Putting Cider on the Map in Texas
By: Nan McCreary
Keep in the heart of Texas, far from the apple orchards of upstate New York or the Pacific Northwest, a Houston urban cidery is introducing locals to one of the joys of that age-old beverage that many consider the drink of the future: hard cider.
Houston Cider Company, founded as a brewery in 2015 by two young scientists, geologist Steve Macalello and chemist Justin Engle, offered Houstonians their first locally produced cider in 2017. Today, the cidery, located in the trendy Houston Heights neighborhood, is the only just-cider facility in the city and a hot spot for regulars who live in the area, as well as those who travel miles “because I heard I have to try your cider.”
“We aren’t even scratching the surface of what Houston can consume,” Macalello told Beverage Master Magazine.
Macalello’s cider is increasingly popular due to the demand for gluten-free drinks and low-alcohol beverages. “Cider is strongly associated with beer — they’re packaged similarly, as opposed to wine — and people are looking for a beer alternative. And the fact that our cidery is made locally really appeals to people.”
Macalello and Engle began their operation as Town in City Brewery. “When we started, there were fewer than a dozen breweries in Houston,” Engle said. “Now there are 80-some. In the beginning, we designed our facility so we could have add-ons, and when we saw a lot of customers wanting something other than beer, we decided to add cider.”
By 2018, the two were splitting production between beer and cider, but as they saw the demand for cider growing, they pulled the plug on beer. The decision appears to be a good one. Today, the Houston Cider Company services over 300 accounts in Southeast Texas, including Spec’s Wine, Spirits & Finer Foods, Total Wine & More, Whole Foods Market and H-E-B. The cidery has also won multiple national awards for its products.
As an urban cidery, Houston Cider Company can’t juice on-site, so they rely on suppliers from the Pacific Northwest to provide high-quality fruit for on-site fermentation. Their ciders are a blend of culinary apples for sugar content and cider apples for flavor. Botanicals, herbs and spices — added either during or post-fermentation — are all-natural and, as much as possible, sourced locally.
While Macalello works behind the scenes managing marketing and social media, Engle and assistant cidermaker and archeologist/geologist Olivia Fry are on the front lines, actually making the cider. Their philosophies are similar. “Our ciders are very traditional,” Engle said. “We make them as clean and crisp as possible. We take a wine-making approach. We play with the yeast, but we choose yeast that doesn’t have the esters and phenols that some people are looking for.”
Fry agreed. “We want our cider to be flavorful but all-natural. When we came out with our Houston 75 — based on the classic French 75 — we tried to do something different by using different yeasts and adding fresh lemon peel instead of processed sugars to get the flavors we wanted.”
With their backgrounds, the cidermakers are very science-driven. “We like data,” Engle said. “We’re always looking at data and methods of improvement. The more data we can collect, the better we’re able to predict fermentation timelines based on pH. We can measure down to the millimeter. Sometimes one additional peppercorn can make or break the cider.”
At the top of Houston Cider Company’s product line is the Core Four: ciders based on high-quality apple juice from the Pacific Northwest. The Core Four starts with Dry Cider, a 2019 U.S. Cup Cider Bronze award-winner, with flavors similar to a white wine with green apple. Next is the Cherry Cider, made with Montmorency cherry juice from Michigan, and a 2019 Cider Craft Double Gold award winner. Rosé Cider, featuring organic rose buds and Jamaican hibiscus flowers, won the 2019 Cider Craft Silver award. Finally, Pineapple Ginger is made with pineapple juice from Hawaii and freshly cut ginger. All are 6% alcohol by volume with no sugars added.
Additionally, the cidery releases a new small-batch cider every week through the taproom and on the website. “These are more fun flavors that incorporate botanicals or herbs or off-the-wall stuff,” Macalello told Beverage Master Magazine. “This allows us creative latitude to have fun with ingredients and see what they can do. If the customers like them, then we will put them on the market.”
These ciders include unique combinations such as Tea for Victory, fermented with an Earl Grey Black Tea blend and back-sweetened with organic agave nectar from Jalisco, Mexico, and Passion Fruit Hibiscus Cider, made with hibiscus from Jamaica and passion fruit from Mexico. Most recently, the cidery released South Coast Hopped Cider, a big, bold cider with assertive hop flavors and subdued bitterness. “This is a great cider for people who love beer but are sensitive to gluten,” Fry said. “It’s the next best thing to a beer.”
In 2019, the Houston Cider Company produced between 875 and 1,000 barrels of cider. To meet the increasing demand for their product, Engle and Macalello added new 4,500 gallon tanks and a canning line capable of filling 40 cans per minute. But then Covid-19 hit, and the company had to cut back on production and close the taproom. Not to be deterred, and looking ahead to the post-Covid world, they’re gearing up for a major expansion. “Right now, all of our product stays in Houston because we don’t have the capacity to expand,” Macalello said. “But 2021 will be a good year. We just installed two 120-barrel tanks and plan to add another one. There are dozens of stores that need products, so we hope to triple our growth this year.”
In the meantime, the cidery is selling their cider to-go and taking their products to farmer’s markets. Soon, they hope to reopen their taproom, which can accommodate 30 people, and their pet-friendly patio and garden area. They also hope to bring back events, which they used to hold quarterly. In the past, they’ve hosted a crawfish boil and a tiki night with tiki-inspired ciders accompanied by a pig roast. They’ve also participated in White Linen Night in the Heights, an annual street festival originating from a centuries-old New Orleans tradition where people wore all white to lessen the effects of the sun.
Last year, the Houston Cider Company formed a partnership with Bee2Bee Honey Collective, where the cidery made honey sourced from six different Houston neighborhood apiaries, each yielding different flavors of honey. Customers could vote for their favorite honey cider, with the cidery giving the winner a $500 donation to distribute to organizations in that neighborhood working on bee-friendly projects. “We hope to do this every year,” Engle said. “We really enjoyed partnering with Bee2Bee and educating our neighborhoods.”
As Houston Cider Company looks to the future, they will continue to create modern American craft ciders with a focus on fresh ingredients, but expect some surprises. “Our approach to cidermaking is traditional, but in terms of flavor, the sky’s the limit,” Engle told Beverage Master Magazine. “I like to cook at home and have all these flavors in my head, so I make ciders that have more flavor components than just apples.”
Their game plan also includes using more local ingredients, whether buying herbs from local farmers or even growing their own. Fry, for example, started a garden in her backyard and may produce some herbs in bulk for the cidery.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, research indicates that we can expect to see more and more innovation from cideries like the Houston Cider Company. Cider is one of the fastest-growing segments of the liquor industry, and today there are over 900 cideries spread across the country.
As Houston Cider Company says on their website, “We believe cider is for everyone, and that it is best enjoyed with good friends, great food, and high spirits.” That pretty much says it all.
To learn more about Houston Cider Company, or to buy its products, visit https://www.houstoncidertx.com.