There's a new bar in New York City devoted to the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage in America. But don't expect a list heavy on craft beer or bourbon.
Wassail is a cider bar.
"You can see the color, very deep," says Ben Sandler, co-owner of the bar and restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He's filling my glass with a delicious amber liquid from E.Z. Orchards in Salem, Ore. "You can see it's kind of cloudy, so it's not filtered. Really dry."
Wassail opened this week. It features a dozen ciders on tap and another 80 or so in bottles. They range from the sour, sweet and funky ciders of traditional producers in Europe to crisp and clean offerings from American upstarts. Co-owner Jennifer Lim says she and Sandler, her husband, try to highlight the wildly divergent flavors that cider-makers can coax from fermented apples.
"The U.S. cider scene is exciting," Lim says, "because American cider-makers are not as shackled as cider-makers in France and Spain and the U.K. and in Ireland. So there is more experimentation, definitely, that's going on in the U.S."
Hard cider was a popular drink in America before Prohibition. These days, sales are tiny compared to beer and wine, but they're growing fast, more or less doubling every year. There are at least three cider bars on the West Coast and two are planned for Chicago.
Cider drinkers have much in common with craft beer consumers, says Danelle Kosmal, vice president of the Beverage Alcohol Practice at Nielsen. "They tend to be millennials, they tend to have higher income," she says. "But one difference with cider ... is it's attracting more females compared to beer."
When it comes to cider, Gregory Hall, the founder of Virtue Cider in western Michigan, says, "I think the opportunity can be as big, or even bigger, than craft beer." He helped build Chicago's Goose Island Beer into a national brand and says the cider industry's position now reminds him of when craft brewers had a tough time getting their products into stores and bars 20 years ago.
"There are still a lot of places that don't have any cider," says Hall. "And I think a lot of the bars that have one cider on tap, in a couple years will have two or three or four ciders on tap."
A lot of the growth in the cider market is coming from brands owned by huge companies with serious marketing muscle. The Angry Orchard brand is owned by the Boston Beer Company, Inc., which makes Samuel Adams beer. Last year, it accounted for more than half of all cider sales in the U.S.
There's debate inside the craft cider business about whether the success of sweeter, mass-produced products is a good thing or not.
"That's probably the biggest challenge for us, is counteracting the preconceived notion of cider being sugary-sweet," says Sandler at Wassail. "That's kind of what we're up against, is really trying to showcase ciders that aren't that."
This means training the staff at Wassail so they can sell more unusual, handcrafted ciders. Earlier this week, Stephen Wood of New Hampshire's Farnum Hill Ciders led a tasting session for servers and bartenders.
Back in the late 1980s, Wood was one of the first Americans to start growing bittersweet and bitter-sharp apple varieties from Europe. These make the most complex ciders. But Wood says there's also a place for the bigger brands.
They're "essential to introducing — reintroducing — people in this country to the idea that there's pleasure in a drink made from apples at all," says Wood. "Even with this exploding interest in cider, people don't really know what it is."
Still, new craft cider producers are popping up anywhere you can grow apples — which is to say, almost everywhere.
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