Cideries squeeze into craft beverage scene

Cider makers keep creative juices flowing as popularity grows

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Imagine it’s a hot Colorado day and adults are looking for alcoholic beverages to help beat the heat. Many seek out beer, seltzers and cocktails.

But, for Sam Al-Jassim and many others, the answer is cider.

This fruit wine has grown in popularity in the United States and Colorado over the last 10 years, and cideries, taprooms and tasterooms have recently opened across the Denver metro area.

Unfortunately, the sugary national brands have given cider a bit of a bad reputation, but locals are working to correct that, saying there’s something for everyone.

“We have seen people who don’t like cider try it and come back,” Al-Jassim, a manager at Clear Creek Cidery & Eatery in Idaho Springs, said. “I feel like there’s a cider for everybody.”

Like wine, the drink has a range of dryness and sweetness, with some falling at either end and some in the middle. The industry also offers a variety of flavors — anything from Locust Cider’s mojito to Colorado + 49 Cidery & Pub’s blueberry lavender.

Luke Furey, operations manager at Golden-based Colorado + 49, described how he thinks of cider as a happy medium between beer and hard seltzer, saying it’s the perfect crisp and cool drink to enjoy on a hot day.

Of course, there’s no reason why drinks have to be mutually exclusive as there’s plenty of local craftsmanship to go around.

Brad Page, owner of Denver-based Colorado Cider Company, pointed out that the British — the world’s biggest cider drinkers — often drink beer and cider in the same sitting. And some local cideries, like Clear Creek and Colorado + 49, keep beer on tap, offer flights of beer and/or cider, and can make beer-cider mixes.

And, for those who don’t drink, local cideries also offer a variety of food options.

So, whether people are diehard fans, casual drinkers or uninitiated, Page and his colleagues only ask that they keep an open mind and explore the world of flavor local cideries have to offer.

A blooming industry

Cider is made from fermented fruit — primarily apples — and is most popular in Britain and other parts of Europe. Page, a Colorado Cider Guild board member, said it used to be a common drink in the United States but fell out of favor shortly before Prohibition.

However, as the craft beverage movement began in earnest, Page said it was only a matter of time until ciders saw a revival.

When Colorado Cider Company opened in 2011, it was the first commercial cidery in the area. Now, there are probably 18 across Colorado, Page estimated.

Cider’s gluten-free profile is one reason it’s become so popular. It also has less sugar than beer, in most cases, and is lower in alcohol content than liquor. Thus, it’s healthier overall than other alcoholic drinks, industry members posited.

While the industry’s growth seemingly exploded between 2013 and 2018, Page said two things have hindered it recently.

The first is the pandemic, which restricted capacities and forced many cideries to survive on to-go orders. The other is the rise of hard seltzer, which breweries can mass-produce much cheaper than cideries can make their products.

However, the overall movement toward craft beverages in general is helping, Page said, as many Coloradans want to support smaller producers and enjoy better quality drinks.

Is there an untapped market?

While Page was unsure whether the metro area will see more cideries in the near future, he said the existing ones are definitely growing.

Furey was more optimistic, believing that more cideries will pop up over the next five years and that they could eventually be on par with breweries as they gain more national popularity.

The success of Seattle-based Locust Cider’s new Belmar taproom also seems to indicate the cidery market is relatively untapped.

Despite opening last fall — among increasing COVID-19 restrictions and poor weather — business has far exceeded expectations, manager Sarah Mutch stated. She and Eric Smith, vice president of Locust Cider-Rocky Mountains, said they can’t keg the place fast enough sometimes.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Mutch said.

Unlike breweries, local cideries don’t have as much geographic competition. Both Furey and Mutch pointed out that their locations are the only cideries in Golden and Lakewood, respectively.

Additionally, while some cideries like Wheat Ridge’s Clear Fork Cider distribute to local restaurants and liquor stores, others like Colorado + 49 only offer theirs on-site.

Although the market is growing, it’s still relatively small so everyone knows and helps each other, Smith said. The better the industry does as a whole, the better for each cidery.

Keeping history fresh

For Rob Bayless, Clear Fork’s director of operations, the industry is as much about the drink itself as it is about the people who enjoy it.

Bayless described how he takes pride in crafting cider, explaining everything from visiting local orchards to hand-pressing the apples to letting the juice ferment for several months.

“When you go to make it, it always feels like alchemy,” he said. “You start with a sweet juice, and six months later, it can end up as a completely changed product. … It’s magical to see that transformation.”

Along with the taste, people can also connect with the story behind the ciders, Bayless continued. Cider-making is very much tied to Colorado’s agricultural and orchard-industry roots.

Whether people have similarly deep ties or are relatively new to Colorado, he said, “I think people can relate to that history and that story … There’s a lot of (Colorado) pride around that.”

Contact reporter Corinne Westeman at 303-567-4491 or cwesteman@coloradocommunitymedia.com, and follow her on Twitter @cwesteman.

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