Considering that South Carolina has some 50 breweries and brewpubs, with more opening seemingly every day, it's a surprise that, for the longest time, the state had only one producer of local hard cider: Windy Hill Orchard and Cider Room in York, which began selling cider in 1996.
But in 2015, Spartanburg's Ciclops Cyderi and Brewery at Hub City Tap House got into the cider market. In fact, partners Kolby Garrison and Michael Willcox say they were producing cider before starting up their beers.
And in early 2017, Carolina Bauernhaus in Anderson applied for a license to also produce ciders. Now, "mostly we're still perfecting recipes, selling some in our tap room to get feedback," says partner Brad Thomas. "We want to bring the same culture to ciders that we bring to our beers."
Most beer drinkers are aware of the booming cider market, with hard cider found on the same shelves as craft beers. But for a long time, ciders, made from apples and other fruits, were pigeonholed as "women's drinks." That's changing, Ciclops Cyderi's Garrison says.
"We don't let ‘tough guys' not try our cider," he says. "We had a works-out-daily CrossFit guy come in, saying ‘I only drink beer; cider is for sissies' - except he didn't say ‘sissies.' I said, ‘Try this,' handed him a cider, and he did and said, ‘That's what I want.' Now he's in here all the time. So cider drinkers, they're all over the map."
Windy Hill, a family-owned "boutique" orchard and cider mill, was started by Fritz and Catherine Gusmer, who moved from New Jersey to York in 1979. His mother had given the couple a wooden apple cider press, and the family was soon making cider (and their "world famous" apple cider doughnuts).
"We have 10 acres of trees, and until 2013 we were doing all of it ourselves," says Matthew Gusmer, manager and the Gusmers' son. "Now, we outsource some to North Carolina (orchards), but my father is still the mastermind. People can come to our small bar at the orchard or buy in bottles, which you can get it all over the state."
Windy Hill produces six styles: Ginger Gold, its flagship cider; Gala Peach; Strawberry Pippin, a dry cider; Rusty Gold, using spices; Hoppin' Johnny (Winesap apples and dry hops) and Hoppin' Johnny Blueberry. And yes, they still sell the doughnuts, Gusmer says. "We've been doing it for 30 years and they're extremely popular, but you can only get those at the orchard," he says.
Garrison and Willcox named the company after Garrison's wife, Cindy, who prefers cider to beer and who, when asked her name, always says "Cindy with one I." A friend translated that to "one eye," and the odd spelling took care of the rest.
While Ciclops' craft beers are popular, ciders remain a seasonal product because the owners adhere to a "hyperlocal" philosophy, only using apples from western North Carolina. "We don't want to use apple concentrate or apples from China," Garrison says. Also for that reason, he said, Ciclops doesn't distribute its ciders (or beers) outside Spartanburg, at least for now. "We want people to come here to eat and drink."
Producing cider is more expensive than producing beer and, because Ciclops' ciders are unpasteurized, involves more risk. "If you get an infection,":Garrison says, "you end up with apple cider vinegar.' Also, the relatively small facility (220 gallons at a time on a three-barrel system) already has trouble keeping up with demand.
That demand is driven by Ciclops' creative products. "One of our first ciders with other fruits was a Wisconsin cranberry cider, using cranberries, apples and a little lime," Garrison says. "We've also experimented with different spices and herbs." A popular cider is Thai-style Ta Si Daeng, which uses hibiscus and litchi fruits, and is most likely to become the company's first bottled cider product.
At Carolina Bauernhaus, Thomas says an affiliation with South Yeast Labs gives them the ability to make a number of alcoholic beverages, including honey-based mead. As for ciders, "we're still perfecting recipes, figuring out how the yeasts interact with what we're making."
"And we're fermenting in oak barrels, so we can get a lot of flavors in the cider." One batch, called Government Work, has been aged in merlot barrels, and flavored with cinnamon and honey.
Carolina Bauernhaus' brewers like to produce "wild" beers, including sours, and Thomas says "we want to bring that same culture to our ciders. We wanted to create a regional beverage that you can only get in Upstate South Carolina."
So: who drinks cider? Thomas thinks people who, like craft beer fans, want something different. "We want to cater to variety, to get people to try something they've not had before," he says.
Windy Hill's Gusmer says "four years ago, it probably was still 98 percent women," but the public's gravitation toward craft beers has carried over to ciders. "Today, there are so many styles. Ciders aren't just ‘cider' anymore," he says.
"There are as many different styles as in beers. And now we're converting a lot of craft beer drinkers to craft cider." That's a lot of men ... and women, too.