The first hard ciders I ever tasted were disgusting, syrupy abominations; beverages that aped the flavor profiles and tooth-ravagingly saccharine nature of Smirnoff Ice coolers while making only vague promises that “apples” were involved in some way. In my mind, they were drinks that fueled (largely female) revelers at college house parties, and little more. Just setting out on my own path of craft beer appreciation some eight years ago, I promptly forgot that hard cider existed.
The world, however, did not. Instead, it revolutionized the cider industry in North America, making cider the single fastest-growing segment of the entire alcohol market in the last few years. In 2014 alone, cider sales grew by 75.4 percent, according to Chicago research firm IRI. That’s the entire industry, with 75 percent growth. One is tempted to compare cider’s growth to the rise of craft beer, but never has craft beer experienced so explosive a growth rate in a single year. Rather, one could argue that craft beer appreciation instead set the table for cider appreciation—drinkers who have learned to enjoy great beer were primed and ready to appreciate a better crop of hard ciders. It doesn’t hurt that cider is naturally gluten-free, either.
Indeed, the average hard cider today bears little resemblance to what it looked like when I was sampling those college bottles in say, 2007. At that point, Woodchuck authoritatively dominated the U.S. cider scene, with a lineup of drinks that were alternatingly passable and wine cooler gross. They had a nearly uncontested monopoly on U.S. cider for almost two decades until the launch of Boston Beer Company’s (aka Samuel Adams) Angry Orchard line in 2012 … and then something fascinating happened. Angry Orchard exploded out of the gate to immediately become the best-selling cider brand in the country, and it wasn’t even close. In just two years, Angry Orchard captured roughly 60 percent of the entire cider market, officially making Boston Beer Co. the “Anheuser of Cider,” at least as far as production is concerned. Anheuser and Miller? Their own cider brands, combined, account for 10-15 percent of national market share, proving that endless marketing coffers can’t create a dominant brand all on their own. Big Beer’s failure to create their own Big Cider has been fascinating to watch.
And thus, it was high time for Paste to finally welcome ciders into our blind tasting series, which has up until now been tackling a single craft beer style per month. We put out calls to as many cideries as we could contact, supplementing them with all the ciders available in our Atlanta market, eventually ending up with a whopping 82. So let’s get to it.
A Note on Cider Acquisition
I’m not going to straight-up declare that this is the largest blind-tasting of ciders that any entertainment publication such as Paste has ever conducted, but I’ll simply say this—if you know of a bigger, more comprehensive blind tasting of ciders, outside of major festivals such as Glintcap, then please let me know. Because I haven’t found another magazine that has done a bigger blind cider tasting than this one.
Now then. Despite its size, I must admit something else: It’s still anything but complete. The cider market has expanded so much that gathering every single brand is nearly impossible. Likewise, unlike in our beer tastings where we limit the number of entries per brewery, that wasn’t really prudent with ciders. How do you choose which representatives to use from a cidery like Angry Orchard, which produces a dozen or more?
As such, yes, that means we included EVERY cider we could get out hands on. We’ve got pear ciders and straight-up perrys. We’ve got raspberry cider. Orange cider. Apple pie cider. Barrel-aged ciders, farmhouse ciders, ice ciders and ciders large and small. We had two choices, each of which were sure to draw criticism: Either limit it exclusively to ciders produced with apples and no adjuncts or any kind (no spices, no barrels, no other fruits), or include everything. We chose “everything,” for two reasons:
1. No one wants to read an incredibly boring list of plain ciders, and where do you draw the line of what’s plain enough to be included? Does farmhouse count? What about a standard apple cider with a few subtle spices?
2. More than anything, we simply wanted to know which cider-related products would perform best. That’s it.
Rules and Procedure
- We accepted damn near everything sent to us, for the reasons I explained above. All types of cider, regardless of other fruits, yeast profiles, spices, barrel treatments, ABV, etc. And because I know someone will ask, Redd’s Apple Ale is not a cider. It’s artificially apple-flavored beer that no human should drink.
- There was no limit of entries per cidery. The ciders were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewmasters and brewers, assorted journalists and one BJCP-certified tasters. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Ciders were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, which is the key to this entire tasting and ranking. This isn’t a BJCP competition, and we’re not looking for the cider that fits style guidelines most clearly or is the best example of a “classic hard cider.” The highest-ranked ciders simply reflect which ones we want to drink again in the future.
The Field: Ciders #82-41
As in our blind beer tastings, these are simply the ciders that didn’t make the top group. There are plenty of serviceable, even tasty ciders in here, but we won’t sugarcoat it: There are also some over-the-top, syrupy messes.
What we found in our own tastes surprised us somewhat. We came into this tasting thinking that we would probably all prefer the drier, tarter, higher ABV, or more “sophisticated” offerings—i.e. those ones as far as possible from “apple juice”—but that wasn’t necessarily the case. Although some higher-ABV products did perform well, simply offering big flavors didn’t automatically equate to high scores. Sticking a cider in a barrel, for instance, sometimes yielded nice results. Other times, it yielded an overly tannic, hard-to-drink beverage lacking in the bright fruit flavors you would hope to find in just about any cider, no matter how it’s been aged.
Regardless, you might still find any of the below ciders to be exactly what you’re looking for, depending on your taste. They’re listed in alphabetic order, which means they are not ranked. I repeat: These are not ranked.
Ace Apple Cider
Ace Pineapple Cider
Ace Hard Perry Cider
Wandering Aengus Golden Russett
Wandering Aengus Oaked Dry Cider
Angry Orchard Green Apple
Angry Orchard Iceman Iced Cider
Angry Orchard Knotty Pear
Angry Orchard Stone Dry
Angry Orchard Strawman
Angry Orchard Summer Honey
Anthem Apple Cider
Argus Ginger Perry
Ciderboys Peach County
Ciderboys Raspberry Smash
Ciderboys Strawberry Magic
Cider Riot Burncider
Cider Riot Never Give an Inch Blackberry Cider
Cider Riot Pogo Hopped Cider
Cigar City Homemade Apple Pie Cider
Eden Ice Cider Co. Cinderella’s Slipper Still Cider
Eden Ice Cider Co. Sparkling Dry
Harpoon Craft Cider
JK’s Scrumpy Farmhouse Summer
JK’s Scrumpy Haybaler
JK’s Scrumpy Northern Neighbor
JK’s Scrumpy The Pair Perry
Johnny Appleseed Hard Cider
Kopparberg Pear Cider
Maeloc Strawberry Cider
Original Sin Apple Cider
Original Sin Elderberry Cider
Shacksbury Cider Arlo
Shacksbury Cider Basque
Smith + Forge
Starcut Pulsar Semi-Dry Hard Cider
Treehorn Dry Cider
Vander Mill Puff the Magic Cyser
Woodchuck Day Chaser Semi-Dry Cider
Woodchuck Fall Harvest
Wildcide Apple Cider
Next: Rankings! Ciders #40-21