Right outside of Danville, Virginia, there’s an orchard where Kether Smith’s grandfather used to spend his days picking apples.

Now, Smith and her team at Botanist & Barrel Cidery and Winery in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, grow much of their own produce, while also buying apples from that same orchard.

“We’ve worked with them from the very beginning,” said Smith, partner and head cidermaker. ‘It’s kind of a fun little thing.”

Don’t let that word “craft” fool you, though—Botanist & Barrel’s operation might be smaller, but it’s not small.

It certainly doesn’t feel small as you venture through their farmhouse, past the juicer that presses dozens of apples a minute, to enter the 65-degree cold-fermenting room, where four 2,000-liter tankers sit on the left, full to the brim with aging cider. On the right, a bevy of 50-gallon barrels once used for wines and spirits impart their past flavors on the ciders inside.

Botanist & Barrel’s ciders are distributed to stores in the Carolinas, Georgia, and even California, with the cidery also offering a “cider club” subscription that ships products to customers nationwide four times a year. In this space, craft doesn’t always mean “small”—it means different, varied, unique.

“It can vary from batch to batch,” Smith said. “So we have to teach people, you know, this is the apple of this season from this orchard with this weather, and it’s going to change and it’s going to vary. Things are gonna be slightly different, and we embrace those differences.”

Hard ciders have experienced massive growth in popularity in recent years. Though only making up 1–2 percent of the current U.S. alcohol market as of 2021, hard cider’s profit for the fiscal period ending in December 2020 was $494.4 million. That represents an 11 percent increase in profits over that year, according to the Food Institute. According to a Market Data Forecast report, the industry is projected to have a continued average growth rate of 10.1 percent each year through 2026.

While millennials and baby boomers currently make up 69 percent of cider drinkers, according to a report from the American Cider Association, 20 percent of Gen Z–ers identify as cider drinkers. With the average age of cider drinkers getting younger, two-thirds of cider drinkers going to bars weekly, and more Gen Z–ers hitting drinking age, the potential for growth is clear.

That growth will come from people like Sophie Gilliam, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who goes out at least twice a week. To her, it’s the light taste and easy drinking of cider that makes it her go-to.

“You go up, all your friends are ordering it, and you’re like, ‘That sounds good!’” Gilliam said. “And everyone ends up kind of sipping on the same thing. It’s just way more fun to drink.”

Much of cider’s market share is taken up by large companies such as Angry Orchard and Bold Rock, but Angry Orchard’s market share decreased year over year in 2021, according to SevenFifty Daily, which covers the alcoholic beverage industry.

Even if large cideries continue to dominate the market, it’s only good news for craft cidermakers like Smith—as the big boys open the doors, the craft makers can squeeze in and find their niche. Most of the well-known national brands, for example, tend to add sugar and carbonation.

“We used to joke that those are what we would call ‘gateway ciders,’” said David Thornton, the co-owner of James Creek Cider House in Cameron, North Carolina. “We don’t make anything that’s as sweet as what you’ll see on the shelves at the supermarket.”

Thornton and his wife and business partner, Ann Marie Thornton, launched their cider in 2016 and are currently running two labels—their James Creek small-batch ciders made with entirely self-grown produce and their Stargazer label made with a mix of differently sourced apples.

“There’s a bunch of local craft breweries who have our cider on tap,” Ann Marie Thornton said. “And I think their clientele is looking for that taste experience or is looking for something original. And so our cider fits into the whole profile of what they’re offering.”

Being craft means embracing the differences that arise in each batch, even in the face of potential crises.

Last year, the Thorntons, along with the rest of North Carolina, were struck by a “lousy” apple harvest brought on by a mix of factors including cold temperatures. What apples did grow weren’t suitable for any of the three seasonal ciders James Creek usually puts out, so instead the Thorntons embraced the differences and put out a Whippoorwill blend with their “weird” apples.

The label was so successful that the Thorntons continued to produce it even after harvests improved.

“Try to try something from five or six different barrels, and you’ll see that there really is quite a range of what these apples can do, and that’s really fun,” David Thornton said.

To Mattie Beason, the East Coast region manager at Stem Ciders and Boulder Beer in Colorado, the most obvious of those drawing factors is the perceived healthiness of ciders. Though most ciders have a similar calorie count to a glass of wine, they do have a lower percentage of alcohol by volume, and their natural origin appeals to younger consumers more focused on health.

“They have what appears to be a much larger interest in taking care of themselves, their minds, and their bodies than the older generations have in the past,” Beason said. “And so they’re looking for things that are healthy, but still enjoyable, both taste-wise and [in] effect.”

Max Palmer, another UNC-Chapel Hill senior, agreed. Though he only really goes out to drink once a week, it’s always a cider that you’ll find in his glass. When he goes out, Palmer said, he wants something lighter in alcohol level that still lets him feel social and like he’s drinking.

“It’s like, that’s made from apples rather than malted barley or wheat, or other stuff like that,” Palmer said. “So I don’t know. Part of me feels like if people are typically asked to like, go get a cider, it’s seen as a more like laid-back activity rather than ‘Oh, let’s go to a bar and get a beer.’”

In David Thornton’s own words, even with its biggest players accounted for, hard cider is still “a flea bite” on the alcoholic beverage industry.

With Gen Z aging into its alcohol and leaning harder on hard cider than its predecessors, that flea bite might become a big enough platform for the big boys and the craft cideries to take a stronger hold of the market.

This piece was originally published by UNC Media Hub.

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