The Time is Ripe for Hard Cider

Hard CiderPenn State Extension experts say the market is wide open for enterprising apple growers or ag entreprenuers looking to expand into the hard cider market.

We’ve all heard the story of Johnny Appleseed, who in the early 1800s wandered around Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, planting apple seeds throughout what was then a wilderness frontier. According to historical records, it turns out the seeds he sowed weren’t meant to produce fresh apples for eating. Rather, the small, sour apple varieties that grew were headed straight for fermentation, to be turned into hard cider.

Today, hard cider is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, claiming its place among beer and wine in the alcoholic beverage market. As consumer interest in hard cider increases, producers and potential producers are thirsty for knowledge about how to make and market the tastiest varieties.

“The market is wide open in the hard cider industry,” says Carla Snyder, marketing and agricultural entrepreneurship extension educator in Adams County. “For every hard cider event we’ve held, we’ve had to turn people away. Apple producers see it as a high market value product.” Many apple producers already are producing sweet cider, Snyder notes, so they’ve purchased some equipment. “It’s a large investment that they’ve already made, and they’re looking for a higher return.”

Extension is stepping up efforts to educate and support hard cider producers—those who are considering getting into the industry as well as current apple growers looking to increase their portfolio. In January, the horticulture extension team held a workshop in Biglerville, Pa., that included a tasting of eight different hard ciders, emphasizing the variation in styles and flavors currently available on the market: from dry to sweet, oaky to citrusy, floral to butterscotch. Speakers from New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia shared their experiences and knowledge about the economics of hard cider production, the processes involved in producing hard cider, and orchard considerations for hard cider apple variety growers.

Denise Gardner, enology extension associate, attributes the popularity of hard cider partially to the gluten-free trend. “Unlike beer and some wines, hard cider doesn’t contain gluten,” she says. “And that’s an important quality for those who adhere to a gluten-free diet.”

Although Gardner’s position focuses primarily on the wine industry, she brings her expertise to hard cider production as well. She fields frequent calls from hard cider producers asking for suggestions on how to improve taste and quality. “I’ll taste and evaluate the cider and offer advice on how they might improve the product,” she says. “During fermentation, hard cider loses its aromatic intensity, so you don’t often end up with a strong apple flavor. There are many possibilities for experimenting with flavor and mouthfeel.”

The options are so plentiful, in fact, that a recent article in Wine Enthusiast magazine called hard cider “the Wild West of the drinking world”—noting that the sky’s the limit when it comes to producing varieties of hard cider.

“A lot of newer hard cider producers are trying really funky things,” Gardner says. “One technique I heard about recently is underground cement aging. It’s interesting because that’s actually an old practice—people used to age fermented beverages in the ground because they didn’t have refrigeration. In the alcoholic beverage industry we’re seeing a reemergence of historic and traditional practices.” 

—Krista Weidner