Vera Farias smiles as Gianfranco Renzo, both from Chile, samples a beverage at The Cider House in Portland in late September. Maine now has 18 licensed cideries, a number that seems likely to continue to grow. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Annie Fagan and Alicia Witham strolled into The Cider House on Portland’s West End one recent late afternoon, and after welcoming them to his new business, owner/bartender Michael Vassallo pointed them to the chalkboard menu that lists the ciders and cider cocktails he sells. Beer is not an option. This is Portland’s first dedicated cider bar, a quirky little place tucked into a corner of the city’s West End neighborhood.

“Are they all ciders?” Witham asked. “The rosé is cider?” She was referring to Virtue Rosé, a cider made in Fennville, Michigan.

Yes, Vassallo assured her. It’s all cider, even the City Roots Pumpkin from Massachusetts (“It’s better than I thought it was going to be,” he says) and the North Country Firestarter, a habanero cider made in New Hampshire. The menu of nine ciders (two on draft) includes three ciders from Maine.

“I’ve never had this many choices before,” said Fagan, who considers herself a cider enthusiast. “I hardly know where to start.”

Artisanal hard ciders started making a comeback in Maine about eight years ago; bars began adding them to give customers an alternative to beer and wine, and tasting rooms began to sell cider by the growler. (American cider lovers hate the term “hard cider” because in the rest of the world, all cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage. But we use it here for clarity, to differentiate hard cider from the big jugs of unfiltered apple juice found in American grocery stores and at farmers markets, especially in the fall.)

The introduction of mass-produced hard ciders, along with the growing farm-to-table movement and renewed interest in rediscovering old apple varieties, helped pave the way for the new cider movement. Americans who were already developing more adventurous palates decided that if they could embrace a whole new world of craft beer, why not give hard cider a try, too? By 2014, Maine was seeing a significant increase in the number of people applying for licenses to become commercial hard cider makers, according to the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. By 2017, 11 new cider makers had opened for business. Maine now has 18 licensed cideries.

Michael Vassallo at his new cider bar, The Cider House, in Portland’s West End. Another cider bar is expected to open in Portland soon. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In April, Khris Hogg opened the state’s first dedicated cider bar, Perennial Cider Bar + Farm Kitchen, in Belfast. Perennial began as a supper club but the focus switched to cider after Hogg fell in love with the drink and “followed the rabbit hole from one cider to the next, and realized there was a wider world of people who were interested in it.” Hogg sells 25 to 30 ciders on tap and in cans and bottles; he also offers cider flights and a selection of cider aperitifs. Vassallo, who recognizes a new niche when he sees one, transitioned his West End coffee house, Good News Coffee & Package, into a cider house (that also serves food). He opened for business in August.

“People in Portland and Maine are looking for the next big thing in food and drink, and they’re looking for more options,” Vassallo said. “If the quality’s there, and if the breadth of options and styles are there, then people are going to try it.”

Erika Colby is the owner of Anoche, a soon-to-open cider bar at 43 Washington Ave. Colby got interested in cider after enjoying it during overseas travels. When she worked at Novare Res Bier Cafe in the Old Port, she was in charge of ordering ciders, a beverage she described as “definitely under-recognized and underappreciated.” Anoche, which she hopes to open the third week of October, will have 20 cider taps, including six ciders from the Basque region of Spain and at least a half dozen from Maine. In all, she’ll offer more than 50 ciders, about a third from Maine and New England.

THE CIDER REVIVAL 

Maine is hardly the only state that’s getting excited about cider. The resurgence of hard cider and the small orchards that produce it, in all of its glorious varieties, is fully underway in New England and upstate New York, says Jason Wilson, author of the new book “The Cider Revival: Dispatches from the Orchard” (Abrams Press). Cider-making has also been revived in Virginia, Michigan, California and the Pacific Northwest, he said.

Cider was America’s favorite drink in the 17th and 18th centuries, Wilson said, but by the time of the Civil War, it was falling out of favor. German immigrants introduced good beer that caught the public’s fancy and started supplanting cider, and by 1920, Prohibition was in full force. Farmers looked at the cider apple trees in their orchards and decided maybe it would be best to rip them out and plant eating apples (also known as dessert apples) instead. Abandoned cider orchards dotted the landscape throughout New England and upstate New York, Wilson said.

The contemporary cider market began in 2011, when Boston Beer Co. quietly launched its Angry Orchard line, Wilson said. The desire for a gluten-free alternative to beer helped drive the growth of Angry Orchard and similar mass market ciders, he said, but as consumers have educated themselves, “they’ve been looking for better ciders” made with traditional cider apples, many of them heirloom varieties that date back to Colonial times; their history is part of their allure. Bite into a cider apple and you’re likely to make a face. But the same qualities that make a cider apple bitter and unpalatable, such as tannin and acidity levels, add complexities to artisanal hard ciders.

Patrons toast at The Cider House. Is hard cider the next artisanal beer? Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The United States had fewer than 200 commercial cideries in 2011. Today there are more than 900. Over the past year, regional and local cider retail sales increased 19 percent while sales of national brands declined 4 percent, according to Michelle McGrath, executive director of the United States Association of Cider Makers, founded in 2013 in Portland, Oregon. In New England, regional brands grew 17 percent while national brands declined 12 percent.

“I actually look at Maine and New England, in particular, as having the potential to be Napa for cider, particularly Napa in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Galen Cunning of Belstar Orchards in Buxton. Cunning – a former cook at Fore Street in Portland – and his wife, Stacey Barnes, have not yet bottled any cider, but they can see the future, and it is filled with Mainers imbibing artisanal ciders made on local farms with the same enthusiasm with which they embraced craft beer.

INFINITE EXPRESSIONS OF FRUIT

At their farm in Buxton, the couple has planted 115 trees that will eventually bear 18 varieties of cider apples with names like Kingston Black, Ashtons Bitter and Calville Blanc D’hiver. This is the first year the trees have produced fruit, though the harvest has been small. Cunning also owns property on the outskirts of Belfast that is halfway planted with a dozen varieties of cider apples, mostly Redfield, Dabinett, Ellis Bitter and Major.

Until his trees start bearing enough fruit for the orchard’s new cider house, Cunning is sourcing eating apples from other orchards – sweet varieties such as Cortland, Honeycrisp and Macoun – to blend with sour and bitter apples gleaned from the edges of the woods. He’s not selling anything yet, but his goal is to develop a high proof (9 percent ABV) sparkling cider sold in 750 ml bottles.

Cunning was inspired by John Bunker of Fedco Trees, who has long been recognized as Maine’s foremost expert on rare heirloom apples. Whenever Bunker’s apple CSA arrived at Fore Street, Cunning said, he was in awe of “all these varieties I knew nothing about.”

Hogg, the owner of Perennial, is another Bunker fan. Hogg “had no idea” such complex traditional ciders existed before he encountered his first several years ago. Eventually, he found himself attending Maine Apple Camp in Liberty, spending time with other cider fans and trying a lot of complex, interesting ciders. It was, he said, “like the experience you’d see at any beer pub.”

He became enamored with the idea that every apple seed creates a new variety, birthing “endless expressions of the fruit.”

Hogg said he has met a lot of talented young producers who approach their work like wine makers, creating ciders that convey a sense of terroir. While craft brewers tend to be ingredient and recipe-driven, small cider producers are always thinking about the fruit and the qualities of different varieties. It gives him hope that cider could become “the table wine of the north.”

“I think we are tapping into a cultural memory that exists in new England with cider and that has been gone for the better part of a century,” he said.

MAKING THEIR MARK

Among the smaller producers trying to make their mark on this new cider scene are Abbey and Angus Deighan, owners of Rocky Ground Cider in Newburgh. Abbey studied the history of agriculture, with a focus on apples, at the College of the Atlantic, then toured apple orchards and cideries in England. “I really enjoyed the culture around cider as well as the drink,” she said. When she returned to the States, she apprenticed with John Bunker.

Angus Deighan, a geneticist, was working in a biotech lab in Bar Harbor when he met Abbey. “I really did not enjoy working inside under fluorescent lights,” he said. “Working with apples is great because there’s so much genetic variation that you visually see and taste in the apples. It’s really a beautiful way to experience that diversity. And making cider is also lots of fun.”

The couple, working on the family homestead in Newburgh, got into cider in 2011, on “an amateur level that was so extreme we tried to use a juicer to make cider,” Angus said, laughing. “That was a bad idea.” A year or so later, they started pressing apples with friends, using a cider press that belonged to a friend’s grandfather. They launched commercial sales in 2014. The first year they made just six barrels; each barrel contains about 48 gallons of cider. They now produce about 28 barrels a year. Someday they may add a tasting room, a place for people in their rural community to gather and enjoy each other’s company while sipping on a cider.

The couple uses wild apples that fall from the tree at their peak ripeness, and thus have the best levels of sugar, tannins and acidity that contribute to good flavor. They don’t pick fruit, and they rarely shake trees. They drive around the countryside in their “junkie Subaru” looking for trees growing by the road, and keep detailed records. Sometimes neighbors who have a small, abandoned orchard will let them harvest their apples.

“We name every tree,” Abbey said. “We keep records of how many bushels of apples we get from each tree and what time of year we picked it. And we’ll have a note if Ron or Lynn owns this tree.”

Angus adds: “We harvest a crop that’s grown every year without any pesticides or human intervention.”

The couple is also using the wild apples, along with some Fedco heirloom varieties and some European cider fruit, to restore their homestead’s orchard, which was abandoned 70 years ago. They initially cleared and re-planted about 5 acres, then last year cleared another four acres. “We’re really committed to growing the wild varieties in our area to create a sense of terroir,” Abbey said.

ORCHARD-TO-HOUSE

Abbey Deighan sorts apples before pressing at Rocky Ground Cider in Newburgh. Photo courtesy of Rocky Ground Cider

The Cider House carries a Rocky Ground cider called Zuzu, made from the juice of 40 wild apple seedlings, fermented in oak for 11 months and carbonated (bottle conditioned is the technical term) with Maine maple syrup. Its flavor is strong, earthy and complex. It is, according to the label, “steeped in hops picked by Bernard and Aline, our grandfather and great-aunt.”

Witham and Fagan ended up ordering a draft of Oyster River Dry and a bottle of Dupont Triple from France, which Vassallo recommended because Fagan says she likes her cider on the dry side. At 11 percent ABV, the Dupont is a strong cider. (Tip: Wilson says the higher the ABV, the drier the cider.) As the women sipped their ciders, they explained that they just moved to Portland this summer and spied one of the posters Vassallo tacked up all over the neighborhood. “We live up the street,” Witham, who usually drinks beer or wine when she goes out, told him. “We thought we’d come check you out.”

Vassallo says while many of his former coffee customers ran in and out the door with coffee to go, cider customers tend to linger, socialize and talk cider.

“I’m getting people down here who are into it,” he said. “They know their ciders. They’ll sit down and say ‘Give me the funkiest, earthiest, most dank cider you have.’”

Vassallo could be describing himself. Last week, he says, he went out for pad Thai and ordered his usual beer. He found himself not enjoying it, and asked for a cider instead.

“I’m a true believer at this point,” he said.

Lindsay Rainwater, of Boston, chats with Vassallo at The Cider House. “People in Portland and Maine are looking for the next big thing in food and drink,” he says. He thinks it’ll be hard cider. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


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