The last three decades have seen a meteoric rise for the nation's micro-brewing industry: More than 15 million barrels of craft beer were produced last year, a growth of 10 percent over the year before. But now, there's a new beverage on tap: hard cider. Maine apple producers and beer enthusiasts say it could be Maine's next big thing.
Twenty years ago, you might have found yourself hard pressed to locate a Maine-made beer on tap. Today, with about 50 craft beer makers, there's a whole spectrum of beers from the Pine Tree State - from darkest porters to the lightest bitters. But beer enthusiasts say, although there still isn't enough variety, hard cider is piggybacking on that success.
"I think people are really into it now. Craft cider is going the same way now that craft beer has been going over the last couple of years," says Gene Beck, owner of Nocturnem Draft Haus in Bangor, which specializes in local foods and micro-brews. More customers, he says, are requesting the fizzy alcoholic apple juice, and he's managed to locate a handful of producers from Maine.
"Most of them are very small, though," he says, "and they don't do, like, actual distribution to convenience stores or grocery stores or on-premise accounts like us. So you kind of have to go seek them out."
Which Beck has done in order to keep a cider on tap at all times. He says customers are especially fond of Portland's Urban Farm Fermentory cider, which naturally ferments batches of apples without the addition of yeast.
But out-of-state ciders, such as Ohio's Angry Orchard and Vermont's Woodchuck cider, are still the most popular. They've made it into major grocery chains around the state. And they're about to have some company, says Andy Ricker, of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. The 200-year-old farm has just launched its very first commercial hard cider.
"This is the Mainiac Gold," Ricker says. As workmen scramble to finish a brand-new tasting room to showcase the new product, Ricker pours a glass of the pale, fizzy, almost champagne-like drink. True to its name, the predominant note in Mainiac Gold is golden delicious apples. But Ricker says it's just the beginning. He's planted several new stands of special cider apples, known informally as bittersweets and bittersharps, to use in creating future blends.
"The Mainiac Gold is more of a beer-grade hard cider," he says. "As some of the trees we planted of the specific English and French varieties come into production, we'll get into more of the wine-grade stuff in the next few years."
In order to compete, the farm has had to make significant investments in infrastructure, including a new canning machine, so that Ricker Hill's hard cider can enjoy a bigger distribution. "It was like the second week of August this came on line. So this is new to us," Ricker says.
"And how's it working out?" I ask.
"Oops," he says, as the canning machine malfunctions. "We've got some learning curves going on."
As apple juice spews everywhere, Ricker moves toward another part of the plant, the fermenting room, which features several huge, steel tanks bought second hand from a toothpaste manufacturer. In these drums, unfiltered apple juice is allowed to ferment. Each drum contains a single type of apple from a single picking. In creating each blend, cider from various vats will be combined until the desired effect is achieved.
This process, says Cidery Manager Justin Lagassey - who prefers to be called a beverage engineer - is more art than science. "It's kind of like making soup - you might add a little salt or a little pepper, and then, like, in a stroke of inspiration, you add some cinnamon or nutmeg," he says.
It's hard to call cider a "new" thing. It's been around for almost as long as apples themselves, says Ricker. And when his ancestors founded the farm in 1803, they were most certainly familiar with it. But Prohibition changed all that, putting the brakes on all brewing. Although Maine still doesn't have the number of breweries it had prior to Prohibition, the industry is rebounding, he says. It's just taken cider a little longer to catch up.