Behind the Bottle: Authentic Craft Ciders in Ohio

By Simon Buehrer
Originally featured in our fall 2014 issue

Real farmhouse cider was a prominent—some may say essential, as it was often safer to drink than the available water—feature on the colonial landscape up through the end of the 19th century. Similar to the decline of rich, complex, flavorful ales during the temperance movement and prohibition, over time hard cider lost its way. But just like the resurgence of craft beer and spirits over the past two decades or so, more and more craft hard ciders are emerging on the scene and changing our expectations and enjoyment of the seemingly endless options concocted from fermented apples.

So what is hard cider, exactly?

In America, we usually add the word “hard” to distinguish cider from its non-alcoholic cousin. Hard cider consists of fermented apples that may be supplemented with yeast (though naturally occurring wild yeasts are often used), sugar, honey, or other kinds of sweeteners (though the natural sugars of the apple are sometimes sufficient) and natural or artificial flavorings (though some ciders go au naturel) to create an alcoholic beverage, sometimes carbonated, sometimes still. Simple enough, right?  

But what Americans have typically come to know and expect of hard cider—sweet, light, with a faint or not-so-faint hint of apples—is only a small segment of a wide array of possibilities extant in craft cider varieties.

Richard Read, an English transplant who now resides in Northeast Ohio, is one of the lead proponents and evangelists of not just craft cider but Ohio craft cider. Richard is the cider master and president of Griffin Cider Works located in Lakewood, Ohio, where he steers efforts as the proprietor, producer, distributor, and promoter of “authentic English-style cider.” A sort of apple alchemist, his efforts are fueled by an almost life-long passion for cider (he brewed his first batch at age 14) coupled with a scientific understanding of how it’s made (he has a degree in microbiology). The golden results (or copper, even red depending on the variety) are the transformation of a proprietary blend of up to 15 different types of apples into an impressive spectrum of flavors and options—from clean and crisp to extra dry to tart to spicy. There’s even a hopped version—an IPC or India Pale Cider for the discerning hipster who can’t drink anything sans the tang and aroma of Cascade, Centennial, or Kent Goldings. 

Richard’s ciders are made with 100% Ohio-grown apples and 100% juice. He points out that many mass-produced ciders are made out of apple concentrates—often times imported rather than locally sourced—and may contain natural and artificial flavorings. This light version is what we’ve come to expect of cider and what is usually served in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Richard started Griffin Cider Works because he couldn’t find a cider in America that was reminiscent of the traditional English-style farmhouse ciders from his home. He’s now on a mission to help change people’s understanding and perspective of what cider is and can be, and sees Ohio as ground zero for the locally sourced authentic craft cider movement. 

The state seems well-positioned for such a pursuit. Ohio is in the top 10 of apple producers in the United States, and has more than 140 apple orchards, which is the third highest of any state in the nation. At present, however, there are only five producers of hard cider in Ohio—and not all of them are using Ohio apples. There is definitely an opportunity for growth, though Richard realizes that a collective of apple growers and cider makers is needed to sustain and expand their efforts.

“I’d like to help create an association of Ohio-produced ciders,” says Richard. “We can coordinate mass juice purchasing. That’s one of the biggest challenges—buying enough juice. Especially when we have orchards on the decline. A guild would help us to guarantee that farmers get the price they want. We’re willing to pay a premium price for a premium product. If the apple growers see that they’ll get the bang for their buck, then we’ll all grow. We’ll all benefit.”

Another Ohio craft cider is Legend Valley Cider based in St. Louisville, Ohio, near State Route 13 between Newark and Utica. Dave Fayerweather started fermenting ciders back in 2000. Similar to Richard, what started as a hobby eventually grew into a business for Dave and his partner/brother-in-law, Joe Van Ostran. Also like Griffin Cider Works, Legend Valley Ciders are made from 100% Ohio apples. Dave proudly states, "That's what sets our ciders apart. A lot of mass-market ciders are diluted down, then sweetened. Legend Valley Ciders contain no fillers. Nothing is diluted." Another thing, which sets Legend Valley apart, is the kick—the Crisp is 8.3% alcohol, which is on the low end of the spectrum. By the time you step up to the version called Ice, you're up to 13.3%.

This is a little unusual as most craft ciders have a similar alcohol content to craft beers—from 4% to 9%. Once you hit the 10% to 12% mark or higher, the beverage is re-categorized as apple wine. It can take up to six months or longer to produce a good cider. Some varieties are aged in oak, or even use wine or whiskey barrels to add some flavors and complexities. As with different types of beers, temperature can affect the taste and enjoyment of cider. Some are better experienced at room temperature or even warmed. Others are better chilled first. Griffin Cider Works includes target temperatures for its different varieties. For example, the flagship Griffin Original is best enjoyed between 45° and 50°, while Inglenook Fireside Winter Warmer can be warmed up to 65°, a fit companion for stargazing on a crisp fall evening. Almost all ciders are gluten-free, providing a good alternative beverage for those on a gluten-free diet. Most ciders, especially in the United States, are made of a blend of apple varieties to balance the sweet and tart flavors and result. It can be done, but it’s not as easy to make a good cider from a single type of apple. 

So what's next for Ohio craft ciders? Both Richard and Dave are looking to expand their distribution around the state and beyond.

"We're looking to cross the Maumee River and invade that state up north," says Richard. "And I hear that someone already bootlegs my cider to Chicago. Not much. Just a couple of kegs and some bottles. But I heard it ended up at a couple of bars in Chicago. And I'm like, 'Hang on. This is interesting.'"

Availability

 Check with your favorite local bar or restaurant to see if they're carrying draft ciders. An increasing number have at least one option on tap, though Ohio-based options can be difficult to find.

Bottles of Ohio-based ciders can be found at Lucky's Market, Whole Foods, Weiland's Market, The Anderson's and other local markets, beer/wine and grocery stores. 

Simon Buehrer is a freelance writer and emerging cider enthusiast. He resides in Columbus, Ohio.