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The hard cider wave comes to Charlotte

Two new producers set to open in South End

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I've typed for miles about the explosive growth of Charlotte's beer scene in recent years. Now, fellow drinkers, be prepared for the rise of hard cider.

First, some quick terminology. In the rest of the world, "cider" refers to apple juice that has been fermented. In America, "cider" refers to apple juice prior to fermentation; "hard cider" designates the alcohol-containing version. I'm not about to switch to the metric system, but, from here on, my using cider designates the post-fermentation version.

Also, don't get cider and beer confused; it's actually considered a wine, as is any juice of a fruit post-fermentation. That's all cider is — the product of apple juice and yeast. Apple juice carries enough fermentable sugars to put the finished product in the 6 percent ABV range, comparable to beer and far less than grape-based wines. Ciders are also taxed as wine, and taxed yet again if they're heavily carbonated like champagne.

Cider enjoyed its American heyday in the 18th century, as apples grew well here and malted barley for beer production was hard to come by. It fell out of favor a century later when a wave of beer-loving Germans settled stateside. Prohibition was almost the death knell for domestic cider-making, as entire apple orchards were re-planted and cider-making varietals were replaced with those more geared for eating.

The localvore movement has increased focus on "somewhereness," a search for things made "from here." This has benefited local breweries, not to mention local farms and food producers. Lucky us, as North Carolina is the 7th largest apple-producing state. One "from here" is Windy Hill Orchard & Cider Mill, which has been operational for almost two decades. Two new ones are poised to open in South End within a year.

Windy Hill, located just across the border in York, South Carolina, started producing its hard ciders in 1996. It's a working farm with more than 100 acres dedicated to producing six apple cultivars. Eighty percent of apple production goes into growing Stayman Winesaps, the workhouse varietal behind its cider offerings. During my last visit, six different varieties of ciders were on tap, ranging from its flagship Ginger Gold to Hoppin' Johnny, dry-hopped with in-house hops grown from 250 bines.

Coming soon is Red Clay Ciderworks, which just recently received federal approval for cider production. Owners Jay and Deanna Bradish will house their production facility in the former Englishman's Furniture building off Clanton Road, and are eyeing a December opening date. They're focusing on American-style ciders, with four year-round varieties ranging from dry-hopped to bourbon barrel-aged. As there obviously isn't space in South End to support a 100-acre orchard, they've contracted with apple growers in Hendersonville and Lincolnton to supply them.

Not too far behind is GoodRoad CiderWorks, currently in lease negotiations for a location. Three orchards, two in North Carolina and one in New England, will provide their juice. GoodRoad plans to transform that supply into a cast of three cider types: dry, semi-dry and English-style. The owners are also planning a line of specialty ciders and meads (honey wine) to complement their core cider arsenal.

Both cideries plan to carry offerings from Charlotte breweries in their taprooms; collaborative brews with these local breweries are also in the cards. GoodRoad and Red Clay each plan to self-distribute at first, and aim to bring 10,000 and 16,000 gallons to Charlotte in their first years, respectively.

It's no surprise to see this influx of cideries into Charlotte; the American market for hard cider is red-hot right now. Sales of domestically made cider have tripled between 2007 and 2012. So much that Big Beer has noticed cider's rise as well. In 2012, MillerCoors bought Crispin Cider for an undisclosed amount, and has also tried developing its Smith & Forge offshoot. Anheuser-Busch threw its hat into the ring this year with Johnny Appleseed Hard Apple Cider. Craft beer behemoth Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, started the now-ubiquitous Angry Orchard cider line in 2012, which now controls more than 50 percent of the overall cider market share and is predicted to comprise 20 percent of Boston Beer's total production volume in 2015.

Just like craft beer transforms common ingredients of water, barley, hops and yeast into a multitude of varieties, blends of apple juices and yeast variation can lead to a plethora of hard cider flavors. Craft beer has had a dramatic impact on the local beverage landscape; it'll be interesting to see what these cideries bring to the area.

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