Hard cider boom lifts Addison County apple orchards
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series profiling the effect of the hard cider boom on Addison County apple orchards.
ADDISON COUNTY — A growing thirst for hard cider nationwide is changing the landscape for Vermont apple growers, including those in Addison County, one of the state’s most important apple growing areas.
“It’s had a number of impacts,” said UVM Tree Fruit and Viticulture Specialist Terry Bradshaw. “I’m not sure if it’s been transformative yet in terms of completely changing the industry, but it’s had some pretty big effects.”
Although hard cider sales are only around 1 percent of size of the U.S. beer market, the expansion of cider sales over the past five or more years has been described as “torrid” — hard cider sales broke $1 billion in 2015, which vaulted over sales of close to $500 million in 2014. Unsurprisingly, a recent UVM study reported that “cider is the fastest growing segment of the alcohol beverage industry.” From 2007 to 2014, the volume of hard cider sold in the U.S. rose more than 800 percent — from 6.4 million to 54 million gallons.
At 2016 CiderCon, industry experts reported that between 2011 and 2015, the number of cider drinkers rose from 5 million to 18 million.
The two largest hard cider companies in the United States are Sam Adams’ Angry Orchard line and Middlebury-based Woodchuck Hard Cider, which hold 38 and 34 percent of the domestic market, respectively, according to the UVM study. While these two large companies source fruit from around the world, the cider boom has increased the demand for apples grown here in the United States.
Woodchuck, which started in a Proctorsville garage in 1991, was long the state’s lone cider producer. Today there are a reported 15 hard cider producers in Vermont, from Woodchuck and Citizen Cider (Vermont’s second-largest producer), to small startups making custom batches from feral hedgerow apples — and everything in between.
Other Addison County producers include Shacksbury Cider in Shoreham, Windfall Orchard in Cornwall and Boyer’s Hard Ciders and Wines in Monkton.
“I think early on there was this kind of us vs. them mindset, but they (Woodchuck) have been a tremendous asset. And I think everyone recognizes that,” Bradshaw said.
For orchardists, this is all good news.
It’s also good news for Addison County consumers for whom going out to pick apples and looking out on fruit-laden trees stretching up toward the Green Mountains and out toward the Adirondacks are among fall’s greatest and most traditional pleasures. A stronger market for apples means more likelihood that orchards will stay in business.
Bradshaw can remember a time 15 or 20 years ago when orchards were selling out and going under. Now the cider boom is helping to stabilize this iconic Vermont industry.
“There was a time not long ago when the general mood was the apple industry was played out and was on the wane — and I remember those days, I was a grower during those days — and now people are talking about it and looking at the industry in a whole new light,” he said.
APPLE PRICES RISE
The bottom line on this transformation is the higher price of apples.
“The price of what we used to call cider or juice apples has more than doubled,” said Bradshaw.
Five years ago the price for culls — apples grown for table fruit but not perfect enough for retail sales — was $3 a bushel. Now it’s $6, rock bottom, and sometimes even as high as $8 or $12 to meet the demand for hard cider production statewide, said Bradshaw.
To put that into perspective, table apples might typically go for $20 a bushel, the standard figure Bradshaw uses in discussing how an orchardist might calculate the profitability of their dependable Macintosh-driven orchard vs. taking a deeper plunge into growing for cider specifically.
But the fresh fruit market is volatile, he said.
“The table apple market fluctuates wildly and is very dependent on fruit size, fruit quality, whether or not there’s a hail storm in New Zealand,” Bradshaw explained.
And changing tastes make different apples more desirable to consumers and hence more valuable to orchardists. So in a year like 2016, in which dry weather has yielded smaller fruit, a bushel of apples for fresh eating might go for as low as $12 a bushel. But a bushel of the highly popular Honeycrisp might go for $50.
For early adaptors who’ve got a commercial-size crop of cider-specific apples — bittersweet varieties long a staple of British and French cider production but hard to find in the U.S. — the price per bushel rivals the standard Macs and Macouns.
“An apple like Dabinett or any of those British bittersweet varieties, I used to say $18 a bushel but I’m hearing up to $24 a bushel. So now we’re talking about cider apples that are as valuable as table fruit,” said Bradshaw.
For those who go whole hog into making and bottling their own hard cider, Bradshaw estimates the return can be as high as $180 a bushel — after they make some hefty investments.
Orchardists say that selling fruit for hard cider production can take three approaches: selling culls from regular table production, growing regular eating varieties but with fewer inputs (fungicide etc.) to maximize profits for cider production, or planting cider-specific varieties and banking on the hard cider industry during the five years for the trees to mature.
Orchardists also explained that table fruit must be perfect to be sellable. Cider making, on the other hand, can use fruit that’s less than perfect. This includes fruit damaged by hail or similar nature events that could otherwise be disastrous. So with the cider boom orchardists have a way to sell a lot more of their crop.
And indeed for most orchards in the state, the most significant impact of the cider boom, the “low-hanging fruit,” Bradshaw punned, is in selling culls. Suddenly, over the past five or so years, what was “barely worth it to pick up off the ground” has value. And that value is dependable and provides stability.
”It’s not a major profit center, I don’t think, but it does help,” said Bradshaw.
In many senses, that makes the apple business similar to other agricultural ventures.
“I grew up on a dairy farm; I know what fluctuating prices are all about,” Bradshaw said. “You can live off of a low-price product if you know what the price is going to be so you can plan for it down the road.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].