The first time Peter Yi tried Basque cider, it hit him like a lightning bolt. His experiences of him as a wine buyer left him thinking ciders were sweet, simple and did not pair well with food. But this one was different – aromatic, dry and complex, everything he expected from a fine wine.
“It took me 25 years of being in the wine industry to understand that this is the flavor I’ve been looking for all my life,” he says.
Fermentation felt natural to Yi, a Korean American, who had made kimchi and Korean rice wine. He became obsessed with making this style of cider in the US, eventually founding Brooklyn Cider House with his sister, Susan.
He’s not alone. Craft cider-making has boomed in the US in recent years, with new producers popping up around the country. Americans are drinking 10 times more cider than they were a decade ago, says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (HERE). Small brands are now the industry’s hottest sector; the regional cider market share grew to 51% in early 2022, up from 29% in 2018, according to Nielsen’s most recent cider market review.
And as the industry expands, it’s getting more diverse. Today’s cider drinkers are younger, they come from different backgrounds, and they want brews made by people who look like them. Asian, Black and Latinx cider makers, in turn, are experimenting with new flavors and methods that celebrate their culture, while building connections to land and agriculture in an industry that has often overlooked their contributions.
For José Gonzalez Sr, a real estate broker in Salem, Oregon, the journey into cider-making began five years ago when he and his wife traveled to a cider festival in San Diego. They liked what they tasted, but something was missing. “My wife said it would be nice if we had ciders with the flavors we grew up with, like lime, tamarind and jamaica [hibiscus],” Gonzalez recalls.
He asked his mother, Lourdes, to make batches of tamarind and hibiscus agua fresca – traditional Mexican soft drinks made with fruit, water, sugar and lime juice. They mixed the waters with bottles of hard cider and loved the taste. Today, they sell La Familia-brand hard ciders flavored with guava, tamarind, green apple and hibiscus at their Salem tasting room and throughout Oregon.
Gonzalez says the brand has a large Latinx following, as well as people who appreciate craft beer culture and trying something new. His son José Gonzalez Jr, known as Jay Jay, loves seeing people who look like him coming in to sip cider and talk about trips to Costa Rica or salsa dancing.
“People love it,” says Jay Jay. “They tell us we’re different.”
The history of cider
The first recorded mention of cider dates back thousands of years, when Romans wrote about Celtic people making the drink from local crabapples in 55 BCE, according to a University of Washington cider history. This ancient beverage has long brought communities together for harvesting, making and drinking, and while more traditionally associated with places like the UK, France and Spain, the US also has a long cider history that began with American colonists in the 1600s.
But the story of cider would not have been possible without people of color. “In our neck of the woods, just like barbecue, enslaved African Americans were responsible for manufacturing and making the cider,” says Tristan Wright, founder of Lost Boy Cider in Virginia.
At Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, Jupiter Evans was an accomplished enslaved cider maker, whose life was detailed in a Civil Eats profile. Japan and Korea share a long history of fermented foods and drinks, and apples are revered in Japanese culture. Today, cider apples are picked by a largely Latinx workforce that sustains the industry, says Robby Honda, who owns tanuki cider.
A fourth-generation Japanese American, Honda grew up playing in the 100-year-old Gravenstein apple orchard his great-grandfather planted in Sebastopol, a small town in northern Sonoma county. Somewhere between his love of sustainability and reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he talked his late brother about him into launching the cider brand in 2014.
His Santa Cruz cider relies on the same Newtown Pippin apples that are grown for Martinelli’s, the brand famed for its sweet, non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider served to kids and teetotalers during the holidays. By paying a premium for apples, Honda’s brand is helping keep apple growing culture alive in Watsonville, California, where most orchards have been replaced by far more profitable crops such as grapes or strawberries.
“Symbolically what that means … saving those trees and not ripping them out to plant berries or grapes or weed and preserving that orchard and the historical narrative it tells, that’s interesting to me,” he says.
As well as revitalizing links to history and land, today’s cider-makers and devotees are introducing new consumers to the breadth of what cider has to offer.
The lines between cider and grape wine, both made by fermenting fruit, are blurring. Oakland’s Redfield Cider Bar + Bottle Shop carries a range of local ciders, including some by natural winemakers. “The thing we’ve been excited about is that the natural wine world has really embraced cider,” says Mike Reis, who owns the bar with his wife, Olivia Maki.
Malaika Tyson, half of the Chicago couple known as the Cider Soms, says cider falls into two general camps: dry or tart ones made with heirloom cider apples, and sweeter ones made from culinary apples flavored with fruit or herbs. But within that, there’s a variation for every palate – from rosé, sours and single-varietals to more funky options made with natural yeast.
Tyson and her husband, Sean, who are Black, first discovered cider in St Louis and say moving to Chicago expanded their choices. While more Black consumers are slowly discovering the drink, Tyson thinks it’s unlikely to blow up into the next Moscato. “It doesn’t have the prestige like wine or cognac does for Black people,” says Tyson. “It isn’t like there are Black celebrities drinking it.”
Hannah Ferguson – a Black cider-maker and triple threat who can also make beer and wine – says she thinks more Black consumers will appreciate cider once they learn about it. At a recent Black business expo, she had to let attendees know she wasn’t pouring apple juice. “I had to explain to them it’s like a mix between beer and wine … and we carbonate it like beer and we add flavors to it,” Ferguson recalls. “And then they were like ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ ”
‘The community cider has given us’
Ferguson started making wine as a hobby, trying her hand at homemade riesling and shiraz, which eventually led to a beer brewing job. Now, she’s busy preparing to open her Dope Cider House and Winery (an acronym for “dwelling on positive energy”) in downtown Youngstown, Ohio, which will make her the first Black woman to open a cider house in the state.
At Dope, she’ll offer a range of dry and sweet seasonal ciders made with local apples, plus a warm spiced cider in the winter. Though the cider community is very white, Ferguson says it’s also been very welcoming. At her first cider conference, plenty of people offered to share advice on getting started.
Across the industry, there’s a growing commitment to fostering more diversity. Wright says Lost Boy has a workforce that’s 70% Bipoc and LGBTQ+, because having a diverse team just felt right. Anxo Cidery and Beer Culturea non-profit devoted to inclusion in the beverage industry, funded scholarships for Bipoc producers to attend the CiderCon, the American Cider Association’s annual meeting, says Maki, of Redfield Cider, who sits on the ACA’s Antiracism, Equity & Inclusion committee.
Other large brands are collaborating with small minority-owned brands. Ferguson, for instance, is teaming up with Angry Orchard – the brand credited with reigniting a taste for cider in the US – on a cider for Barrel & Flow, the annual Black brewing convention in Pittsburgh this year. And in May, Honda of Tanuki Cider and the winemaker Michael Sones released a co-ferment of Newtown Pippin apples and pinot noir grapes called Newtown Noir.
For his part, Honda is uncomfortable with being labeled a Bipoc or Japanese American cider-maker – he’s just a guy who decided to make cider, because he thought it would be fun. “Make some T-shirts and stickers, have some parties and music and, like, whoop it up, you know?” Honda says. But it’s turned out to be so much more.
He says race never comes up during his partnership with Sones, who is white. They’re just two guys who both love fermentation. “What I’ve gained through the community that cider has given us, it’s definitely the most valuable thing.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism