Assessing the Growth of Cider Apples in the Pacific Northwest

By: Becky Garrison

In 2016, the Northwest Cider Association received a specialty crop grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. This grant enabled them to launch a signifi-cant initiative encouraging farmers to plant cider apple trees in the Pacific North-west. The Northwest Cider Association chose to focus these planting efforts in Oregon in two areas: Willamette Valley and Hood River.

  While there has always been a small selection of heirloom cider apples available for small-batch releases, this initiative marks the first time post-prohibition that a sizable number of cider apples will be available to cider makers. Will these ap-ples bear fruit in the burgeoning cider market?

  Currently, there is no available national data on the breakdown of cider made with cider apples versus dessert apples. Michelle McGrath, Executive Director of the United States Association of Cider Makers, attributes this lack of statistics to the fact that the U.S. cider market consists primarily of many very small cideries. As such, their sales are not reflected in any of the scan-based data found in trade reports.

  Even though a majority of ciders available in grocery stores, bars and restaurants are made with dessert apples, a large percentage of the cideries in the U.S. uti-lize cider apples. In McGrath’s estimation, “Fifty percent of our paying members grow their own apples, and 50% of our paying members are using cider apples to make cider.”

  Furthermore, regional brands continue to absorb more of the cider market share, and these brands offer a greater variety of ciders to consumers. McGrath says that in 2012, regional brands represented about 8% of the cider retail market, a number that has risen to 34% today. Also, regional brands of cider sales have grown 16% in the last year, while national brands declined 9%. Because national brands represent more of the total market share, the net result is an overall de-cline of 2% in domestic retail cider sales in 2018. 

  At first glance, this appreciation for small regional craft ciders seems to indicate consumers will be interested in paying a premium for heirloom ciders made with cider apples. Crystie Kisler, co-founder of Finnriver Farm & Cidery, observes how the consumer’s palate has evolved since 2008 when she founded an 80-acre farm situated in Chimacum Valley, Washington.

  “We have appreciated seeing how the sensibilities and palate of folks in the cider-drinking community have evolved over the years,” Kisler says. “We get a lot of interest in our homegrown ‘estate’ ciders—featuring those traditional cider apple varieties with greater complexity—and enjoy seeing people discover the nuances and possibilities in cider fruit.”

  Kisler’s partner at Finnriver, Eric Jorgensen, says that the higher price point of cider made from cider apples does not appear to deter customers who travel to their tasting room. “I’d say that despite their higher price point, when we have them available, they are just as popular as our ciders made from dessert fruit. That preference runs the full range of consumers—we get a very broad spectrum of people coming to visit us.”

  According to Jorgensen, this consumer interest in cider apples can be attributed to several factors: flavor profiles that are nuanced, interesting and complex; gen-eral values around tradition and the rediscovery of these apple varieties; and in-terest in products made with ingredients farmed locally and on a smaller scale.

  From the cidermaker’s perspective, Andrew Byers, Head Cidermaker & Produc-tion Manager at Finnriver, says the advantage of producing cider apples is based in complexity. “Making cider from dessert fruit—be it antique varietals or more modern releases—is making cider from fruit that was conceptualized for a differ-ent purpose, such as eating a fresh apple, or saucing, or baking a pie. Cider fruit has been selected for the qualities they bring to the cider. Body, phenolics, aro-matics—all that cannot be found in a dessert-fruit-based ferment.”

  Byers describes how these apples can transport drinkers to another level. “[Cider apples] waltz you across the room with ease to a place of wonderment where you didn’t know ‘apples could do that.’ [They bring you to] that lovely platform of hav-ing your horizons broadened—a place to realize you just discovered a previously unknown potential. Cider fruit, each year, is an opportunity to waltz with the pub-lic and show them the best we can be.”

  Some logistical challenges are inherent in growing cider apples not necessarily found when producing dessert apples. Tim Larsen, owner and cidermaker at Snowdrift Cider Company in East Wenatchee, Washington, says, “These apples were never cultivated because they grew in an orchard so well, or because they yielded so many tons to an acre. They are grown because of their flavor and aroma. Furthermore, fermentation and aging of cider apples is a fair bit different than working with modern eating apples.” Larsen designed his new operation, Sunred Cider, to manage these challenges for cidermakers and streamline the process between growers and producers.

  Adding to the cost of producing cider fruit is the U.S. law prohibiting farmers from harvesting apples that fall to the ground. Hence, farmers cannot mechanically harvest these apples on a large scale, unlike in the U.K., where apples can be harvested after they’ve fallen off the trees.

  Larsen points to the need for consumer education. In his estimation, “most peo-ple see cider as a sort of holistic Mike’s Hard Lemonade.” He attributes this per-ception to the fact that most large scale cider operations are forced to rely on a very restricted supply of apple juice that, at its best, is pretty uninteresting. They spice up their product, adding flavorings, sweeteners and colors. “This is great if you want something that tastes like alcoholic watermelon juice with hibiscus or some other flavor combination, but it’s not great if you want to experience real cider,” he said.

  Ryal Schallenberger of Northwest Mobile Juicing says that cidermakers try to distance themselves from the apples when they are using bulk juice. “They make comments on their labels that are generic like ‘fresh northwest juice.’ Folks that are using traditional cider apples say so on their labels, for the most part.” This distinction may be apparent to cider connoisseurs; however, this differentiation does not seem to be conveyed to the general public.

  The question, though, is how many consumers crave “real cider” given the popu-larity of ciders made with added pineapple, hops, botanicals or spices? In 2018, apple cider without added fruits, spices or botanicals constituted 63% of national retail sales. Even though over half of all sales in 2018 were ciders made with ap-ples, the trend toward producing non-apple ciders appears to be on the rise. For example, Jeff Parrish, co-owner of Portland Cider Company, notes that consumer demand continues to increase for ciders made with pineapples, pears, and other non-apple fruit.

  In his analysis, Parrish does not view large-scale production of cider apples tak-ing off unless enough cider apples are grown and harvested to bring the cost down to the same price point as craft beer. Simply put, not enough consumers are willing to pay $10 to $12 for a bottle of cider made with premium Pacific Northwest cider apples to justify producing it on a large scale.

  Also, Jorgensen says the general cider distribution market trends towards cans, and thus towards higher production volumes. He’s not aware of anyone with ac-cess to enough “traditional” cider juice to be able to package and sell in large quantities, let alone at a price point comparable to the more contemporary ciders on the market.

  Emily Ritchie, Executive Director at Northwest Cider Association, acknowledges the difficulties faced by craft cideries like the Portland-based Cider Riot. They closed their doors in November 2019 as they found themselves unable to produce their award-winning heirloom ciders while also maintaining a viable cidery and pub. “Right now, it’s harder to keep a business open when you’re just using cider fruit, as your price points are higher,” Ritchie says.

  In assessing the future of cider apples, Parrish points to cider’s long history as a working man’s drink. “It’s never been seen as having a high intrinsic value, and will not be viewed by the mass market as having a high value similar to wine.” In his estimation, history has proven that cider apples will remain a niche market with a loyal following.

  Conversely, Ritchie compares the potential growth of Pacific Northwest cider ap-ples to the growth of the wine industry in Oregon over the last 30 years. Those who planted the first vineyards in Willamette Valley and other AVA’s began from a place where they had no name recognition into producing internationally re-nowned Pinot Noirs and other varietals.

  With the first harvest from these aforementioned cider trees slated for 2020, will cider apples join Pinot Noir grapes as a fruit that defines this region? Time and price point will tell.

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