“Are you a cider drinker?” asked owner Omer Cengiz when I walked into the upstairs bar at Upcider. I froze. For most Americans, especially men, this is a loaded question, fraught with the possibility that people might judge you for liking sugary apple drinks—or worse, pretending to be British. But that perception may be changing.
Hard cider is seeing a renaissance that could push it from the step-drink of American bars to a genuine beer and wine competitor. Look at the stats: The Beer Institute has overall cider sales up 20 percent in 2011, while mainstream beer sales were down, and in August, a market research firm in Chicago cited a 50 percent increase in cider sales in the U.S. over the previous year. The numbers have coaxed big beer makers. This year alone, Anheuser-Busch launched Michelob Ultra Light Cider; Crispin Cider Co. in Colfax, Calif., was acquired by MillerCoors; Heineken bought U.K.-based Strongbow cider; and Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, launched their own cider under the Angry Orchard label. It’s official: Cider is trending.
While most people think of cider as beer’s little sister, it might have another, closer relative: “Cider has a lot of the same characteristics as wine,” says St. George Spirits distiller Dave Smith. “As with wine, an apple-y terroir really makes a difference.” This similarity, and San Franciscans’ understanding of the concept, helped motivate Upcider’s owners to open here in the first place. “Because [of the proximity to] Wine Country, people here are much more willing to try different tastes and take risks than most,” says co-owner Ozgun Gundogdu. “They’re used to having diversity on their table with beer and wine. But most Americans still believe that cider has just one taste—that it has to be sugary and sweet. It’s our job to educate their palates on the differences and help them realize that, as with craft beers and wines, there really are many different types of cider.”
In the name of journalistic curiosity, I volunteered to expand my own cider palate. Over the course of three hours, Cengiz and Gundogdu showed me 25 different ciders, painstakingly taking me through everything from macro-market ciders (Ace and Fox Barrel) to traditional dry English ciders (Henney’s and Hogans) to double fermented, champagne-style French to unfiltered, unpasteurized, sediment-packed sour Basque ciders. Tilted Shed’s January Barbecue Smoked Cider, made by a husband-wife team in Sonoma County using heirloom apples smoked over pear wood, blew my mind. Not surprisingly, UpCider sold out of their three cases almost as soon as they got them. With all the different styles and flavor profiles, the entire experience felt like an expansive, all-encompassing wine tasting, except one in which the winemaker was either really into you or actively trying to end your night.
With the bar starting to fill—and my notes suddenly taking on a certain indecipherable quality—I made my exit. As I stumbled towards the door, Cengiz stood behind the bar helping a woman who’d ordered a glass of wine. Noticing me watching as he poured, Cengiz turned and winked: “Don’t worry, the night is young. We’ll make a cider drinker out of her yet.”
This article was published in 7x7's December/January issue. Click here to subscribe.