Growing up on an apple orchard and then becoming a brewer of beer may seem a bit counterintuitive, but it comes in handy when the craft world starts experimenting with cider, as it has in the past few years.
For Dave Varga, an Okanagan kid turned Vancouver brewmaster, 20 years of producing lagers, ales and stouts had him interested in branching out to offer those in the tasting room at 33 Acres a different option.
“Dave’s commitment to making clean and balanced drinks made us very confident that the first batch was going to be exactly what we were looking for,” says Dustin Sepkowski, operations manager at 33 Acres Brewing Company.
Sepkowski says they saw an opportunity to reach folks who aren’t able to drink beer – celiacs, for example, or those who subscribe to a gluten-free diet. The response to their house apple cider was so great that they quickly made it available for growler fills and in six packs. The initial batch only required a few small adjustments to arrive at the dry, hazy, pale blonde version they now offer.
The process however, was not without its challenges. Making cider is much more expensive than brewing beer, Sepkowski explains. It requires a separate wine license to ferment fruit on its own, as opposed to a grain-based beverage like beer, and the fermentation and conditioning process is time consuming.
“Some traditional ciders are more in line with wine making timelines,” he says.
Currently, the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch groups cider with wine and taxes it similarly, too. A higher tax means a higher mark-up for a consumer not necessarily versed in the difference between a craft cider and one saturated with sugar, artificial flavours and apple juice concentrate. Together that adds up to a considerable cost for a small business like a craft brewery.
“The biggest challenge is taxation,” says Dustan Sept of Surrey’s Central City Brewing. “Coming up with a competitive product at a reasonable price is quite challenging.”
Central City released their Hopping Mad Cider in March 2015, full of Yakima hops to turn a traditional cider into something the bitter-brew loving West Coast crowd would crack open.
“We are best known for hoppy beers like the Red Racer IPA,” Sept says. “It made logical sense to take that inspiration to cider. It also allows us to be creative and offer a point of difference to the consumer.”
Sept says building Central City’s cider portfolio was a way for brewmaster Gary Lohin and the brewing team to explore a new area of craft and reach a non-traditional craft customer. They’ve expanded their line-up to include a wood-aged imperial cider, a dry-hopped seasonal batch, a grapefruit cider radler and a tart cherry version.
Altering the flavour profile is generally the job of the apples, which both breweries source from B.C. and Washington, one of the largest apple producing regions in the world. The flavour profile fluctuates mainly on a scale from dry to sweet as a result of the type of apples used, Sept says, and having a consistent supply of quality apples is a key driver in sourcing fruit.
“Buying [apples] in B.C. is very difficult with the amount of cideries that exist here, and the fact that the number of orchards has greatly declined over the last 20 years,” Sepkowski says.
“We hope to see that change now that cider is becoming much more popular.”
With close to 150 craft breweries currently operating in B.C., and only a handful making cider, there is room for growth. While licensing and taxes create a barrier for small breweries to get in the cider game, Sepkowski says he sees a lot of interest and things are changing. This past April, B.C. Cider Week returned for its third year. And at breweries like Steel & Oak in New Westminster, which is not brewing its own cider, it’s offering space on guest taps to showcase ciders from across the province on a rotating basis.
Despite only a few weeks left of summer, there’s no need to worry about getting your hands on local craft cider. At 33 Acres, Sepkowski hints at more experimenting for cider lovers and who knows, you may just kick your IPA addiction in the process.