The Northwest Cider Association (NWCA) was formed in 2010 as a way to support just ten cidermakers in the northwest region. There are now more than 200 brands producing cider in the area, though many are very small and may be attached to spirits production. The association now supports 85 cidermakers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.
Brands’ increasing interest in adding a cider to their portfolio follows an explosive growth trend of cider demand in the US. Major companies like Angry Orchard, Woodchuck and Strongbow have brought cider into the mainstream and into bars across the country.
A millennial renaissance
Emily Ritchie ‘fell in love’ with England’s cider culture during a visit and was inspired to work for a cider company back in the US. Three years ago she joined the NWCA as executive director and now works to connect the association’s 85 cidermakers to local cider drinkers.
"The experience is a huge part of why someone’s going to pick your cider over many, many options beyond cider."
She credits the larger, mainstream brands for securing a national interest in cider, but notes that the tasting experience and connection to the region that you can only get from a local cidermaker are what’s driving the sustained growth in the industry.
“The majority of cider drinkers fall into the millennial category. We’ve done consumer market research, and the experience is a huge part of why someone’s going to pick your cider over many, many options beyond cider when they’re at a bar,” Ritchie said.
“Consumers really value local and they value the story and being connected to a local company that is buying apples from the region and crafting something with passion.”
The recent expansion of cidermakers and cider drinkers in the US is something of a renaissance, according to Ritchie. There was an established market for ciders both hard and soft throughout the country more than 100 years ago.
But the hard cider industry in the US collapsed due to Prohibition in the early twentieth century and didn’t manage to recover once the ban on alcohol was lifted. The renewed interest now in the twenty-first century took off less than five years ago.
“In 2014 the market saw an incredible explosion of growth--about 70% growth as a category across the US. We’ve seen those numbers continue steadily at about 40-50% [since]. Last year, craft regional cider here in our region grew 40% according to Nielsen data,” Ritchie said.
Educating the masses
Despite the expansion, the cider industry is facing a misinformation problem among outsiders, bar owners and the public. According to Ritchie, understanding different types, flavors and origins of ciders might one day be equivalent to the depth of the wine industry.
A bar owner that’s relatively uneducated about cider may think having one or two on draft will get the job done, assuming that all ciders are the same. But Ritchie explains that this is like thinking of beer as only IPA. IPAs are just one category of beer and there are many styles of making it.
“I think that’s the next big hurdle for our industry, to educate people that cider can be lots of things. It can be barrel aged, it can be very dry and it can have various levels of sweetness,” she said.
Distinct categories of cider can be a result of the production process, but it mostly comes down to different types of apples. Modern varieties of apples like Fuji and Granny Smith are common for everyday consumption, but heritage varieties like Newton Pippin are harder to find and make a complex cider.
The flesh of some heritage apples are a bright red or pink. If fermented carefully, they retain their hue and make the perfect choice for rosé-flavored ciders. Rosé has been one of the most popular flavors used in cider in the last few years.
“Talking about cider like you would a wine where you’re talking about apple varieties can really engage a consumer and give someone something to hold onto and think about as they’re selecting what to drink,” Ritchie said.
Supporting the little guys
Distributors in all facets of food and beverage have recently turned to consolidation to stay afloat, and it’s hurting the smaller producers. In a consolidation deal, a distributor may lose one or two local brands with little to no consequence. But those losses add up and make it harder for small, local suppliers get a strong foothold in the market.
“If we want to see variety, we definitely want to have access to a lot of options,” said Ritchie.
One way the NWCA helps out the independent cidermakers is by throwing events like the upcoming Washington Cider Week in September. The 11-day fest invites cider drinkers and makers from across the state to “showcase northwest cider in a variety of special events, featured menus, happy hours, brunches, tap takeovers and more .”
NWCA Washington Cider Week
When: September 6-16, 2018
Where: Washington state, centered around Seattle
What: 70+ events, awards recognition & restaurant participation
What to see: Seattle Cider Summit, September 7-8 on the South Lake Union Discovery Center Lawn, tickets $35-$45
The eighth-annual celebration is a testament to the association’s growth and continued interest in cider from the northwest region. Portland and Seattle are the two largest metro hubs in the area, and Portland drinks the most cider per capita in the nation.
The NWCA also puts on a Cider Week in Oregon in June, Montana in October and British Columbia in April. According to Ritchie, they are the ideal opportunities to do things like education events, dinner pairings and special bottle releases. They bring the cider community together and give attention to up-and-coming cidermakers.
Other states like New York and California have their own cider associations, but the NWCA is the oldest and largest in the country, encompassing five regions. Ritchie attributes its success to the inventive food and beverage scene in the area, as well as the culture of people who live there.
“The openness and willingness and the food craze that encourages consumers to seek out something new to taste and put in their mouth really encourages our cidermakers to make better products and to be creative,” she said.