The first hard cider I sip during my visit to Schilling, called Grumpy Bear, tastes like meat rubbed in coffee grounds and slathered with teriyaki sauce. The second tastes like peaches. Only the third tastes as I expect hard cider to taste, but with an oaky aftertaste. Occupying one small corner of their cavernous production facility, Schilling’s tasting room in Auburn, Washington has about a half-dozen of their wildly-varied ciders on tap. But it’s a measly collection compared to their Cider House locations in Seattle and Portland, which use other cider brands to fill out their extensive catalog of rotating taps.
“Seattle has 32 taps, and Portland has 50,” explains Julia Childress, Schilling’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We had the world record already for ciders on tap, and then we broke it. We kind of want to break it again.” Such a variety of hard ciders in one place may have seemed inconceivable as few as five years ago. That was when founder Colin Schilling determined to scrap his consulting career and start his own company, working with what he knew best-hard cider, a homemade tradition in his family since the ’70s. He brewed his first batch at the age of 14.
The timing was right, with the hard cider market growing exponentially to account for one percent of all beer sales in 2013, up from just 0.2 percent two years prior. This was a long overdue resurgence for cider, which was once America’s drink of choice during the colonial era and into the early 19th century before falling out of favor, due in part to an influx of beer-loving German immigrants. The modern resurgence seemed to follow in the steps of the craft beer boom, appealing more evenly to all genders, as well as health-conscious and gluten-intolerant drinkers. Craft cideries like Schilling expanded the scope of the market by introducing new flavors during fermentation like peach, cold brew coffee, pomegranate and ginger. “If you have 50 cider taps in a bar versus 50 beer taps in a bar, the differences between beers will be subtler than the ones between ciders,” notes Childress.
Schilling goes a little further than most in determining the character of each cider by experimenting with various kinds of apples and yeast strains during development. While their established staples are brewed in 6,000-gallon tankers, employees at the production facility will brew one-off batches with new flavors to sample around the office. Only the tastiest of these experiments are fine-tuned to become a seasonal offering, and only the most popular seasonal offerings are upgraded to year-round staples. But before they’re put into production, the new flavors go into rotation at Schilling’s cider houses, both of which are run somewhat independently by chief curators who pick and choose which ciders go on tap from other independent producers. “The industry isn’t cut-throat at all,” Childress says. “Us cider folks are so nice.”
Commercial ciders like Angry Orchard are excluded from the rotation, as they tend not to meet Schilling’s established ethos, which stipulates that their ciders must be locally-sourced and made without preservatives or other artificial additives. Interestingly, sales of commercial cider-the less diverse, less health-conscious segment of the market-seem to be plateauing, while those of craft ciders continue to rise around the nation, particularly in Oregon and Washington, where they account for more than half of all cider sales. Even among crafts, Schilling is experiencing exceptional growth, their market share increasing more than twice as fast as Washington’s other leading brands.
More craft brands means more competition, which forces established companies to keep finding new flavors and ways of differentiating themselves in an increasingly saturated market. Three months after opening their Portland cider house, Schilling is already eyeing other locations, while also working to double their production capacity and gear up for the release of their chai tea-flavored winter seasonal. If it’s anything like their Grumpy Bear, I’ll be back to try their latest tap-and soon.