Cider, Features
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Interview with the American Cider Association’s Michelle McGrath

In many European nations – the UK, Spain, Germany, Austria, France – the task, so far as cider is concerned, is to breathe new life into an old, often ancient, tradition. We’ve seen it here with the drive to promote aspirational cider and to talk about and present it with the reverence it has long deserved. And we’ve seen in previous articles the ways in which cultures from Basque to Normandy are doing the same, or similar things, albeit in their own idiosyncratic ways.

But what if you were approaching cider with an all-but-blank slate? Without the comfort blanket or shackles (depending on your perspective) of a deeply-rooted tradition. Creating something entirely from scratch, in your own image, in whatever way you feel best.

Cider in America is not new. Early European settlers certainly planted apple trees and certainly drank cider. Eden’s Eleanor Leger mentioned the Roxbury Russet in our interview last week, a variety stretching back almost 350 years and which now is critically endangered. Nor does America’s history of apple cultivation begin with the arrival of Europeans; Malus Magazine has written several seminal articles (which I would urge you to read) concerning the historical orcharding practices of both native and colonial peoples as well as the fundamental role that slavery and slaves played in establishing America’s long cider tradition.

Cider was very much the ubiquitous drink for a couple of hundred years until around the mid-19th century, through a combination of the temperance movement and the increased availability and low expense of beer, it began to fall away. Although it was not, as is often cited, killed by prohibition (cider making for onesself was, in fact, legal from October 1920, and there’s no record of cider orchards being actively grubbed up in bulk) it never regained a nationwide foothold after prohibition ended*. Apples remained huge business, but for eating and for juice, not the production of alcohol.

Fast forward eighty-five years and we find Gabe Cook writing in Ciderology (insert Neutral Cider Hotel-style *ding*) that the US cider scene is “the thought leader of world cider … way ahead of the UK in terms of a cohesive, top-led approach to broadening the wider cider category.” So what changed? How did the USA so quickly become a country boasting over 1,000 cideries as well as the world’s largest cider conference, CiderCon? Most importantly, what can the cider industries of the rest of the world learn from America’s example?

To crack the egg I thought I’d better reach out directly to the American Cider Association. Thanks to the impeccably contacted Susanna Forbes of Little Pomona and The Cider Insider I was able to speak to Michelle McGrath, the association’s Executive Director. Given that CiderCon, online this year for obvious reasons, is now less than two weeks away (3rd-5th February) I’m especially grateful that Michelle took the time to answer my questions about the convention and the wider American cider industry, which you’ll find submitted in full below.

Malt: Firstly, could you introduce yourself, tell us how you got into cider and what you do within it?

Michelle: My name is Michelle McGrath and I have been the executive director of the American Cider Association since July 2016. I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband, two energetic toddlers, a dog and a cat. I came to the role of ED for ACA with an already rich background that included non-profit leadership, grassroots advocacy, event planning, research, marketing and more. I had a history of championing value-added agriculture as a means to support small farms. I stumbled into this calling for value-added ag through a passion for sustainability, a penchant for fine cheese and the good fortune to have grown up in rural California on a Christmas Tree Farm. These experiences, on top of the right time (early 2010s) and right place (apple-growing region for the US), exposed me to cider and my calling to help it flourish.

As ED of ACA my role is to implement the vision of our members through the leadership and guidance of our board of directors. That means I nurture partnerships, engage with our members, find funding, seek solutions to shared industry challenges, lobby in DC, and because we are a small organization, it more often than not means I am also doing the actual program work. Many people in other sectors are shocked to learn we can support a full time ED–cider is less than 1% of the US alcohol sector. We can support my role because of the number of producers here–there are over 1,000 cider producers in the United States. And it’s still growing–I have to do some definitive research but I am guessing based on what I’ve seen and heard that 2020 cidery openings outpaced 2019. Pretty impressive to open a cidery in a pandemic!

The ACA is scrappy, just like the cider industry. We boot strap, we leverage and we innovate. I don’t have many staff, but the staff I do have are incredible and have worked with me for years. I also have a very engaged and supportive board of directors and committee volunteers. I’m honored to work for the US cider industry.

Malt: Tell me about the American Cider Association. How did it come about and what is its role?

Michelle: The ACA is a big-tent organization–all cider companies are welcome and there are safety measures in our bylaws to ensure diversity of regions and cidery size are present. The issue that brought them together initially was a federal tax concern. By 2014, they had their non-profit status from the government. By 2015, they had a major tax reform win amending the hard cider tax rate to apply to ciders up to 8.5% ABV, doubling the allowable carbonation, and applying to ciders made with apples and/or pears. After CiderCon 2016, they hired me, their first ED. We had two major lobbying wins in 2020, so for a young, scrappy org, we’re doing more than alright for our members. Advocacy is our major role—in the traditional sense with politicians and regulatory agencies, but also in the non-traditional sense–with consumers, food and beverage professionals, the media, and more. Cider is so misunderstood—we seek to highlight and celebrate cider’s beautiful nuance as a means to advocate for its enjoyment. We also strive to provide our members with critical resources for doing business, whether it is cider-specific stock photography or marketing stats from our partnership with Nielsen. For a small org, we are doing quite a lot!

Malt: I’m fascinated by the Cider Lexicon project. Can you tell me a bit about that, what it involves and why you see it as important?

Michelle: The modern revival of our industry is young enough and diverse enough there is often a lot of groundwork to do as a community before the path forward is crystal clear. Language is a great example—without a shared language how can we expect consumers and retailers to embrace and understand the category? The lexicon project is an attempt to get everyone on the same page. Our goal is to present a language that we have proven to be effective and to help consumers navigate the diverse range of cider flavors so they may better match their personal taste preferences. It’s been a big project with many challenges, mostly due to divergent needs in the industry and lack of funding, but there is still an appetite for this work.

We originally approached the lexicon through a style guide that we gathered input on annually. It quickly grew to 15 styles and problems started to develop with fuzzy definitions. Beer and wine have benefitted from style guides. But cider is not beer. It’s not even wine. It’s cider and we need an approach that matches it. Inspired by some of Gabe Cook’s work in the UK, we scrapped the styles and embraced families. The end goal was to deemphasize style and prioritize flavor. The families are there to satisfy humanity’s need to categorize things, but in the end, language around what cider tastes like is more important, we think.

There are a lot of stakeholders who have been working on this question for several years. Our challenge is to work together moving forward so we aren’t duplicating efforts. The end goal is less about terminology and more about what the consumer needs to have the confidence to purchase a particular cider. Virginia Tech recently got Federal dollars to work on some consumer facing focus groups and New York Cider Association has done some pioneering work adapting the International Riesling Scale to cider. The American Cider Association is involved in their stakeholder work, and they are involved in ours. Collaboration is king when it comes to developing a cider lexicon.

Malt: Can you tell me as much as possible about the ways the Association goes about promoting American cider as a whole?

Michelle: The ACA promotes cider by educating food and beverage thought leaders that are at the front lines of consumer and buyer interactions—distributors, sommeliers, bartenders, sales reps, chefs, journalists and more. We want to inspire them to push aside their prior notions about cider and explore the beautiful nuance of our diverse category. We do this through our media outreach and our Certified Cider Professional Program. By 2022 we will have certified 2000 people in the topics of (1) Apples, the orchard & history (2) Cider making (3) Evaluation (4) Families & Flavor (5) Keeping & serving (6) Food & cider. The program has been mostly accessible to distributors as well as on-premise teams such as restaurants because so much of the training was focused on in person education. Covid presented us with the impetus to make the education component more accessible to all. We are finishing the final touches on our new on-demand online training program. It’s currently a 1.5 hour training session for the introductory certification. Our more advanced certification is called Certified Pommelier.** It’s a written theory exam and an in depth sensory analysis. It is a very challenging test. There are less than a dozen people total who have passed the test in the 3 cohorts we’ve offered to date. The main reason for that is the sensory portion of the exam. Evaluating cider at an expert level is a skill that takes time to master. We’ve launched online evaluation workshop series to help people develop this skill and to have some idea of what to expect on the Certified Pommelier exam.

Our new strategic plan takes on marketing in a more ambitious way than before, but we are still strategically focused on that frontline target audience. We are a small organization, so we have to leverage relationships to achieve our goals. We love partnering with the regional guilds who can get state-specific agriculture grants to promote local cider. We have also recently formalized a partnership with Cider Culture—an online cider-specific media site. This new partnership will allow us to reach consumers for the first time.

One thing that sets the ACA apart, both from a cider perspective but also a broader trade group perspective, is that we are fiercely committed to representing all cider. Your cidery may be the smallest cidery in the US or the biggest—you are welcome at the ACA. We are a big tent organization. There is a cider for every occasion and there is a consumer for every style. The diversity of our category is a challenge but in the end it is our strength.

Malt: It sometimes seems over here that if you put two cidermakers in a room you’ll get three different opinions. How united in mindset would you say American cidermakers are? Is this something you’re able to manage as an Association that covers the entire country? How have you got so many different cidermakers to pull together in a common direction?

Michelle: Cidermakers wouldn’t be cidermakers without strong opinions! Yet, our big-tent organization grows, CiderCon® is packed with all sorts of producers, and we remain a community. We rally behind the fact that cider is misunderstood and underestimated. We work together to overcome that. Our piece of the ‘bev-alc’ pie is small—less than 1% of alcohol sales. Fighting over that small piece doesn’t help anybody in cider.

Our new strategic plan focuses on promoting a few themes that we feel there is broad support for in the community, regardless of style, and that can help educate drinkers on why cider is such an incredible beverage. We need to work with a professional copywriter still, but on the highest level those themes are apples, food-pairing and diversity (in all the meanings of the word).

Malt: To someone like me, a huge fan of dry cider, your Dry Cider Tracker seems an incredible idea. But why make a tracker specifically for that as opposed to any other sort?

Michelle: The biggest misconception by the US consumer is that all cider is sweet. Even in high-end bottle shops, the retailers think the ciders on their shelves are all sweet. “Health-forward” products are skyrocketing in the US, so that “all cider is sweet” misconception feels like a major problem. Seltzers, hard kombucha and Ready-to-drink cocktails are growing categories that we think dry cider can continue growing alongside. As a small association, we have to be strategic about where we put our energy. The dry cider tracker is one of our only consumer-facing efforts because we think it’s the biggest priority messaging wise: “Not all cider is sweet.”

Malt: On your website there is a section dedicated to anti-racism, equity and inclusion. Can you tell me about the work the Association is doing in this area?

Michelle: The ACA formally introduced industry-level conversations regarding equity and inclusion at CiderCon 2019. A number of key members were promoting the conversation at the grassroots level in the cider community, and some very important points were being made. Among those points was the challenge of nomenclature in “heritage cider.” The association had championed the term “heritage cider” to describe cider made with traditional bittersharp or bittersweet apples. While the designation was cumbersome simply due to the fact that many treasured and traditional American cider apples are sharps or even sweets, thanks to the feedback of some brave members at that time, we learned that the term also held more divisive connotations relating to the slave holding of one of the founders of American cider making. An author of our Declaration of Independence and an often romanticized figure in US cider history, Thomas Jefferson was, in fact, a slave holder and his slaves made cider. In those conversations, we learned that many members and stakeholders regarded “heritage” in the US not as a matter of apple varieties, but as a matter of historical and ongoing inequality. The fact was, the ACA hadn’t engaged a diversity of stakeholders when developing our cider lexicon. We own that mistake as an organization, and I share in that ownership as executive director.

In 2019, a working group was established as a response to these concerns, and action steps were explored. The fruit of that labor was the establishment of a standing committee on equity, inclusion and social justice that reports directly to the ACA board. Our 2020 goals resulted in the establishment of a monthly newsletter to share anti-racism resources with our members, participation in board-level antiracism training, and an increase in equity-oriented offerings at CiderCon 2021. [Ed: you can sign up to receive that newsletter here and I can’t recommend doing so highly enough, wherever you are.]

Our committee works hard and entertains a wide variety of initiatives. While in our small industry that work is easy to overlook, it is also critical for our members and volunteers to feel supported and heard, especially when there are people from different perspectives working together. The initiatives are exciting, but also require considerable communication and thoughtful work, and I’m inspired that these members return consistently to propel this work forward. The whole committee deserves a shout out: Caitlin Braam (Yonder Cider), David Thornton (James Creek Cider House, ACA board member), Ben Calvi (Vermont Cider Company, ACA board member), Erin Chaparro (Blossom Barn Cider), Krista Scruggs (ZAFA Wines), Malaika & Sean Tyson (CiderSoms), Olivia Maki (Redfield Cider Bar & Bottleshop), Rachel Fitz (ANXO Cider).

We’ve worked closely with Dr. J Jackson-Beckham of Crafted For All to help us at many of the steps in our process. Based on her guidance, right now we are working to integrate progress markers into our broader goals. If our equity goals aren’t integrated, they are more easily pushed aside.

While learning much about our members’ concerns, we’ve also become cognizant that as a young industry in the US, we are in a unique position to promote social justice and diversity early in the development of modern US cider culture. We’re conscious of the representation at CiderCon, about our purchasing power and partnerships, and we hope that these efforts result in a robust and diverse culture in our industry down the road. Along those lines, I hope to have some exciting announcements soon.

I do think it’s important to acknowledge that we have made mistakes in the past, and despite our good faith efforts, we may make more down the road. Recognizing the spectre of tokenism in our earliest efforts toward inclusion as an organization, I’m grateful for the support of the committee to help us embrace diversity at CiderCon in an authentic way. When it comes down to it, we truly believe that cider is for everybody. Our goal now is to make everybody feel welcome and included within the industry as we shape the future of US cider.

Malt: There have, as I understand, recently been significant changes to American duty laws. Can you tell me as much as possible about what the changes are, how they came about and what the repercussions for cider will be?

Michelle: Cider has benefitted from an expanded small producer tax credit on a temporary basis for three years. We are very excited to share that this year it was finally made permanent! It’s a huge relief for growing mid-sized cideries who were going to have to make some tough decisions if the tax rates returned to their previous level. It also benefits sparkling cider producers who were, strangely enough, prohibited from using the small producer tax credit previously. The new permanent tax credits remove what was essentially a barrier to growth. I remember a cidery saying to me a few years ago, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I exceed 100,000 gallons a year.” Now they don’t have to worry about that. The new bill also saved smaller cider producers and larger cider producers on their taxes–there was a little bit of something for everyone.

The change came about due to unprecedented cross-sector collaboration between beer, wine, spirits and cider as well as enormous bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. Last but not least, the grassroots advocacy was enormous. The American Cider Association has been supporting these efforts and leading the way for our members on this issue. This is a huge win.

Another big win in our advocacy work is the elimination of the prohibition on 355ml containers for ciders over 7% abv. Our comments to the government on the natural variation in alcohol levels depending on the year’s apple harvest were impactful. Now US cideries can package in a 12oz bottle or can regardless of alcohol levels. We submitted formal comments and worked closely with our members to submit more. Our association is working to bring about change.

Malt: Let’s talk about CiderCon. Firstly: what is it and how did it come about?

Michelle: CiderCon was formed by James Kohn of Wandering Aengus. He championed the event, hosting the first one in his hometown in Salem, Oregon. The industry was growing, and there was an awareness that a united industry pushing the envelope on advocacy and education was needed. CiderCon continued annually, and it flourished. It moved to Chicago and after the 2013 CiderCon the group voted to form an official trade association—so CiderCon birthed the American Cider Association.

The event is unlike any other cider event in the world. In a normal year we attract 1000 people from over a dozen countries to talk about making, tasting and selling cider–and typically–there is a lot of sampling cider, of course. We cram a lot into CiderCon including treasured traditions like Cider Share and the Grand Toast. The feedback is overwhelmingly tremendous. New cidermakers get their start there and seasoned cidermakers get reinvigorated there. It’s truly magical if you love cider. And who in cider doesn’t love it? Why else are we in cider?

Malt: What would you consider to have been the key achievements of CiderCon to date?

Michelle: CiderCon does four things really well. First, it gets the cider industry on the radars of allied trade companies through our trade show. Our vendors come back year after year because it’s just become where the industry shops. Second, it helps fledgling companies navigate the challenges of getting started–whether that is through a workshop or a conversation at the bar, you can get answers to your questions at CiderCon. Third, it exposes cider makers to other types of cider. Maybe it’s just an informal bottle share or maybe its a workshop with international cidermakers, but you get to taste cider you would never have a chance to otherwise. Lastly, CiderCon is the glue of our big tent approach. Everyone, no matter what kind of cider they make, is welcome. And you will find cidemakers with vastly different philosophies chatting it up at the hotel bar.

Did I say CiderCon was magical already?

Malt: Can you tell me about some of the topics that have historically been focussed on?

Michelle: We cover a LOT of ground at CiderCon. Tracks generally include marketing, government affairs, cider making, orcharding, and tasting. We are very intentional on making sure the presentations change year to year and we also are very intentional about making sure there are topics relevant to people in different roles and cideries with different stylistic approaches or business models.

Malt: Obviously it’s America-based, but do you take a global outlook in terms of discussions and presenters?

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. We have featured a different cidermaking country each year and their ciders are integrated into the educational sessions and the tastings. Ireland was our guest of honor in Oakland, California for CiderCon 2020. They were phenomenal. This year we have a few UK speakers and a session coming to us from Japan!

Malt: This year, for obvious reasons, you’re not having an in-person convention. Tell me about what you’ve put in place instead? And the challenges that have been involved in doing so?

Michelle: I am so excited for our virtual CiderCon. We have 35 sessions, a virtual trade show, and other virtual bells and whistles like a “CiderCon speed dating” type networking event. The great thing about the virtual event is that it has allowed us to work with speakers we never could have before, like renowned cookbook author Nancy Singleton Hachisu from Japan. We’ve also had a lot of interest from other countries who normally would not attend due to travel expenses. It also makes the sessions more accessible because it’s all being recorded. At a typical CiderCon attendees are frustrated they can’t attend competing workshops. This year they can catch a replay later.

Malt: What are the key topics being discussed at CiderCon 2021, and who is leading them?

Michelle: We have over 35 sessions so I can’t possibly list them all, but our sessions and speakers are highlighted on our website. The tracks are: Cider Business Foundations, Marketing, Cider Making, Compliance and track called Apples, Flavor & Terroir. In a typical CiderCon people are most excited about the tastings, but since we don’t have tastings this year, I’m personally looking forward to the sessions on marketing. 2020 has thrown a wrench in the cider business but some of the changes–like more direct to consumer cider sales–are exciting. I’m looking forward to exploring that through the lens of thriving in 2021.

Malt: How can people get involved?

Michelle: Because CiderCon is virtual this year, we opened it up to non-members at a slightly different price than ACA members. You can register for the conference online at ciderassociation.

Malt: What do you see as the key challenges for American cider in 2021 and how are you and the Association planning to meet them?

Michelle: The cider industry is incredibly resilient. Our challenge is to maintain that resilience through 2021 and be positioned to take advantage of any opportunities that develop quickly due to the pandemic. The Association’s role in that is to advocate for our members for relief parity but also to educate our members on how to maximize the opportunities. And it goes beyond taking advantage of government support, but learning how to pivot, how to assess trends that are changing all the time, how to exist in a world where more and more competition exists and consumers are demanding innovation. It’s a lot to handle but by streamlining resources for the association we can help.

We’re looking into launching new programming around navigating compliance, state regulations and direct to consumer shipping. We are also looking to work with our partners at Nielsen, who do a great job providing our members with custom market reports, in answering the question, “Who is the American cider consumer?” That’s important for our members’ marketing efforts but also for measuring change over time. We want the cider consumer base to look like the United States.

Huge thanks to Michelle for talking to us at what must be her busiest time of year. We wish her and everyone else involved the very best of luck with CiderCon and have everything crossed for the continued rise of American cider and an in-person convention again in 2022.

*  For more information on the decline of cider in America, I found this article a fascinating read.

**N.B. The Certified Pommelier qualification Michelle mentions is not the same as the UK-based Beer and Cider Academy Pommelier qualification.

This entry was posted in: Cider, Features

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In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

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  1. Pingback: Ten from Minnesota’s Wild State Cider | Cider Review

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