WHOA! Cider friends! It is the end of the first day of Cider Con 2013 in Chicago, and my mind is positively spinning. Having just come back from England, the opportunity to contrast and compare the English and American cider worlds is particularly fresh. The conference is buzzing with excitement and activity – with between 200 and 300 participants from all around North America, including one from Mexico City, and representatives from NACM over from England.
One of my first impressions from the day is that cider makers here are really excited and interested in the chemistry of fermentation. There were a lot of technical terms being thrown around that were frankly beyond my knowledge and left me out of my depth. This seems to stem in part from the fact the many cider folks are crossing over from the beer or wine industries and are bringing that brewing and fermenting expertise with them. One of the big events of the day was a sensory analysis session, where we were presented with a series of ciders which had been doctored with chemical additives to simulate what kinds of faults or variations could happen with fermentation processes, including detailed chemical diagrams and names which I barely recognized, followed by adjectives that were far more familiar to my tasting experience: farmyard, buttery, grassy, etc….. But the level of detail was far beyond anything I had previously experienced. The name of Peter Mitchell loomed large everywhere, and seems to definitely be the authoritative expert to whom most in the industry are turning for information. Indeed, his partnerships with the academic research institutions detailed below seem to be very key to the information network.
There is a lively little group of academic researchers who are keen to work with the emerging cider industry to find best practices for orchard production and fermentation. They helped kick off the conference this morning with a live survey of all the participating cider businesses, asking questions about their business profiles, expectations, and research needs for the emerging industry. They hope this information will prove useful not only to the newly formed American Cider Association, but also as primary data for developing research proposals and funding applications to conduct substantive research. These people included:
Olga Padilla-Zakour from Cornell University Department of Food Science, who is a specialist in fermentations, presented on “Developing Educational Programs for Hard Cider Producers.” Cornell has a history of research in wine fermentation due to the nearby finger lakes wine region, and they are excited about the resurgence of interest in apple juice fermentation.
Greg Peck from Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture presented about research into the economics of setting up a cider orchard, taking a survey of the cider industry in Virginia, here. He notes interest amongst commercial growers in converting to cider fruit but lack of knowledge about appropriate varieties for climate and soil conditions, in addition to the needs of the cider makers, currently precludes substantive investment. Cider makers will need to convince fruit producers that there is a market.
Carol Miles from Washington State University Department of Horticulture (see extension website on cider fruit here), in association with David Bauermeister of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center and Northwest Cider Association, have been looking at a host of agricultural and horticultural issues of fruit production and are keen to start trials of cider varieties in North America to assess the quality and commercial viability of cider varieties, which are currently almost non-existent in North America on a commercial scale. In addition, they have also looked into re-purposing blueberry and raspberry harvesters, which currently lay dormant during the apple harvest season, for use as mechanical harvesters for high density trellis system cider fruit harvesting. Most apple harvesting for the cider industry currently occurs through hand-picking, due to the fact the most orchard systems in use are high density dessert fruit plantations. Trials for repurposing soft fruit mechanical harvesters to apples are ongoing.
Nikki Rothwell from the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. She presented on Cider Varieties suitable for northern climates, based on trials of a few specimens of cider fruit existing in the research station’s collection. Her report can be found on the Station’s website here. Under the title “Hard Cider Varieties 2012”
Aside from the fermentation chemistry and the horticultural research, I also had a really fascinating conversation with a woman who works as a sales rep for a Washington based cider company, who had also lived and worked in England for several years. I asked her what she thought the emerging American cider culture was? What was cider ABOUT in America, as compared to England. She seemed to think that it was still really in flux, with a lot of enthusiasm from converts from the wine and beer industries, a healthy interest in fermentation, and distinctly different from the very locally-oriented traditions of farmhouse cider we are used to England. She saw the market as very much a 30-something urban educated consumer. One of my own thoughts had to do with the relationship of the orchards and landscape to the cider industry. While England has come to expect regional differences in craft cider due to traditional local varieties, soil types, and economic histories (desert fruit in East Anglia for example), these distinctions have yet to emerge as known entities in America – at least that I am yet aware of. The relationship of craft cider to its fruit remains one of the components of cider culture in America to be further developed, both in terms of agricultural social and economic systems and in terms of cider styles and tastes.
While chatting with the NACM folks from England, I also made the acquaintance of representatives from Gilder Gagnon Howe and Co., an investment firm from New York who have decided to invest in the emerging cider market. They knew little about cider but had identified it as a growing market and were keen to learn more about the industry. Many other vendors at the conference, including bottle and container vendors, equipment producers, etc, expressed a keen interest to learn about the cider industry and its commercial needs. So it seems the learning curve is high for a lot of people, but the business world is ready to take it on.
All in all, I found this experience very different and very surprising, compared to my sojourn in the small-scale craft cider world of the UK. This is definitely a new and different cider world. Stay tuned for more updates and revisions of information! Let me know if you have any questions . This summary represents who and what I saw at the conference, there was of course a lot more going on. Look for the schedule of events here.
And Broome Farm Folks, Canadian Kate says a big Hello!!!