It’s probably because I watch too much TV, but when I was younger, I always imagined that all adults were required to have a signature drink. Carrie Bradshaw had her cosmopolitans, James Bond had his martini, Norm from Cheers simply had a beer. And now, with a recent spike in popularity, there is a strong possibility that cider might soon be on that list.
Cider dates back to colonial America, when settlers were increasingly cultivating orchards and water’s safety was unreliable. However, the advent of the Industrial Revolution made access to beer easier, simultaneously shrinking the demand for cider. The demand for the beverage never quite bounced back.
However, in the past couple of years, cider’s popularity has skyrocketed in the US. At $366 million in 2014, sales of cider currently comprise about 1% of the total American beer market. While this number may seem paltry, it marked a 75% increase in sales from the previous year – making Cider the fastest growing segment in the beer and flavored malt beverage market – a rate that experts predict will persist in coming years.
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In trying to pinpoint the source of this trend, some posit that the beverage’s sweet taste appeals to women at a much higher rate, with women accounting for about half of cider drinkers, as opposed to approximately 30% of beer drinkers. Additionally, cider appeals to millennials and nontraditional beer drinkers who tend to gravitate towards craft beers, wines and spirits.
However, Cider’s rise likely has less to do with these two theories and much more to do with the rise of another phenomenon, the gluten free movement. With 2014 sales of gluten free foods estimated at $8.8 billion, a 63% increase from 2012-2014, the correlation between this particular diet and the rise of cider is undeniable. For any sticking to this diet, beer is now out – after all, it is basically bread in a glass – but cider has become a delicious option.
In summer 2012, about a week before I left for my senior year of college, I went to see an endocrinologist. I was hoping to uncover the source of my chronic stomach pain and a near-constant sense of lethargy. My doctor suggested that I might possess a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, slowly damages the small intestine. In recent years, advances in science and medicine have increased celiac diagnoses. Presently, the disease is estimated to affect two million Americans or 1% of the population, which is exactly the amount of sales Cider currently makes up in the beer market.
Far more common than celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot be proven with a blood test. Instead, it is diagnosed by completely removing all sources of gluten from your diet; if symptoms subside, then you slowly and methodically reintroduce glutenous items to see their effect. Although arcane, the system is effective, and within a month of eliminating gluten my symptoms vanished. With such a vast improvement in my quality of life, I decided to maintain a completely gluten free diet. In addition to eliminating a host of other products, this meant no more beer.
I always had mixed feelings on beer. I liked the taste, but I hated that even one beer would leave me feeling nauseous and bloated. When you stop drinking beer, however, you become very aware of how useful a tool it is in social settings. On occasions when hard alcohol is too aggressive and wine options are limited, the appeal of a beer is obvious. Now, with this spike in the availability of cider, there is no problem when it comes time to order.
Understanding the need for a gluten free substitute, beer industry juggernauts have taken notice of the increasing demand for cider in recent years. Boston Beer Co., the makers of Sam Adams, debuted their Angry Orchard line of ciders in 2011 and recently, Stella Artois introduced their own “Cidre” to American markets. It is estimated that Angry Orchard will make up one fifth of Sam Adams’ sales volume by the end of the year. If this trend persists, cider may eventually become just as prevalent as beer.
The only thing that could be holding that massive growth back might not be a backlash on gluten free, but instead a shortage of apples. As the boom has taken off, many orchards have been unable to keep up with the demand. Good cider needs different apples – ones that don’t taste great eaten raw, but are delicious when juiced and fermented – and these apples have not been planted in massive quantities until recently because growing apples for eating instead of juicing is more lucrative. This means we could be waiting on new plantings to mature and juicing apple prices to rise, before supply can catch up to demand.
Outside of the beverage production industry, cider is settling in for the long haul. The upcoming LES bar & restaurant Wassail is set to serve 80-100 craft ciders in addition to a full menu of well paired dishes and nearly 100 popular, high profile New York restaurants are set to participate in NYC Cider Week in November 2015.
Having been gluten free for nearly three years, I always relish the opportunity to order a cold cider at a bar or alongside my meal. As the market continues to develop, different varietals have become available, which will eventually make for a host of ciders just as varied as any beer or wine list. So, regardless of whether you’re craving a traditional apple cider, a sweet pear cider, or a cider with a hint of cinnamon, don’t wait until Fall to get acquainted with America’s hottest beverage trend.
Colette Bloom is a writer living in New York. In the eighth grade, she read the first half of Atlas Shrugged but then it fell out of her backpack and the spine cracked and she figured it would be easier to just watch TV. Follow her on Twitter @cobloom.