 percent for ciders that are made by businesses licensed as breweries. The Pennsylvania Cider Guild – a trade organization formed last year – is also pushing for legislation that would allow cideries to function under their own separate licenses.

 

WATCH IT GROW

Mike Osbourne, brewmaster for Rumspringa Brewing Company in Lancaster County, has been perfecting his cider recipe since he arrived in 2010. Owned by Mount Hope Estate & Winery, Rumspringa offers a sweet cider that uses apples from Kauffman’s Fruit Farm in Bird-in-Hand. Sometimes Osbourne adds barley malt to help make it a little sweeter and give it more of an apple-beer feel, he says.

Central PA Hard Ciders - Fly MagazineBecause the juice can vary year to year depending on what apples Kauffman’s is growing, Osbourne says, his hard cider also varies. But people seem to like that.

“People are OK with the idea that things can vary,” he says. “They’re almost more curious about the process and trying to understand why it’s different year to year.”

Over the last few years, Rumspringa’s cider has gone from a side project to a crowd favorite.

“When I first started making ciders, the only thing on the market was Woodchuck,” he says. “Today, [cider] is one of my best sellers.”

That trajectory of success is being shared throughout Central PA’s cider community. Since 2013, Wyndridge Farm has grown by leaps and bounds. With an operation capable of pumping out 30,000 barrels of beer and cider a year, Wyndridge products are now available across Pennsylvania, as well as in Maryland and Texas.

And Jack’s – the godfather of local cider – is now sold up and down the East Coast.

Back at Big Hill, Kishbaugh and Lehman have seen their products go from homebrew to hot trend in just a year’s time. Big Hill ciders are now on tap and in bottle shops from Chambersburg to Philadelphia. Kishbaugh says they hope to grow the business even more in the next year. They’ve just begun selling 12-ounce bottles, and they plan to experiment with single-apple variety brews.

“While it’s stressful, I’ve never been happier,” Kishbaugh says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And as the cider sector’s double-digit growth pattern has held for the last few years, it’s likely to keep going – at least in the near future.

“It’s grown exponentially,” Snyder says of the cider business. “Hard cider is a trend – but it’s one we don’t see going away.”

 

What’s your favorite hard cider? Tell us why below.


 

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Posted in Craft Corner, Drink – Harrisburg, Drink – Lancaster, Drink – York, Headlines

Rebecca Hanlon is a freelance journalist covering Central Pennsylvania and beyond. A Lancaster County native, she now lives across the river in York County with her husband, Will, and their squirrel-sized dog, Tito. If you don't see her typing at the laptop, she can usually be found creating recipes in the kitchen or binge watching junk TV. She likes good bourbon, palm trees and snacks.

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