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Cider at The Northman in Lincoln Square
Cider at The Northman in Lincoln Square
Nick Murway

Is Chicago On The Verge of a Hard Cider Boom?

How alcohol made from fermented apples is taking a piece of the craft beer market

In the past five years, the corner bar has gone from offering one IPA to a dozen, and the craft beer movement is stronger than ever. But as cult-followed, hoppy IPA reaches its saturation point, a fruity competitor — hard cider — vies to take over valuable draft lines.

IPA was indeed the beer style that drove the craft beer movement. In the span of a few years, it transformed from a one-note, misunderstood brew rarely seen on menus to one served at beer nerd's paradise to the sports bars alike. With the arrival of Chicago's first hard cider pub The Northman, following the September acquisition of Michigan-based Virtue Cider by Anheuser-Busch, cider is looking at a similar trajectory. Establishments across town are expanding from one token cider line to multiple offerings. But will it follow the path of IPA to become a cult-followed beverage? Here, we discuss how far cider has come to date, and the hurdles it has to face ahead.

Recent History

To understand how far cider has come, one must first grasp its exponential growth trajectory in Chicagoland over the past five years. In 2012, the city experienced the start of what would be a multi-year flood of craft beer entering the market. Revolution opened a $5-million production facility in Avondale for it's Anti-Hero IPA and Bottom Up Wit. California-based Lagunitas announced plans to break ground on a 250-barrel brewhouse in Douglas Park (five times the size of Goose Island's). And newcomers like Belgian-American Solemn Oath, small-batch Pipeworks, and community-driven Begyle hit the scene. Chicagoans were thirsty.

That year, Chicago also saw the debut of Virtue Cider with Red Streak, an English-style hard cider. It would gain as much attention for its tart and dry flavor (while adhering to the European traditions of cider making seldom seen stateside), as it would for its maker, former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall. In the following years, Virtue would expand to offer the Normandy-style cidre brute called Lapinette, the French wine barrel-aged Percheron, and the bourbon barrel-aged The Mitten — all produced on its Fennville farm. However, according to Hall, the drinking scene was not quite ready to fully embrace cider.

"In 2014, Cider Con had stopped in Chicago. Meanwhile, it's competitor Cider Summit was getting bigger and The Northman was supposed to open. The other cider pub from the Farmhouse guys was supposed to open, too," Hall recounts. "It felt like there was a ton of momentum, and then the two pubs didn't open, and that took a little air out of the balloon."


Apples at Virtue Farm [Grant Kessler]

The Cider Stigma

So does the arrival of The Northman mean hard cider is ready for the big leagues? Maybe. First, it must move past one huge misconception: The comparison to its non-alcoholic cousin, apple cider. Most cider-haters shy away from the stuff because they think it's too sweet. However, just as all IPAs aren't super-hopped, not all ciders have cloying sugar content.

"In the early days of craft beer, people were so turned off or turned on by IPAs. It wasn't until we started making more varieties that people started finding a balanced IPA that they liked to drink," says Michelle Foik, co-owner of the forthcoming Eris Brewery & Cider House. "The same thing is happening in cider."

"[Cider] runs the gamut from dry to semi-sweet, and just because you have one that doesn't taste right to your palate, doesn't mean there isn't one out there for you."

A major problem is a widespread perception that the sugary ciders that dominated the market in the 1990s and 2000s — names like Angry Orchard, Strongbow, and Magners — are exemplary of all in the category. However, recently, craft cider-makers and their affinity for dry, funky, and tart ciders are giving the big brands a run for their money. In Foik's own words: "Ciders run the gamut from dry to semi-sweet, and just because you have one that doesn't taste right to your palate, doesn't mean there isn't one out there for you."

"I think what we need desperately is a place like The Northman, or other places, to put on multiple ciders next to each other so people can go out an try more than one in an evening and start to figure out what their favorites are," Hall says. Another byproduct of the general public's lack of exposure to cider's range, is a lack of language to describe it. Similar to the early days of IPA, when hoppy and malty didn't elicit a Pavlovian response, most average consumers don't have the knowledge or vocabulary to comprehend and explain cider's range — yet.


Market Development Manager Brandon Joldersma at Virtue Cider

'Cider Beer'

Cider, from how it is made to how it is consumed, is closely related to wine. However, it wasn't until buyers, sellers, producers, and consumers began treating it like beer that the beverage blossomed. "People's first reaction to cider —€” the first time they tried it —€” was probably on draft somewhere," Hall says. "When they see it come in a pint glass, they think, oh, it's beer. I can't tell you how many people said to me, ‘Oh, you make cider beer.'"

Rather than trying to correct the misconception, smart cider producers embrace it. This makes sense, given the sky-rocketing popularity of beer, and the fact taht major players in Chicago's cider game have beer backgrounds. Hall spent 25 years at Goose Island. Foik is also a former Goose employee who followed Hall to Virtue. And Right Bee's Charlie Davis's background includes seven years brewing beer.

The result are beer-like cider creations such as VanderMill's Nunica Pine, a dry-hopped cider product available in 16-ounce cans. "These are tools that cider-makers use to sell to the beer world," explains Michael McAvena, beverage manager at Pub Royale. Adding that eye-catching label designs are another trick borrowed from the brewer's playbook. Even breweries themselves are getting into the hard cider game, such as new-to-Chicago Short's Brewing Co., which added Starcut ciders to its portfolio last year.

However, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Prima Cider in Long Grove is considered one of the area's best, but still far from a household name. The company maintains a 35-years-old commitment to producing naturally fermented cider using heirloom apples. This means champagne-like Prima Brute, which is twice fermented and cold cellar-aged for 12 months, and tannin-rich Prima Barrique offered in 750-ml glass bottles — a product much more akin to wine in every way.

Virtue_1 Virtue Cider [Official Photo]

Virtue Farm in Fennville, MI [Grant Kessler]

The Cider Boom

Despite the hurdles and misconceptions, cider is still on the rise. When Links Taproom opened in early 2014, it had one draft line dedicated to VanderMill cider. Since then, owner Michael Quinlin has increased that number to three, offering hard cider as an alternative for drinkers who favor white wine, high-end beer, or gluten-free libations. Links follows suit of other beer bars, such as Hopleaf and Jerry's, both of which feature four rotating ciders on draft.

"Cider has many attributes of wine in that it can be source-driven and natural, but it's also social and refreshing like beer."

Cider is not only seeing more action at the bars, but restaurants are also adding cider to their selections. The beverage's subtle nature and high acidity means, like wine, it pairs amazingly well with food. Try a French cider with your cheese plate, Spanish cider with steak, and ice cider with dessert.

The Publican was one of the first restaurants in Chicago to add a dedicated cider section to its drink menu. It currently boasts seven varieties, from a Finn River Forest ginger hard cider that is flavored with douglas fir tips to premier Normandy producer Eric Bordelet's Poiré Authentique. Hall, who has seen Virtue expand from 60 Chicago accounts to 140, also believes that brunch is an untapped goldmine for cider because it's a natural champagne substitute. Sparkling cider mimosas anyone?

Another plus for cider is its ability to bridge two sides of the fermented beverage market. "Cider has many attributes of wine in that it can be source-driven and natural, but it's also social, creative, and refreshing like beer," Hall says.

So while the stars are alining for cider, it still faces a David and Goliath-style battle to gain wider attrition among both beer and wine drinkers. At the end of the day, cider might never make a substantial impact on the behemoth that is big beer or old-world wine, but the industry will chisel away at a segment of it. Think a dedicated cider line for every IPA at the local pub and a cider section on more restaurant wine lists. It may be happening one tap at a time, but Chicago will certainly see more cider in the years to come.

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