If you’ve ever dismissed hard cider because "it’s too sweet" or "tastes like apple juice," now is the time to reconsider. There have never been more options in craft hard cider, and New England is the epicenter of the craft cider movement.

Once upon a time, cider was relegated as the beer alternative for the gluten intolerant. But now the vast range of cider options can appeal to even the most dedicated beer-drinker. Today’s craft cider is a far cry from the overly sweet, syrupy bottles you might remember from college, and Vermont’s Champlain Orchards Cidery is a shining example of this craft in action.

From branch to bottle to you - Champlain explains its single-origin cider making process.
Courtesy of Champlain Orchards

With the orchard as its inspiration, and its single source of apples, Champlain Orchards is making award-winning hard cider on the picturesque banks of Lake Champlain. Although cider is typically associated with beer rather than wine, the cider making process is closer to winemaking than beer brewing.

"Cider is a hybrid beverage – consumed like a beer but essentially sparkling white wine in a can," said Champlain’s Head Cidermaker, Jeren Stoneman, who hails from California and has a winemaking background. About five years ago he was inspired to trade grapes for apples, preferring the relative infancy of the cider making industry. "Winemaking is very traditional. I love the creative freedom that cider making allows. Plus, it’s exciting to be one of the forerunners in this industry."

It is certainly a growing industry. Cider may currently represent only about 4% of the US alcohol business, but 4% of a $223 billion industry isn’t peanuts – it’s apples. Champlain has been growing since its inception in 2011, and not just because they’re capitalizing on a growing market. In addition to maintaining their single-orchard source and controlling the process on site from start to finish, it’s their strong commitment to purity that Sales and Marketing Manager, Ben Rule, credits for their success.

"We use no concentrates or cane sugar," says Rule. "And if any is needed at all, pure Vermont maple syrup is the only sweetener we use." You’ll find that in their popular Mac & Maple cider, aptly described as "Vermont in a can." (Also recently highlighted as a Craving Boston favorite cider-and-cheese pairing – with Vermont Cheddar, of course!)

"Picturesque" doesn't just describe the lake view. Before there are apples, there are beautiful spring buds.
Courtesy of Champlain Orchards

Part of something bigger

Champlain’s 240-acre ecologically-managed orchard grows over 110 varieties of apples (did you even know that that many varieties exist?) and you can learn about many of them here.

Given the popularity of apple-picking in the fall, it’s easy to see that New England provides perfect apple-growing conditions. But the phenomenal variety cultivated by Champlain Orchards’ owner and orchardist, Bill Suhr, is certainly unique. The orchard grows apples for eating, cooking, sweet cider, and of course, hard cider. They also grow many varieties of pears, peaches, plums and cherries - lending endless opportunity for inspiration to an eager fermenter.

"At least 40 acres of apples are specifically dedicated to hard cider," said Rule. Stoneman added "There are approximately 13 or 14 cider-specific apples that are grown only for alcohol." That doesn’t include the popular Macs, Empire, and Honeycrisp that serve many purposes, or the varieties Stoneman chooses to experiment with to develop creative new products.

Stoneman is particularly excited about a couple of cider-specific apple varietals. The Redfield apple is a great example of one that’s not good for eating (it’s very dry) but excellent for cider making, not only because of its dry quality but because of its vibrant, and quite unusual, red flesh. It produces a beautiful red juice, which translates to blush or rosé cider. Unlike some companies sourcing their apples overseas, this rosé-wine-alternative is completely Vermont-grown.

The high-acidity Wickson apple is, as described by a local apple enthusiast, "well-balanced, tartness predominating but tempered by sugar, and with distinct malt-sugar notes." Sounds like a perfect cider-maker to me! Stoneman is partial to it because it originated where he did, in Humboldt County, CA, and is excited to use it in some forthcoming ciders.

From the shores of Lake Champlain, this lineup of orchard-made hard cider a shining example of Vermont-grown goodness.
Courtesy of Local Frame Media

Nothing to wine about

With his roots in winemaking, it’s no surprise that Stoneman has contributed some wine-inspired products to the Champlain lineup. While cider is going more in the direction of 12-ounce cans and bottles, there is still a market for the more traditional 750 mL bottles, for which Stoneman is creating some single-varietal offerings catered toward showcasing the unique qualities of induvial apple varieties. Look for Redfield to appear as such this year.

The limited edition Sidria, a sangria-style cider, is made with estate-grown apples AND grapes! It’s also their first canned limited edition cider.

And why not also take full advantage of the cold Vermont winters to make Ice Cider? Unlike ice wine that’s made from frozen grapes, this process involves slowly and naturally freezing sweet apple cider then separating the frozen water from the thicker cider. The naturally concentrated result is best enjoyed like a dessert wine. Stoneman makes a Sparkling Ice Cider as well as a single-varietal Honeycrisp Ice Cider.

BYOCC (buy your own Champlain cider)

You can find Champlain Orchards Cider throughout New England and Upstate New York. At peak apple season it takes just about a month for cider to go “from branch to bottle” as they say. And even when the apples are gone from the trees, Champlain Orchards specializes in highly sustainable, controlled cold storage – so Stoneman has apples to work with year-round. That refrigerated storage happens to be powered by solar energy and cooled by beet juice, a chemical-free alternative to Freon – just a couple of cool notes about this thriving orchard.

This summer, look for their popular Honeycrisp single-varietal cider in more portable 12-ounce cans. This light, easy-drinking cider is perfect for warm summer days, and pairs well with a variety of picnic fare. When I asked what the autumn will bring in terms of seasonal ciders, Stoneman said, "It depends on what mother nature gives us." The commitment to quality trumps any marketing or distribution plan for this truly craft cider.

Cider making is the perfect blend of science and modern art.
Courtesy of Champlain Orchards

Gold-medal choices

Almost every single cider that Champlain produces has won an award of some kind – in beer, wine, and cider competitions alike. From the semi-dry Heirloom, to the bold Ginger & Spice (my personal favorite), to the juicy Sidria – their most recent honor of 2018 – you can’t go wrong with an award-winning one.

3597 VT RT 74 West, Shoreham, VT, 802-897-2777, champlainorchardscidery.com

Champlain Orchards Cidery will be participating at this year's WGBH Craft Beer Festival Fundraiser this summer. Tickets are now available here.