Just as rosé was transformed almost overnight from an ugly duckling franzia box to a glam "rosé all day" vino trend, cider has moved beyond the garage party sickly sweet bottles of Woodchuck and Angry Orchard. Dry, deliciously drinkable ciders are gaining traction in the craft beer market, and they're also making their way into the seemingly apple-bereft Palmetto state. Between the upstate's Windy Hill Orchard and Charleston's family owned and operated craft cider company, Ship's Wheel, there's plenty of the hard stuff to go around, and, the two companies promise, even more to come.
According to a February 2017 Draft Mag article, cider is an industry that "given its (relative to beer) small size, is still seeking to define itself. Makers of hard cider fall into many camps: Some are orchardists; some make ciders very similar to wine; some produce cider and market it like beer; some are owned by larger beer-making operations." Add, "it runs in the family" to that list.
"My parents moved down from New Jersey, and going to a cider mill growing up was a yearly tradition, so that's how it all started," says Windy Hill's Matthew Gusmer. Gusmer's parents, Fritz and Catherine, were focused on fresh cider and hot apple donuts when they opened Windy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill in the late '80s in York County, SC, but in the last seven to eight years, Gusmer says, the primary focus has shifted to hard cider.
Conveniently located less than an hour from Charlotte, Windy Hill has found an audience in craft-beer crazed North Carolina, the upstate's Fort Mill and Rock Hill counties, and even the Lowcountry, distributing bottles through Hilton-Head based Bear Island Distributors. Locally, you can find Windy Hill at Closed for Business, Craft Conundrum, Husk, Mellow Mushroom downtown, Paw Paw, Smoky Oak, The Barrel, Bottles, and Total Wine. Five years ago, Gusmer says that seeing cider on tap was a rarity, and people would say "oh, we don't want cider." Now, "people are looking for cider, the phones are ringing."
While the demand for cider is a boon for the family-owned orchard, it also ain't cheap. "It's typically more expensive to make cider [than beer]," says Gusmer. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. Instead of dealing with barley, hops, and yeast, cider makers are dealing with apples. And not just any apple will do. "The raw ingredients are a higher cost," explains Gusmer, "especially for us using cider apples, not something like Red Delicious."
And, when making cider, time is money. Gusmer says that it used to take about six months start to finish to make their cider. "We've gotten that down, now with new technology, but six weeks is the quickest we can go from apple to bottle," he says. "Time frame adds to the expense. There are storage costs, we're not turning tanks over as quickly."
Luckily, Gusmer says that those who are craving cider are also better educating themselves. Whereas people used to see the price point of cider at $7.50 and balk, they now understand the difference between a pint of craft cider and a pint of Budweiser. "It's like two buck chuck and Silver Oak wine. There's cheap stuff made from apples that you wouldn't even feed to a pig, and then there's high-end stuff."
John Jamison, co-owner of Charleston-based Ship's Wheel, understands why some people associate cider with cheap, gas station bottles. "A lot of the ciders people have seen in the past tend to be really sweet. But I think people's perception of ciders is starting to change. They realize they can have a lot more nuance."
Like the Gusmers, Jamison's family grew up in apple country (Virginia), where there were actual orchards and real apple cider, not that stuff from concentrate. The Jamisons moved to Charleston more than a decade ago, and always had trouble finding a good cider. So they decided, hey, let's bring cider to the beach. Ship's Wheel was born.
"If you look nationally, cider is a growing category," says Jamison. "I think it's something we haven't seen in Charleston primarly because we're not an apple growing state (except for Windy Hill, which Jamison notes is a great cider). The culture hasn't grown up around it as much."
Ship's Wheel, Jamison is quick to point out, is using apples from upstate New York, where, according to their website, the apples are "pressed right on the orchard." So no, it's not technically locally made, but when was the last time you saw an apple tree growing in our marshy landscape? The key is that the family is based here, and they're distributing (also through Bear Island) their three inaugural flavors — original blend (5.5% ABV), dry-hopped (6.9% ABV), and summer splash (5.5% ABV) — locally.
Ship's Wheel can be found at Chico Feo, Cru Cafe, Local 616, Snapper Jack's, D'Allesandro's, Fratello's, Mellow Mushroom downtown, Spero, Surf Bar, Tattooed Moose Johns Island, and Total Wine. "We're really just trying to grow our network," says Jamison.