Reverend Nat and the Future of Cider

Earlier this month, the US Association of Cider Makers (USACM) issued the first draft of their style guidelines, following along in the tradition of the BJCP or perhaps, more generously, Michael Jackson. Just a few hours later, Portland cidermaker Reverend Nat issued a press release announcing their new, much larger production space. These announcements gave me an ideal opportunity to check in with the cider world and reevaluate its ongoing evolution in the US. A few years ago, cider was the focus of a lot of attention in the drinks world, and yet even though it's no longer the flavor du jour, these announcements attest to ongoing growth.

Last week, I sat down with Nat and Sarah West to discuss their thoughts on growth, change, and the future. Nat is one of the industry's most active movers and shakers, and through his own advocacy and promotion, along with the annual Portland International Cider Cup that he spearheads, has been on the leading edge of driving changes. His thoughts were, as always, surprising and unexpected.

Before I get to Nat, though a bit of background. Cider is a weird category. If you look at the topline numbers, it appears to be flagging in the US--a flash in the pan as it has been periodically over the decades. In the first half of 2017, sales were down 10%, following a similar tumble in 2016. But this is misleading. As in the beer market, most cider is mass market, supermarket stuff. Angry Orchard accounts for over half the entire volume in the US. AB InBev and Miller's super crappy offerings (Johnny Appleseed and Smith & Forge) were conceived, packaged, and sold as a part of the flavored malt beverage category--and like other products in that segment, they were treated as disposable products and are now in their death throes. This kind of cider is in trouble.

On the other hand, local, artisanal ciders are doing very well. There's not a clear definition of "craft cider," but by one measure these brands were up 40% last year. In key regions like the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest, and New England, they have taken root and seem to have emerged as a permanent fixture in bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, the USACM is busily reproducing, blow for blow, the moves craft beer has taken. The creation of style guidelines is just the first step. The organization (which functions like the Brewers Association of cider) has also initiated a cicerone-style certification, and the group is planning to lobby state and national legislatures to pass cider-friendly laws. (More here if you want the deep dive.)

Regional Growth

Which brings us to Nat and Sarah West. According to some reports, Reverend Nat is the third-largest cider-maker in Oregon, with sales last year around 4,000 barrels. That would put them (just!) in the top-30 largest breweries in the state. Nat exptects to make 6,000 barrels this year--which might nose the cidery just ahead of Barley Brown's for the top 25. Two Towns is the big dog, though, making a staggering 13,000 barrels in 2016, a volume that would have made it the 15th-largest Oregon brewery. Barrelage drops off significantly once you get down past the top few--comparable to the pattern in beer--and most cideries are still small affairs. Yet when I checked in with Cider Riot earlier this year, owner Abram Goldman-Armstrong told me cider already accounts for 6% of beer sales in Portland, which is the strongest beer city in the country. All of which is to confirm the thesis that "craft cider" is doing very well.

Nat and Sarah, a charming photo captured by Liz Crain. (I idiotically failed to take a picture.)

In August, Reverend Nat's added a canning line, and is currently maxed out on tank space. If you visit the cidery, you'll see a grove of them behind the bar in the tasting room--fourteen in all, averaging 80 barrels each. The cidery employs 22 people. However, in the current 3,000 square-foot building, spread over three spaces, they've hit their growth ceiling. Part of this is square footage, but a bigger part is the inefficiency of a patchwork facility in which cider has to go out onto the street and around the corner to move from one room of the cidery to another. Things are so cramped the production crew has to work from 5am to 3pm so they can clear out before the tasting room opens. "Right now out efficiencies are terrible," Nat said, groaning. "We have to touch things so, so many times."

The new facility is in that gritty industrial area over by the Widmer Brothers brewery. If you walk out the Widmer's front door and face the Fremont Bridge, you see a vast asphalt plain; that's where the new site will be. "Across the street is, like, a copper smelting plant," Nat said. Unlike the current site, this is ideal for moving big trucks in and out. "Very grit heavy. Gravel. Train tracks. The tracks are 16 feet away," Nat said with a touch of delight. It's 22,000 square feet, all empty space the cidery can redevelop--space that will allow for plenty of growth.

Reverend Nat's will expand the tasting room at the current site and install a small test cidery that Nat himself can tinker on. He'll make experimental cider there, only available on site. "It will be my little thing--like the garage!" he said, referring to the company's original location. There will be food ("Yes! We don't know what"), and the tasting room will stay open during renovation.

The Future of Cider

If you ever have a chance to drink a pint with Nat, I recommend it. He is a font of unusual ideas. We had ostensibly gotten together to discuss the style guidelines, but they didn't interest him much. They were fine, so far as they went, but he doesn't think they'll be any use to consumers--his principal interest. "I'm not beating up on the USACM for trying, but they're not providing a solution to a problem." This mystified me. It seems like styles are a good way to differentiate products (done properly, anyway).

But I was looking at it the wrong way. Those style guidelines, he said, were descriptions of the ciders already available. When they were released, the USACM cited the leading cider competition, GLINTCAP (Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition) as the source. But actually, the rules Nat and Abram Goldman-Armstrong wrote up for their own competition were highly influential, too. They proofed their guidelines by going to the store and seeing if every cider would fit in their categories. The problem, according to Nat, isn't that we categorize the extant range of ciders, but that consumers don't understand what they're looking at.

People are using words in describing cider they use for soda; people don’t have the words to describe cider. Our number one goal is to change the face of cider in the United States.
— Nat West

"Success to us," he continued, "looks like nobody walks into the taproom and says, 'I want a dry cider.'" Dryness--and a number of descriptors cider-makers routinely use--aren't particularly relevant, he argues. What will ultimately clarify the beverage in drinkers minds is when a few key brands emerge that define the way we think about and describe cider. This was the process in beer, Nat said, where perhaps ten brands created the American palate, and as cider emerges, it will follow.

The biggest issue for Nat, and the one that really gets him animated, is the question of what's in cider. Big companies like Angry Orchard conceal the fact that they use apple juice concentrate (AJC), a cheap substitute for whole apple juice. There's a gastronomic reason for not using AJC--it strips out almost everything from the juice except the sweetness--but this isn't Nat's chief concern. It's a matter of honesty. He pointed out that AB InBev is very forthright about the rice in their Budweiser, but big ciders companies conceal the fact. "This is why love 2 Towns and hate Angry Orchard," he said.

As they build up their small industry, a lot of the development will happen organically, but there's an important educational component. That's where Nat sees his role in changing the face of cider. "We always go back to a customer standing in New Seasons," Sarah added. "Taking the cider at face value." How do they communicate effectively what's in a bottle so that people don't later end up in Nat's tasting room clueless about how to talk about cider.

The present of cider--the kind we make in the Pacific Northwest, anyway--is already very strong. When Nat looks forward, he hopes to see a more educated consumer base who know cider as well as the average Portlander knows beer. I didn't ask Nat what he thought the volume potential of cider may ultimately be--and my guess is he wouldn't care. If that New Seasons cider customer is as smart as the beer customer next to her, I think he'd call that the change he's trying to create.