The Style Council

As the cider category pushes for its next growth wave, the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) is hoping that its recently unveiled style guidelines will help producers better connect with consumers. The guidelines, the first such standards that the nearly five-year-old organization has issued, come at a time when cider makers are grappling with how to best communicate their products’ attributes to consumers—who, for the most part, are still trying to get their heads around the very concept of cider, and once-robust cider sales have begun to slow.

The document represents the first stage of USACM’s broader effort to develop a unified flavor and style lexicon to help simplify consumers’ purchasing decisions. And, while the association’s board members were able to reach a consensus on what those styles should be, not everyone across the American cider-making spectrum is completely on board with the guidelines.

Ross Brockman, co-founder of Boston’s Downeast Cider House, argues that the existence of such standards neglects the fact that the vast majority of legal-drinking-age adults barely know what cider is, much less care about stylistic classification.

“I would say that 99.9999 percent could not give less of a f*&! about categories of cider,” Brockman says. “Let’s start with the basics; make good cider and then we’ll talk. We still have a long way to go in making good cider.”

Meanwhile, Joel, VandenBrink, CEO, president and founder of Seattle Cider Company doesn’t have an issue with the document’s existence per se, but he thinks it doesn’t go far enough to separate the craft and non-craft/macro sides of the business. The guidelines distinguish between two broad categories, Standard and Specialty, encompassing 10 styles overall. VandenBrink suggests a possible third category to which ciders made with fruit concentrates, high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors should be relegated. “I consider my cider craft cider,” VandenBrink says. “I don’t really consider those that use concentrates or artificial food coloring to be craft cider, personally.”

The craft-versus-macro debate, long a fixture of the beer category, has been heating up in the cider realm, especially as the industry has been trying to change the popular narrative about the category’s trajectory. The story for the past two years has been that cider growth seems to have hit a wall after multiple consecutive years of high double-digit growth. In 2016, total category volume was actually down by 0.8 percent, according to Nielsen CGA (though revenue was up a slight 1.2 percent.) The top three brands by volume—Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard, Heineken’s Strongbow and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Stella Artois Cidre—command nearly half of the category. If you remove those numbers from overall cider data, the rest of the category grew around 8 percent. The segment surged even further, well into the double digits, if you focus only on the small, local players, according to Nielsen CGA.

But, the USACM guidelines aren’t about weeding out some players in favor of others. USACM board president Bruce Nissen says the document really reflects a philosophy of big-tent-inclusivity, especially since cider makers of many sizes and cider-making traditions—including the nation’s largest producer, Angry Orchard—participated in developing the standards.

“It took a lot of people with a lot of different opinions in the room for it to really come together,” says Nissen, who’s also president and CEO of LDB Beverage in Stevenson, Wash. “We’re not going to be making a judgment about what’s a ‘good cider’ versus a ‘bad cider.”

Additionally, the USACM board didn’t want to get too granular with its definitions, as it potentially could alienate casual consumers.

“My role was to say we’ve got to keep [the standards] broad and we’ve got to have representation that speaks to an average consumer,” Nissen says. “There are more complex nuances that we chose not to delve into with the first round because it wasn’t going to help us talk to consumers. We’re trying to stay away from getting too narrow because cider is still trying to figure out what it is in the U.S.”

Any time an organization defines styles within a product category too rigidly, it runs the risk of stifling innovation. But does the very presence of “rules” mean producers will be more inclined to color within the lines to be true to style or does it open the door for the creation of further categories when cider makers push the boundaries?

“I don’t think these style guidelines will act as a tether for the entrepreneurial spirit that has taken over the cider industry,” offers USACM executive director Michelle McGrath. “I think, if anything, having definitions for things like hopped cider or fruit cider or sour cider may allow modern cider makers to feel a little more free. But the types of ciders that are coming out of the industry right now are changing every month and I’m not sure our style guidelines will have an impact on that one way or another.”

One needn’t look much further beyond the craft beer world for proof of that. The Brewers Association constantly is expanding the style categories in the judging competition. VandenBrink has a bit of experience in that world, as he’s also the founder of Two Beers Brewing Co.

“I think people will continue to innovate until these guidelines get to the point where they’re more substantive—and even then people will innovate,” VandenBrink predicts. “I’ve been brewing beer for 10 years and 99 percent of brewers make what they want to make and if it happens to fit into a category to get into a competition to get judged, they’ll enter it. And most competitions have catch-all categories, ‘miscellaneous’ and other things, anyway.”

USACM knew that it would be nearly impossible to create a perfect set of standards that every producer would endorse whole-heartedly and insists that the guidelines are not meant to be anywhere near the final word on style classification.

“We’ve designed the guide to be a living document,” says McGrath. “There are ciders that remain to be described and we’re looking forward this to be a continuously growing document.”

Them’s the Rules

When drafting its own set of standards, USACM used guidelines established by the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition (GLINTCAP), as well as the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) as the jumping off point. The organization says its goal was to build off of the GLINTCAP standards and appeal not only to a wide cross-section of cider makers across the country, but to drinkers with varying levels of experience with the beverage. USACM style categories, which have been incorporated in the organization’s own Cider Certification Program (CCP) are as follows:

Standard Styles

  • Modern Cider: Made primarily from culinary or “table” apples, generally lower in tannins but higher in acidity
  • Heritage Cider: Made primarily from cider-specific bittersweet/bittersharp or heirloom apples, generally higher in tannins
  • Modern Perry: Pear cider made primarily from culinary or “table” pears, generally lower in tannins
  • Heritage Perry: Made from pears grown specifically for cider production, generally higher in complexity and tannins

Specialty Styles

  • Fruit Cider: Those with added non-pear, non-apple fruits (added before or after fermentation)
  • Hopped Cider: Any cider with added hops
  • Spiced Cider: Those with any combination of spices, herbs and/or botanicals (added before or after fermentation)
  • Wood-Aged Cider: Those in which the wood or barrel character is a notable component of the overall flavor profile
  • Sour Cider: Those made intentionally sour with non-standard yeasts and bacterial fermentation
  • Ice Cider: Those made by concentrating the juice before fermentation either by freezing the fruit before pressing it or by freezing the juice and then drawing off the concentrate as it thaws