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ARMADA, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) -- First, it was wine. Then came craft beer. And now, it's hard cider that's making a splash with consumers thirsting for the next new thing in beverages.

The fizzy, fermented drink of our Colonial American forefathers is back and is the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in the country, with at least double-digit sales increases the last four years, according to industry data.

It's true locally as well, according to Gary Thompson, chief operating officer of Powers Distributing, a beverage distributor that serves hundreds of southeast Michigan bars, restaurants and retailers. Demand is "exploding," he says.

That's good news for the Michigan apple industry and people like 24-year-old Andrew Blake, founder of Blake's Hard Cider in Armada and the third generation of his family to work in the orchard business.

In October, Blake opened the handsome Blake's Ciderhouse, southeast Michigan's first real cidery - like a winery or brewery, but for hard cider. There, guests can relax with a glass of his Autumn Apple, Wayward Winter or up to six other hard ciders on tap. All are pressed and fermented from apples grown in his family's orchards.

"Since we've opened our doors, we've had a hard time keeping up with product," Blake said. "People like the stuff, and they like the atmosphere. ... People like something new, and it's a good drink."

Demand also exceeds supply at Uncle John's Cider Mill in St. Johns, north of Lansing, says owner Mike Beck, producer of Uncle John's Hard Cider.

"We haven't been able for the last month and a half to get a distributor a full order of what they want. We're selling much more at our own place than expected" and distribution expanded to several other states, said Beck, president of the new United States Association of Cider Makers.

Still, many consumers remain unfamiliar with hard cider, which in its most elemental form is simply fermented apple juice. But production methods, the varieties of apples used and the addition of other fruits, nuts or even hops create tremendous differences in taste and other characteristics.

It can vary from drinks that taste like fizzy apple juice to complex beverages that are as bone dry as fine champagne. It can be still or slightly bubbly, clear or cloudy, and any color from pale golden through rosy red and into brown.

Thompson, a hard-cider fan, says its range of flavor is "not quite as wide as beer, but you can get ciders with cinnamon and roasted almonds like Vander Mills. Tart ciders. Ciders with ginger. Ciders with blueberries. ... The taste spectrum is just fabulous."

And unless processing introduces gluten, hard cider is naturally gluten-free - considered one of the main reasons for its rapid growth.

Hard cider still amounts to less than 1% of the U.S. beer market. But Blake notes it's between 7% and 14% of the market in European countries including Scotland, England, France and parts of Spain, where the centuries-old drink never died off, as it did in America after Prohibition.

So the potential exists for continued growth in the U.S.; Blake says some industry experts predicted it could become as much as 5% of the market. "That's what we hope. We'll see what happens," he said.

One reason for optimism is that national and international beverage companies dived into the market. They bought or started brands and supported them with aggressive marketing campaigns. Boston Beer, owner of the Sam Adams brand, is the parent of Angry Orchard, for example. MillerCoors owns Crispin, Heineken owns Strongbow and Anheuser-Busch owns Stella Artois Cidre.

"The big guys are getting into it," Blake said, "and that actually helps us because it's moving the market" by increasing awareness of hard cider in general.

As the industry grows, Beck says, Michigan could become the nation's leader in hard-cider production. Although the state is the third-largest apple grower behind New York and Washington, it has some built-in advantages over both, he says.

Michigan grows the greatest number of apple varieties, enabling cider-makers to craft more distinctive, complex flavors. And the climate produces fruit that is firmer and has greater depth of flavor, making it a premium product for processing. Michigan also has a long tradition of fresh cider making and has the greatest number of cider mills, amounting to a ready-made infrastructure for apple growers to make and sell cider in its fermented form.

Of the "well over 100" hard-cider producers identified nationally by the cider association, Michigan is home to about 30, Beck says. The number includes some wineries, breweries and non-farm companies, in addition to orchard-based producers like Beck, Blake and several others across the state.

The difference between orchard-based ciders like his and mass-market brands, Beck says, can be significant. He and other growers make "a 100% juice product, made directly from the juice of apples," while some mass-market brands, he says, also use apple concentrates.

"People with trees in the ground, we think we have a better story to tell," Beck said. "We have a connection to the land."

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