On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Joanna Sciarrino and Zach Geballe discuss hard cider’s attempt to borrow from hard seltzer in a bid to revitalize the flagging category. The two debate why hard cider’s momentum has fizzled in the last decade and what a path forward for craft producers may look like. Tune in for more.

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Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” We are coming to you post-Labor Day. Zach, how’s it going? How was your weekend?

Z: It was pretty relaxed. Did a little bit of family stuff. Went and spent some time out at my dad’s house.

J: Nice.

Z: Just nothing too major.

J: Also in Seattle?

Z: He lives outside of Seattle, but not that far, about an hour and a half away. So a good drive for the day, but not too bad. But it’s one of those things where, as we discussed last week — well, we didn’t really get into this, but one of the challenges for me with things like this kind of holiday weekend is that going places with the kids is kind of like, there’s a very clear point where going past a certain distance or amount of time of commute with them in a day is functionally impossible. And weirdly, both my dad and my mom — who are divorced and live in different places — are right at the outer edges of that limit. So we can do a day trip to their houses; once in a while it’s kind of worth it to deal with the three hours in the car round trip, but much further than that and it’s like, we better be taking an overnight, which is kind of how I would feel even if we didn’t have kids, but it’s greatly heightened with children. So there’s a lot of car time involved to make a day like that happen, but it’s nice. And it’s nice for the kids to get some grandparent time and the grandparents to get some grandkid time.

J: What’s the traffic situation in Seattle? I’ve been a few times, but is it notoriously bad?

Z: Yeah, I mean, no one really cares enough about the nuances of why going places in the Greater Seattle area right now is rough, but you have this mix of a lot of construction. My dad actually lives across Puget Sound, so we sometimes would take a ferry across. We didn’t this time, because the ferries are themselves dealing with real issues with labor issues, and they’re running fewer ferries than they used to. And when you throw in it’s a holiday weekend, there’s such a shit show that I’d rather deal with the traffic, which was pretty brutal. Day to day, it’s not so bad for me, for us, but getting through the city when people are trying to do it en masse is really hard. The people who designed the federal highway system did not anticipate perhaps Seattle’s growth as a city. And shockingly I-5, which is the main freeway through downtown Seattle, goes down to two lanes basically through downtown Seattle, which is a design flaw, as it turns out.

J: I’d say so.

Z: Hard to make that work. Everything else is an exit lane. And yeah, it’s just a mess. So anyhow, that was a part of the day where I was like, I really need a drink.

J: And so then what did you drink?

Z: Not so much when I got to have one.

J: Yeah.

Z: So a couple of things for me, I don’t know why, maybe we will eventually get to this on the podcast sometime, but this weekend, Labor Day weekend, always feels like a very beer kind of weekend for me.

J: Yeah.

Z: I mean, I drink beer year round in various forms, but there’s something about it, and maybe just the kind of, it’s not the true end of summer, but we had really nice weather, which is great. And I just was like, I want some beers. So I drank a couple of different beers from some local breweries. Pilsner from Chuckanut Brewing, which is one of my favorite local kinds of pilsner-y style beers, just really clean and crisp. Pilsners, I think we’ve covered on the podcast before, fall into this interesting category to me where sometimes the gap between a really great pilsner and a good-ish pilsner doesn’t feel very big, but when you have one, you know it. And I think that Chuckanut Pilsner is really a great one. And then some hazy IPAs, the Head Full of Dynamite from Fremont Brewing I’ve talked about on the podcast before. One of my kind of consistent go-tos. And I’m very excited. We’re getting close to one of my favorite times of the year, which is fresh hop beer season.

J: Yes.

Z: Most of the breweries around here have started making those beers, but I don’t think anything has hit the shelves yet. I think probably a week or so out from that. And then I will probably be talking about those beers on the podcast plenty, because I make a point to drink them.

J: Yeah, I feel like it was just yesterday that we were talking about these last year.

Z: Yeah. Time goes by, Joanna.

J: They were very good.

Z: What about you? What have you been drinking?

J: So a few things that I’ve had recently that have been really great. I feel like every time I now talk about sour beers, but I did have another really good one from Talea here in New York called Tart Deco, which is a peach cobbler sour IPA. Definitely not like a beer for everyday, but it was kind of very fruit-forward, but not too tart in a way I feel like a lot of sours are. Has a nice sweetness to it and feels very decadent. But not heavy. That was really great. And then got dinner recently and had a pét-nat, a German pét-nat called “Kiss Kiss Maddie’s Lips.” And it’s from Staffelter Hof is the winemaker. 100 percent Pinot Noir. And that was really good, I haven’t had a pét-nat in a while. We don’t talk about those a ton at VinePair, but that was really good. Not too funky but had a nice freshness to it. So that was good too. And then yeah, I also had a really delicious passion fruit Margarita. I feel like passion fruit is on the precipice of exploding as a flavor. What do you think?

Z: That’s really interesting. Look, I think there’s something about those kinds of… Would you call a passion fruit kind of like a sour fruit or something? I don’t know how you describe it exactly, right?

J: I think tropical fruit.

Z: But it’s not a tropical fruit in the way that a mango is or something. Well, maybe more pineapple in a way where the tartness of it is a big part of the flavor profile.

J: Yes.

Z: And that I think definitely fits into the kind of mood of drinkers right now where there’s an exotic note to it, or that tropical note to it, but also tartness. It’s not luscious and sweet. I’ve only ever had passion fruit as a beverage flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one.

J: Had them fresh.

Z: I’m not even really sure what you do with them. I’ve had a passion fruit sorbet and stuff, but again, I’ve never had the fruit itself. So my frame of reference is kind of based around that. But yeah, I think that is plausible to me. And I think again, as we’ve talked about, and we’ll I’m sure continue to talk about, we are in this period of time where you see so much emphasis on flavor.

J: Yes.

Z: And flavors, I guess, not just flavor as a whole, but flavors as a selling point for all kinds of different things in the drinks space. And you see some people hewing to very traditional flavors, but also people looking at how can I put something in front of people that they haven’t had before, or isn’t already kind of well saturated in the market, and if passion fruit is the thing that blows up, then yeah, maybe you’re well positioned.

J: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, but I do feel like I’ve been seeing it in different iterations a lot more recently.

Z: Interesting.

J: Before we get into this week’s topic, I just want to add a brief note about the last episode in which we discussed the Piña Colada and failed to reference any of the new data.

Z: Oh yeah.

J: That actually shows that the Piña Colada is increasing in popularity with 87 percent growth during the second quarter of this year, according to Nielsen data. So, definitely seeing it more on menus across bars and restaurants, and people ordering it quite a bit. So that definitely informed our conversation last episode, but nobody mentioned it, and I’m sorry.

Z: We need Adam. Sorry, folks.

J: Yeah. Whoops. So today, we’re talking about something else. We’re heading straight into fall. Very, very excited for this. And so, we thought we’d discuss hard cider, a category that no one seems to talk about anymore, that lives in the shadow of its other boozy brethren, hard seltzer, FMBs, RTDs, craft beer, of course. But we thought we’d talk about it today because yeah, it’s been a while and it’s a category that maybe just a decade ago had lots of growth potential and promise that just slipped away and declined over the last couple of years. So Zach, we wanted to talk about what we see for the category and if it has any pathways forward to regain any of that growth.

Z: Let’s start with a little baseline here. So I think there was a period in time, and as you mentioned, a decade-ish ago, when cider enthusiasts, advocates, and producers believed that cider could take a meaningful chunk of the American alcoholic beverage economy, for lack of a better way of putting it. That maybe it wasn’t going to stand where beer, wine, and spirits do, but that it would be a meaningful fourth category. And that was maybe debatable all along how truly possible that was. I think an argument in favor of it is that we’ve seen hard seltzer become that fourth category and take a meaningful chunk of that market. So clearly, there was space somewhere there. I think the question is whether cider would’ve been able to do that in a non-hard seltzer world, or if things had gone differently, maybe. But I think that the problem then, and the persistent problem now for hard cider, I think, is that it suffers from a bifurcated approach and market. And by that, I mean, if you think about some of the most successful cider brands, Angry Orchard, etc., a lot of their appeal was their straightforward flavor, their sweetness, and their ability to position themselves as gluten-free.

J: Yes.

Z: And that was a big thing. But where they’ve been undercut is, people have moved more and more — or at least a segment of the audience has moved more and more — towards less sweet, less caloric options that are also gluten-free, like seltzer.

J: Not even in the cider space, you mean?

Z: Exactly.

J: Yeah.

Z: Because I think that the dry cider camp has always been small. It’s always been a small portion of the broader cider audience, which itself is already on the small side.

J: Pretty small, yeah.

Z: And so we’ve had the kind of legs cut out from under the bigger category, the bigger part of the category by gluten-free options that are drier and less caloric that aren’t cider. And for the people for whom the sort of gluten-free side of it was the most important part, they might well prefer other flavors that just didn’t have options or other bases, or the seltzer might appeal to them more or offer them more variety. And then I think you have this other piece, which is that the dry side of it, the craft side of it, the artisanal side of it, has just never been able to make a super-compelling argument for itself to a broader audience. And we might get into why that is, but I think it’s at this point hard to debate that is where we currently stand.

J: Yeah. I mean, think I agree with that. And that’s why even more recent data has shown that while cider sales are up — more regional cider brands are growing, those smaller ones that maybe are dryer — Angry Orchard and brands like that, the sales there are declining. And so, I agree that if Angry Orchard paved the way for the category, then it lost a lot of its enthusiasts or people who drank that cider to these other categories along the way. What I think is interesting, though, and also I think hard cider kind of suffers from being perceived in a very specific way, which is, like you said, it’s apple, it’s sweet. And even though there are offerings outside of that within the category, that’s kind of what people associate with hard cider, I think in a way that makes it hard for the category to continue to grow or be appealing to more drinkers, especially when there’s now such a vast selection of drinks available for people to have.

Z: Yeah. Well think of it this way too: There was a period in time when cider was sort of growing in popularity. If you wanted a single serve of anything alcoholic, your only two options were basically beer or cider. And if you were not a beer drinker, you didn’t like beer, or you were trying to be gluten-free or whatever, literally your only 12-ounce bottle or can option in almost all over the country was cider. That was the only other packaged drink. I mean, you couldn’t get RTDs, they basically didn’t exist. You couldn’t get wine in a can for the most part, it didn’t exist. You couldn’t get seltzer obviously, it didn’t really exist. It was basically those things, and I guess other sort of an earlier generation of FMBs — your hard lemonades and such. And if that wasn’t the thing you wanted, if you wanted something that felt a little more premium or just that wasn’t like malt, grain alcohol, or sorry, malt-based alcohol with flavoring, then cider was basically your only beer alternative. And cider, it’s still a beer alternative, but there are many, many more now, that as it turns out, people might prefer.

J: Yup, and I think also there’s this great article from Brew Bound from last October that talks about just this. But I think what’s really interesting there also is that tap cider was able to be a tap handle at places, at bars, and restaurants, and places like Buffalo Wild Wings. And that has again paved the way for smaller brands to be around and to be available for people to drink. But as the interest in an Angry Orchard kind of waned, those tap handles went over to things like hard seltzer instead of another cider brand. And the same thing was true with retailers. If people aren’t buying that Angry Orchard, they’re less likely to replace it with another or continue to grow their cider segment or whatever selection, and instead are just replacing it with more popular categories that have more promising growth, like hard seltzer.

Z: Yeah. Well, and I think you kind of look at the other piece of this. In my eyes, you see a lot of people now trying to sort of turn cider frankly into seltzer. And to be fair, this has been going on since even before seltzer. Flavored cider, ciders with adjuncts, things like that have been around for the last 10 to 15 years, and part of this is, again, to come back to this sort of idea of this bifurcation of cider, you have, for lack of a better word, the people who have treated apples and all that as sort of the base material, but not really the centerpiece of what the finished product is about, or at least not, they’re not precious about it. And then you have the sort of craft side that’s looking at traditional cider apples, single-vintage ciders, and all this kind of stuff, which is cool. But I think it’s almost not really worth spending a lot of time on for the sake of this conversation, because it’s such a small market. And I think something that we both enjoy, but I also think is perpetually going to be a kind of niche thing, which is great. We like niche things just fine. But when you look at, “OK, we’re going to use apples and the alcohol that comes from fermenting them as our base. And then we’re going to layer on all these other flavors,” I also wonder if cider can compete economically because apples are more expensive than grain, right? The reality is you have to charge more for your product, presumably, because even if you’re buying apple concentrate or something, I think it’s got to have a higher cost than the equivalent in wheat or malted barley or whatever you’re using as your base, and that part of it makes it really hard to stand out. Now, there might be some paths forward; we’ll, I think get into that in a moment, but functionally, I think one big piece for what we’re seeing now is just like, will people care that it’s technically a cider and not a seltzer or whatever? Maybe. I don’t know.

J: Yeah. That is a good question. Because like you mentioned, we’re seeing a lot of the innovation in the category echoing or mirroring what we’re seeing in the hard seltzer space, which is different flavor packs, something like higher-ABV, or stronger versions of it, like we see in hard seltzer all the time. I do think that even, I don’t know, I just don’t see it working. I think it can try, you can have your seasonal fall pack, but I think ultimately it will be hard for it to compete with hard seltzer by even just doing the same kind of taking the same tack as hard seltzer is to continue its growth, or I suppose the category itself isn’t even growing. And it’s doing all it can to innovate as well.

Z: I mean, I think there’s a path forward potentially if a producer can make a sort of compelling argument about something differentiating, sort of setting the product apart in a premium sense that it’s based on apples and not based on malt, which people do. Some people have a sort of stigma towards it, and maybe understandably to some extent. But it just feels weird. I think we both looked at this, there was a piece from March by Beverage Industry that’s kind of this beer report, and you see all these sorts of products that we’re seeing out here and it’s like you got a strawberry lemonade light cider, or cucumber agave light cider. And it’s kind of like, what is this product? I think someone might pick it up. It might be good. This isn’t a question about the overall absolute quality, but there is a question of what part of this being cider matters to anyone?

J: Yeah. I think as a category, it has a number of different challenges, many of which we’ve spoken about, like the premium part of it as well, it being more expensive and it needing to be considered more of a premium product, but then it’s competing against things like hard seltzer and other malt beverages. Figuring out who’s drinking it when it is kind of bifurcated, like you said. Coming up with these different flavors, and packs, and kind of emulating hard seltzer that way. But then having this other part of the same category in 750-milliliter bottles and sold alongside wine. I think it just makes it really, really confusing for consumers to kind of understand the occasion for hard cider.

Z: Yeah. Well, and I think the last piece of this is, or a last piece of this, at least in my eyes, is that there’s also this kind of problem of how are you reaching these drinkers in the first place, right?

J: Right.

Z: And if you’re craft beer, say, your answer to that question is in large part these days, taprooms, maybe beer bars. And you mentioned that cider has had a really hard time holding onto taps, even in this world where draft beer, etc., is not as important, just because of changes that have happened since Covid, but even so, it’s still a big part of the market. And so, if you don’t really have tap handle space, and your product is going to kind of get lost in the shuffle on shelves, if it even gets there among many other canned or bottled products these days, it’s kind of weird. Where do people even come across this stuff, right? You kind of are looking for this sort of mythical customer who wants cider, but also wants flavor, but wants premium, but also wants… I don’t really know who this person is, or I’m sure they exist. There are some of these people, but at the core — I guess that’s an apple pun, I didn’t even think about it — you have this just, issue of you failing to make space for yourself when there wasn’t the competition. And now, I just think there’s too much competition. There are too many categories and too many, frankly, really big players looking for enough of your presumed market that I just don’t really know how you compete at a large scale.

J: Yeah. I mean, I think also what we’ve been seeing then, and this is not a large scale, this is in smaller regional brands, but seeing them extend to other categories, like a hard lemonade or hard teas and going outside of their, again, core offering of hard cider to attract drinkers in a different way and hopefully bring them to the category, which I think is interesting, and that’s tough. That’s kind of a tough thing, but yeah, again, I would love to hear more from cider makers who deal with this challenge firsthand.

Z: Yeah. Well, and I want to kind of add or ask one last thing of you, Joanna, which is, before we wrap up this conversation. Taking a moment to look at that piece of the market that I previously dismissed — the people who are really interested in these sorts of, not just craft, but artisanal ciders, small production, maybe made from heritage cider varieties, or that are playing much more in that space that is frankly much more analogous to wine than they are to beer, FMBs, canned cocktails, etc. Do you think that side of cider has any room to take up space from wine? Because I actually think that’s more plausible to me than the other side, but I want to hear your thoughts first.

J: I think in a very specific way, and it’s in the context of the natural wine conversation, which is something that we’ve discussed before, but kind of like cider paving the way or being a gateway for natural wine. And now, I think they’re very, in some cases, similar in terms of flavor profile. Obviously, cider is made from apples, but like you said, sometimes other fruits are added in. And I think that is probably its biggest area of opportunity, because in terms of still wines, or fine wines that I just feel like it’s hard to compare on a shelf. To get somebody who’s coming in for a fine wine to opt for cider instead. But if you’re going in for a funky natural wine or a pét-nat or something like that, I could easily see somebody picking up a nice bottle of dry cider.

Z: Yeah. Well, and you’re already seeing some kind of hybridization of the category as is. I wrote for the site a few months ago about this category of what I called multi-fruit wines, which are basically wine grapes co-fermented or blended with some other fruit, often apples or pears. And there are reasons for that, we’ll link to the piece. You can go read it. I won’t repeat it here, but that whole, very small category of drink at this point. But that whole notion, I think, is part of the reason why maybe you’ll see a little bit of growth on this side of the market, why we are seeing growth on this side of the market, because the line between natural wine and natural cider is pretty, it’s really just a matter of what the fruit source is. And I think if you’re doing some of the same kinds of fermentation styles and whatnot, you’re going to get a similar-tasting product either way. The other possibility is, and this is more speculative. I don’t really know the answer to this, probably should ask around, but I wonder if there are some climate change slash sort of smoke-related reasons why cider might be a little bit sturdier in the American West than grapes. I don’t know. It’s quite possible that smoke taint is a thing that happens to apples as well. It wouldn’t shock me to find that out. I honestly just do not know.

J: Maybe seasonally it would be different, no?

Z: Well, I mean, possibly, but again, like I said, I’ve never even seen anyone discuss it in the context of apples. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Maybe that’s a real issue. I just have no idea, but it is true that the harvest may not quite align. Although they’re not that far apart, I don’t believe. Apple harvest season is now-ish as is grape season in most places, but it may just be that category, that base is more robust. And so yeah, maybe people don’t just go away from fine wine. I don’t think that will happen, but maybe there are people for whom, again, especially producers here in the Western part of the United States and other places that are struggling with the risk of smoke damage in some years, if not most. That producers that can offer a product that has artisanal quality, is site specific and interesting and complex, that doesn’t run those same risks. If it doesn’t — again, purely speculative here. That might be again a way over time to gain some market share because I’ll speak to here in Washington State, a lot of what were historically apple orchards — now, granted, for table apples, not for cider apples — but still what were historically apple orchards were ripped out and replaced with vines, because at some point, wine grapes became a more profitable product than apples. It’s always remained somewhat close. I mean, apples also command a pretty high price, but if that math swings, people will make the opposite decision at some point. They’ll have to, presumably. So, I don’t know. I think the craft side of cider, the fine side of cider, has some continued room for a little bit of growth, but as mentioned earlier, it’s a smaller part of the cider market as a whole. So it’s not, I think, something that cider as a whole can be that excited about.

J: Can rely on, yeah. Yeah, I don’t see it happening on a large scale, the same way that we saw what happened back in the early 2010s with the category. But we’ll keep tracking it.

Z: Of course.

J: And if you have thoughts on hard cider as a category, if you have any hard ciders that you love, please feel free to email us at [email protected]. And otherwise, Zach, I will talk to you on Friday. Have a wonderful week.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show, or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast, whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere. If you are listening to this on a device right now, through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

And now for some totally awesome credits. So the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters, and in Seattle, Wash., in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.