In November of 2013, the New York Time’s wine critic Eric Asimov reviewed American craft ciders and determined that the “Serious Cider” From Foggy Ridge in Virginia was his panel’s number one pick. The article did a great deal for American craft cider, exposing the growing category to many who had no idea of its diversity. However, it also exposed readers to one of the most important craft cideries in America—Foggy Ridge.
Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge, was kind enough to respond to a number of questions by The Cider Journal concerning the cider revival, the state of American craft cider and what the cider industry needs to do in order to keep Americans interested in craft cider.
Flynt founded Foggy Ridge in 2004. Ten years later, Foggy Ridge and Flynt have played an important role in putting Virginia craft cider on the map, in promoting the cider movement and in helping to encourage others to go down the cider path.
1. The Cider revival has become quite noticeable over the past three or four years. Can you tell us some of the most significant differences you’ve noticed in the cider market and among cider buyers recently versus 7 or 8 years ago? What’s different?
Cider drinkers have always been beverage “early adopters”—research calls drinkers who drink widely, readily sampling different kinds of beer, wine and spirits, Experimentals. The change has come with the beer company focus on the cider segment: their advertising, product development and promotion strategies have been directed to beer drinkers in an effort to recapture this segment. More cider is looking like beer—flavored with hops or flavored with adjuncts like beer—and consumers from the beer drinking segment have been driven to more beer-like cider.
2. The large, big brewer-owned commercial ciders producers have captured a huge part of the growing cider market. Additionally, their marketing efforts via television commercials and print marketing have done the most to introduce cider to folks that have become new cider drinkers. Is their impact good for the growing contingent of craft cider producers like Foggy Ridge and others?
Wide distribution of low-cost cider has certainly built cider consumption. It’s unfortunate that the cost models for many Mass Market ciders does not allow for the use of 100% apples as the starting point for fermentation. Mass Market ciders can function as “gateway cider” to introduce consumers to the segment, who will then “trade up” and want to explore more nuanced ciders made from cider apples. But the great majority of beer consumed is still Mass Market beer. I don’t think cider will be any different.
3. You have a winemaker’s education and have said in the past that cider is very much like wine. Do you believe there are any important implications in consumers viewing cider as though it is most similar to beer versus being more similar to wine?
I probably get an email a week from a new cidermaker asking for help in learning how to “brew cider”. Cider is fermented not brewed; the science of cidermaking is all about managing fermentation to gain the most flavor from fruit. Consumers who view cider as beer do so because of marketing. Beer is mostly water—a ingredient that is much, much cheaper than fruit! Consumers who view cider as beer will always expect cheap cider—and good quality cider can never be as inexpensive as beer because of the ingredient cost of fruit. I love great craft beer—Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC is doing some amazing things with NC grown ingredients. But for the most part brewers have access to the same ingredients. Cider is a different story because, at its best, it’s a fruit driven beverage.
4. What are the most important things cider producers and the cider trade must do to continue to convince more drinkers to choose craft cider and keep the craft cider market growing at its rapid pace?
I don’t think we have a difficult challenge here! Consumers want flavor; they are concerned about provenance, where their food comes from for example; they are interested in new taste experiences…all these interests line up well with what craft cider has to offer.
5. At least three of the Foggy Ridge ciders (Pippin Gold, Sweet Stayman, and Pippin Black) attempt to showcase specific cider apple varieties. Can you explain the importance of making cider that places such a spotlight on specific varieties versus showcasing ciders made with blends of different cider apples?
Actually we’re changing the name of Sweet Stayman to “Stayman Winesap” in honor of the Winesap apple that we are increasingly using in this blend. But, with the exception of Pippin Gold, all our ciders are blends of at least several different apple varieties. Our house style is blended cider—I think there are few apple varieties that offer the balance of tannin, acid and fruit to carry a single varietal blend. Why would I want to make a cider that tastes less than it could just to make a point about a variety? But that said, I’m a blender by inclination.
6. Some cidermakers place much more emphasis on the idea of “terroir” where cider is concerned. However, in general, it is not a concept that has been widely considered in the cider community and very little serious consideration has been given to the idea of terroir in promotional and marketing efforts by cidermakers. What are your thoughts on terroir and cider and do you expect this concept to garner more interest in the coming years?
This is a big question and one that requires a lot more knowledge than we have now. I know the apples we grow at our 3000 foot elevation orchard in the Southern Appalachians taste different from those same varieties grown 100 miles away in the Shenandoah Valley. But right now, apple variety is more important to me than some elusive concept of terroir—I need more cider fruit, especially high tannin fruit, regardless of where it’s grown.
7. The Foggy Ridge website is easily one of the most informative among cider producers, delivering lots of information on orchards, apples and more. What are your thoughts on Social media, the internet and how it impacts your ability to communicate with cider lovers?
Anything that connects consumers to a deeper level of knowledge is a good thing. Some social media is just about promotion, or just plain silly—one cidery talks about a cider made from red apples and one made from green apples, as if the color of the apple has anything to do with anything! People who have the interest will read more deeply and then consume in a more engaged way. Some journalists are writing about cider in a more thoughtful way, not just the same old “John Adams drank a tankard of cider a day” or Johnny Appleseed stories. The recent Wall Street Journal piece on the scarcity of cider fruit is a good example, as was Eric Asimov’s review of dry cider last fall. Both pieces talked about cider in a more nuanced way and I like to share deeper knowledge like this on social media.
8. If you were in charge of the cider education for all Americans, how would you introduce them to cider and ask them to progress in their cider education? Would you put certain types of cider in front of them first, leading them then to different styles of cider, then on to others?
One of my friends writes a blog called “Thinking Drinking“. I would encourage people to drink, and think! Sampling different ciders—sampling “blind” or with the labels covered is always best—talking to friends about what you taste is the best way to learn about any beverage. But I wouldn’t overcomplicate drinking…after all, the most important thing is to enjoy what you are drinking, to find the experience of that beverage pleasurable. Pleasure and flavor…that’s it for me.
9. Speculate for us: Twenty years from now what will be the state of American craft cider and craft cider consumption in the U.S.?
I can’t answer this one!
10. Foggy Ridge is an undisputed leader of the growing craft cider movement and you have become an important spokesperson for craft cider as well as for Virginia cider. For those cider drinkers and members of the cider trade that looks to you and Foggy Ridge for leadership, are there any changes coming to Foggy Ridge that we can look forward to?
This question is so kind! I do care deeply about our industry and hope to work more at the industry level in the next few years. Since I’m in what I like to think of as the “last quartile” of my working career, I am thinking now about legacy. There are two things we’re doing at Foggy Ridge that I’d put in the “legacy” department—first, we have for three years now had an internship program. We bring on a paid intern each May for a full year, to live here at Foggy Ridge and work in all aspects of the business—the orchard, cidermaking, bottling, farm work. Our goal is to prepare our interns to enter the cider industry in a cidermaker role at a small cidery or an assistant cidermaker role at a larger one. Our most recent intern had several job offers and is now working for a cidery in Denver. Our current intern plans to open a cidery at his family’s agritourism business in TN. This effort is all about getting well-trained talent out in the commercial cider world. The second thing we’re doing is partnering with Eliza Greenman to sponsor her cider apple tree nursery here at Foggy Ridge Cider. She opened Legacy Fruit Trees last December and sells custom grafted cider apple trees, provides orchard consulting services and sells some trees here at the farm. Eliza has close to 10 years farming, orcharding and consulting experience—her first season of custom grafting was a huge success and we know this business will fill a valuable need for commercial growers. Eliza also traveled to Kyrgyzstan last year to study apples and we are looking forward to seeing what comes from the seeds and wood she gathered there.
Foggy Ridge cider are available for purchase in a number of venues, including at the Foggy Ridge Online Store. The Cider Journal highly recommends the Foggy Ridge Fruit First Hard Cider as well as the Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman Hard Cider. You can look forward to future reviews of the Foggy Ridge Handmade and Pippin Gold in the new future.