America, to the British cider drinker, is the great unknown.
Well. I say “the great unknown”. Really almost every other country is a great unknown to the British cider drinker, even if a few more international examples are beginning to appear on our shelves and in our thoughts.
But America, in terms of the sheer number of its cideries, the scale of its cider revolution in the last decade and the degree to which it might as well be the dark side of the moon so far as we’re concerned merits a definite article. The great unknown.
We’ve tried to do our share of digging here. Inspired by the repeated advocacy of Gabe Cook, who has talked passionately about the US cider scene for a good while now, most notably in his Ciderology, as well as by the work of Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw in World’s Best Cider and Susanna Forbes in The Cider Insider I’ve taken every chance I’ve had to delve a little deeper into what’s going on across the pond.
Eve’s and Eden, two cideries I hold in the highest regard, and which have both featured in my year-end Essential Cases in the past have made incursions into our consumer consciousness, thanks mainly to the efforts of Scrattings, Re:Stalk and latterly others. Ria, of the peerless CiderChat podcast, was good enough to speak to me for a spotlight on the American scene in an article I wrote last year and I was thrilled to interview Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association back in January and to chat to James for the American edition of his Fine Cider Friday World Tour Series.
But really, so far as American cider is concerned, I don’t feel I’ve scratched the surface so much as vaguely waved a fingernail in its general direction.
So I was thrilled when Minnesota’s Wild State Cider got in touch and asked whether we’d be interested in tasting a few (quite a few, as it turned out) from their range.
“We know these’ll be a bit different than the ciders you’re usually reviewing,” the email said, “but we’re all the more excited to see what you think of them”.
A bit of internet digging revealed them to be Minnesota’s second-biggest cidery, making an array of all-apple and adjuncted fruit/spice ciders. Their website attested to 100% fresh-pressed apples, natural ingredients and no added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Which all sounded jolly good. So I got back in touch with a “yes please – tell me more” and a couple of weeks (and a bit of back-and-forth emailing to customs) later, no fewer than ten cans arrived on my doorstep, none the worse for their transatlantic journey.
Before we taste them and – yes – spend a few words addressing the fruity elephant in the room, I thought it would be stupid to pass up the chance to ask a few questions of an American cidery I’d never come across before. So I’m very grateful to Wild State founder Adam Ruhland for taking the time to answer them below, lightly edited for clarity.
CR: Tell me about Wild State. Where are you, who are you, what do you do and how long have you been doing it for?
Adam: Wild State Cider was founded in 2018, in Duluth, Minnesota, right on the shores of Lake Superior—the second largest lake in the world. Wild State Cider employs lots of people now, but was started by just me and my friend Andrew.
I’m a former camp director and special education teacher, turned entrepreneur and cider enthusiast. I was introduced to cider in the Green Mountains of Vermont and spent years developing Wild State, and started it as a way to celebrate and protect what’s wild.
Andrew was originally born in Duluth, and cider brought him back there after having travelled the world. He’s a talented cider craftsman specializing in all things fermented.
At Wild State, we make natural, creative, flavorful ciders without compromises. We use no concentrates, no added sugars or artificial sweeteners, and no sorbates. We’re also passionately a 1% for the Planet company, which means we donate 1% of our sales to environmental non-profits, to help protect what’s wild.
Just natural ciders, supporting nature.
CR: Where do your apples come from? Your website mentions a custom blend – are you using particular varieties?
Adam: Most of our apples come from the state of Washington, on the western coast of the United States. While we’d love it if we could exclusively use Minnesotan apples, the amount of cider we produce is unfortunately incompatible with the type and volume of apples that are enabled by our harsh and cold winters here in Minnesota.
We do use particular varietals for some of our ciders. For the main base of many of our ciders, we use a blend of common apples. Mainly Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, HoneyCrisp and Pink Lady. But more than a particular specific apple blend we are looking for specific sugar and acid content in our juice so we can make our cider as consistently as possible at scale.
We’ve also begun making a yearly cider we refer to as the Duluth People’s Cider. We offer an open collection of apples, where anyone in the Duluth area can bring apples from trees in their yards or fields to our cidery. We press the apples and turn them into a hyper-local cider made by the people of Duluth.
CR: What’s the cider scene like in Minnesota generally?
Adam: It’s growing! We’ve got 14 cideries in Minnesota alone, that specialize in a variety of apple, fruited, and hopped ciders. We’re proud to currently be the second largest and fastest growing cidery in the state. As the taste for cider grows in the US, so too, it does in Minnesota. We’re excited to keep seeing new and innovative and delicious ciders come on the market.
CR: Your range includes a large number of fruit ciders as well as your all-apple ciders. Is that representative of the American cider market overall?
Adam: The market here is broad but the largest regional cideries are succeeding with a variety of fruit forward ciders. Trends change over time and apple forward vs. fruit forward ciders seem to alternate in popularity every few years.
CR: And they’re all full-juice, natural ingredients and not from concentrate? How important is that?
Adam: Yes, natural ingredients, all fruit juices, and no concentrates or added sugars, are some of the main principles we founded Wild State Cider on. For us, supporting nature also means making our products as natural as possible. That means using simplicity to our advantage, and letting high quality ingredients speak for themselves.
CR: Do your ingredients all grow in Minnesota? How important is that locality to you?
Adam: We don’t get all of our ingredients from Minnesota. We would if we could, but with the diversity and creativity of our products, and the volume of cider we’re producing, we need to obtain fruit, herb, and spice ingredients (as well as apples) from other states. We get our ingredients from Minnesota when we can, and Duluth as a city is extremely important to us, but creating our cider in a hyper-local way is something that unfortunately isn’t logistically possible. It’s hard to grow Pineapples up here!
CR: I was very interested to see that your Heirloom was made from fruit from the Mangles farm in Somerset, which our readers may know as also having been the source of, among others, the Somerset component of North and South by Caledonian Cider. How did that collaboration come about for you? And why those two varieties – Dabinett and Chisel – in particular?
Adam: We were approached by a Heritage juice importer when there was a surplus of juice at the start of the pandemic. We knew we would need to blend these varieties with our dessert fruit base so we chose Dabinett and Chisel because of their strong tannins that would balance out best with our local juice. The cider was a great way for us to experiment with more traditional fruit that is hard to come by around here.
CR: What has the reception been to that particular expression among your drinkers?
Adam: Our customers aren’t used to ciders made with specific fruit, as modern cider made from dessert fruit dominates the market here. There is some education that comes with serving a product like this, and our customers have appreciated this different cider as it opens their eyes to the possibilities that exist with more unique fruit options. We hope to make more when we can source the juice again!
CR: What’s your view of the American cider scene in general at the moment? From the outside it seems to be in such a dynamic and progressive place.
Adam: We’re excited to be a part of the American cider scene. Cider is definitely growing here, and we’re seeing new craft cideries like ourselves coming up from places all over the country. And the craft ciders that we’re seeing produced continue to be innovative and exciting. We do see the American market trending towards sweeter ciders, which, while we respect everyone’s taste buds it just isn’t the type of cider we prefer or really make. We hope that as Americans continue to explore cider and all that it has to offer, the spectrum of sweet to dry preferences become more balanced, and people pursue even more the traditional, drier, crisper, more natural ciders.
CR: How have you been affected by the pandemic, and what are your short and long-term plans and hopes for the future?
Adam: We’ve been grateful and fortunate enough to have grown relatively aggressively throughout the pandemic. As with most beer and cider makers, we’ve had some difficulties sourcing cans and of course have taken many precautions, working hard to keep our employees safe. But overall, thankfully the pandemic hasn’t hurt our business, and we’ve continued to grow.
Our short term plans include continuing to create innovative and fun new cider flavors, collaborating with breweries and cideries in Minnesota and beyond, and distributing our ciders in more states. Currently, we’re in North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Virginia, and of course Minnesota. We’ll be looking to expand both regionally and nationally in both the short and long term.
Even longer term though, we’ll be expanding our taproom to include more food options and increasing our production and storage spaces to accommodate for producing more cider to meet our growing distribution needs across the country, and hopefully soon beyond!
Many thanks indeed to Adam for providing all that information.
Before we tuck in – we have ten to get through – an important aside. You’ll notice, as we go through, that of these ten, seven are made with the additions of other fruits or spices. Even the “Pear” isn’t a perry, but an apple base to which fresh-pressed pear has been added.
Flavoured ciders, as James noted in his article here, are a controversial subject on this side of the Atlantic, notwithstanding their status as responsible for a huge chunk of the cider market. There are certainly those who are splenetically anti-flavoured cider and many more who feel that the term “flavoured cider” should be done away with entirely.
The general subject of flavoured ciders, and particularly the state of flavoured cider in the UK is one that, when I am feeling perhaps a little bit braver, I would like to address more fully. For the time being, I suppose the best thing to do is point to these co-fermentations of grapes and apples, at least two of which were absolutely phenomenal, as well as to the spiced perry in this article on Kertelreiter, which was one of my favourite things of this year, and to Björk from Pomologik, which was part of my first ever “Essential Case”. In fact, whilst I’m at it, I should also highlight the (gorgeous) Do It Puritan Damson from Little Pomona.
As someone who works in wine and has written extensively about whisky, cider and perry it would be very odd if I wasn’t generally open to trying different drinks made of different things. Where I take issue with many of the so-labelled “flavoured ciders” in the UK is when they are made with a tiny percentage of from-concentrate juice, when they are heavily artificial in their flavourings, are cloyingly sweetened, contain an often eye-watering amount of added sugar and generally contribute to a lower perception of cider as a category through a low and cynical level of care for quality in their production.
There is also, in the UK, a lamentably steep increase on the duty demanded of “made wines” (the category into which fruit or otherwise flavoured ciders fall) when they rise above 4% in alcohol. Since this is some way short of the percentage to which cider will naturally ferment, it follows that almost all fruit ciders in the UK are either inherently sweet or rather heavily diluted, the latter of which in particular adds to the bad name with which the category is manacled.
I am always interested to see, among American cider lovers, the seemingly far-rosier-light in which flavoured ciders are painted. And I think there are rather a lot of clues as to the reasons for that on the sides of today’s cans.
Firstly, their percentages all hover more or less around the 6-6.5% abv mark, implying that none have been diluted or that there is, at minimum, a rather higher juice content than the British norm. The ingredients added are fresh and the sugars and sweeteners added are nil. Many of the cans displayed calories and sugar quantities, and none displayed more than 4 grams per 355ml serving (i.e. all are less than the 12.5 g/l that marks the maximum permitted to class as “dry” under British Cider Championships rules.
A huge number of American cideries, like Wild State, rely heavily on bought-in juice or apples supplied by the colossal American apple industry. With the very positive upshot that it is easy to make full-juice cider in significant quantities, and the less positive upshot that it is also easy for a lot of that cider to end up tasting very, very similar. So it’s hardly surprising that fruit and spice flavouring is popularly turned to as a means of range diversification. My personal hot take is that so long as something is open and honest about its ingredients and their provenance, is made from fresh-pressed juice, isn’t faulty and tastes good, I will happily drink it all day long, please and thank you.
Since Adam has already addressed the former requirements above, let’s crack these cans open and see about the latter. Alas Wild State don’t have distribution in the UK at present, but our growing audience in the USA (hello!) can pick these up, should they wish, for between $2-$4 per can from the Wild State website.
Wild State Semi-Dry – review
(NB, for another review of this expression, check out this review from US cider blogging royalty, Meredith Collins, on Along Came a Cider)
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Clear, lightly sparkling, pale gold
On the nose: Very delicate, very much about soft, ripe, yellow-green eating apples. Meredith mentions a “limestone mineral aroma” and I can absolutely see what she means. Clean, fresh, subtle. A little meadowflower and hay. A touch of icing sugar. It’s very simple, but it’s clean and pleasant. Makes me think of a better version of Aspall’s.
In the mouth: Bright, crisp, clean, green and fresh. Echoing Meredith, it’s great to be surprised that something labelled “semi-dry” is actually just that and not far sweeter. There really is only a touch of sweetness here and it’s very well balanced by zesty, fresh acidity. Green apple slices, cut grass, gooseberry, a squeeze of lemon. Whistle-clean. Again, not complex, but it’s not trying to be. It’s fresh, zingy and very tasty.
In a nutshell: A better version of Aspall’s, which I would cheerfully slaughter on a sunny day.
Wild State Classic Dry – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: As above
On the nose: Unsurprisingly treads much the same course as the semi-dry albeit perhaps with a little more depth and a more apple skins musk on top of the apple flesh and floral hay elements. But we’re certainly talking a very similar creature, as you would expect.
In the mouth: Yep – again fresh, crunchy green apples, citrus. Nicely punchy flavours, lots of bright, vivid intensity and again very tasty if lacking an extra dimension. Flavours are again a touch bolder and deeper than the semi-dry, but we’re talking micro levels – you’d have to taste them next to each other to really register it. I would be very happy to have a pack of these in the fridge any time.
In a nutshell: Easily the equal of most Eastern Counties ciders, and lovely to have something so clean and dry.
Wild State Heritage Apple – review
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Deeper gold, but same fizz and clarity.
On the nose: Deeper, richer, some orange citrus and passion fruit along with a touch of toffee apple joining the higher-toned green apples (a little pasteurisation influence, I think). Again fresh, clean, clear. A bit more aromatic complexity than the previous two.
In the mouth: A dab of sweetness, more pronounced than in the semi-dry, and although there is a nibble of tannin it’s less than I anticipated given this contains Chisel Jersey. Apple-forward, albeit in a deeper way than the previous two, with some ripe stone fruit playing around the edges. Picking nits, I do think the filtration and pasteurisation has taken slightly away from the idiosyncrasies and expressiveness of the Dabinett and Chisel, but this is nonetheless a tasty thing and certainly distinct from the other all-apple offerings.
In a nutshell: A deeper, slightly sweeter offering with some of the richness of bittersweets.
Wild State Pear Cider – review
How I served: Chilled (N.B. everything hereafter was served the same way)
Appearance: Back to the lighter gold
On the nose: Very delicate aromatics, just a tiny, tiny touch of sweeter pear fruit creeping through the green apple base. Heightened florality vs the semi-dry, but we’re definitely in a similar aromatic ball-park.
In the mouth: Getting a bit sweeter here – there’s a slightly confected tuck-shop-sweeties edge that the crispness of acidity just about keeps in check. Otherwise, see nose. The pear isn’t lost, but it’s a very delicate layer brushed onto that clear apple base. As with the others, it’s clean and fresh.
In a nutshell: Definitely cider plus pear. I think with the extra high-toned sweetness and simple flavours one glass would be enough for me. But that’s just a preference thing.
Wild State Triple Berry Cider – review
(Apple cider with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries)
Appearance: Deep clear salmon-pink
On the nose: A big old bowl of summer fruits. Really only triple berry? Smells like there are about six! It’s the strawberries that jump out most though, followed by the rasps. Less sure about the blueberries – this feels much redder and higher-toned. It’s certainly intense, if a little jammy. Apples have rather lost their voice!
In the mouth: Again the strawberries are the dominant player here, but I have to say, whilst there is a touch of sweetness it’s far less than expected – not sickly or excessive in the least – and completely balanced by the crisp, fresh acidity of the apple base. Actually the apple flavours have re-emerged too. There is balance here, and a certain elegance amidst all that riotous summer fruit.
In a nutshell: Definitely one for strawberry fans. Puts some of the gloopy, saccharine “fruit cider” messes out there into pretty damning context.
Wild State Honey Berry Cider – review
(Apple cider with Honey Berries (new to me!) and honey)
Appearance: Deep ruby
On the nose: Smells more like blueberries than the last one did! Deep, almost Christmassy in its fruitiness. Cranberry sauce, light spicing. There’s almost something here that’s kind of reminiscent of Beaujolais. Again, it’s totally clean and the fruit smells fresh, not confected. I actually like this aroma a lot. Very of the current season, looking out of my window at the dark, rain-washed evening.
In the mouth: That deep blueberry and Christmassy, almost nutmeggy, spice continues. Cassis. A dab of honey. Carbonically macerated red grapes. Again, sweetness is nicely low and is more than balanced by acidity, depth and freshness. It’s a long way from the apple, but as its own drink I would happily have this again – in fact I would absolutely love to.
In a nutshell: A deep, balanced, dark-fruited joy.
Wild State Raspberry and Hibiscus Cider – review
Appearance: Provence rosé but sparkling.
On the nose: Delicate and clear. The raspberry is just a light blushing brush which dovetails nicely with the hibiscus florals into a lovely light sense of peach. Green apple crunch comes through too and again there’s nothing confected here. Imitates the aromatics of the lighter southern French rosé wines pretty convincingly actually.
In the mouth: Definitely the most apple of any of the berry ciders in this flight, with the inherent florality of the apple base heightened by the hibiscus and brushed a light red by raspberry. Again sweetness is kept admirably low (2g per can, I think, so less than 6 g/l). Can’t re-iterate how refreshing it is to drink fruit/flavoured cider that is clean, crisp, not syrupy – or too sweet at all – doesn’t taste artificial and which has the body and texture that comes from being undiluted full juice. Talking of refreshing, this is very very.
In a nutshell: A very convincing rosé facsimile. Simple, but very tasty and rather elegant.
Wild State Peach and Basil Cider – review
Appearance: Hazy orange.
On the nose: Phwoar. That is basily. More basil that the complete Fawlty Towers box set. Though very fresh basil, such as might be served on an excellent pizza. Behind that, and growing more and more as it sits in the glass is the ripeness of peachy, apricotty fruit. But the basil keeps things high-toned, fresh and slightly savoury. Basically, if you like basil you’ll like this smell.
In the mouth: The basil love-in continues. If this was sweet and syrupy it’d be ghastly, but because it is clean and fresh and barely even off-dry and has the full-juice body and the fruitiness of peach and apple, it tastes like the first cocktail of a Mediterranean holiday (which I would like very much, please, if anyone is offering). Not one for the apple purists, but cocktail and basil fans (I am both) will love it.
In a nutshell: A tasty, fresh all-but-dry cocktail of a cider tailor-made to wind up a certain sort of cider drinker.
Wild State Apple Pie Cider – review
(Cider spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black pepper)
On the nose: I’ve never eaten apple pie in America, but this has me thinking of Strudel – cinnamon and sultana and grated nutmeg and cloves all coming through tremendously. I nearly said “and stewed apple” then too, but that’s the spices playing tricks on my mind – in fact the apple is perfectly clean and fresh, which gives the drink energy and life.
In the mouth: Strudel again here – all that cinnamon dusting. Nutmeg too, sultana, check, check. Follows the nose exactly really. The base is absolutely key to the anchoring of this cider – without that acidity and freshness, and if it was sweeter or watered down, this would really struggle and would be heavy going As it is, there’s poise, there’s crunch and there’s a lot of spiced apple. I do like cinnamon and I’m more than happy with this.
In a nutshell: Apple pie German style, but with all the aromatic spicing and none of the heavy sweetness.
Wild State Pumpkin Pie Cider – review
(Spiced as above but also with pumpkin … I think. Forgot to check the can before it went in recycling!)
Appearance: A tone deeper.
On the nose: “Mm, Christmas,” said Caroline, being given a glass without being told what it was. The spicing seems deeper than in the apple pie – indeed it’s all a little heavier and richer, which to my nose clashes ever so slightly with the base. Pumpkin is fresh rather than cooked. I feel I’m carving Halloween lanterns! Not quite as defined and clear as the apple pie, for me.
In the mouth: See above. The depth and earthiness of the pumpkin absorbs some of the spice, but it feels just a little heavier-going than the apple pie. This may be an extremely subjective take though – maybe I like pumpkin less than I thought! – again the base comes through, the sweetness is only marginal and is balanced and the body and acidity are good. It destroys almost all of its UK counterparts. But I slightly prefer its strudelly stablemate.
In a nutshell: Christmassy indeed, but apparently I’m an apple-snob when it comes to pie cider …
Well now. I wasn’t expecting that. And I bet most of you lot reading weren’t, either.
I have to admit, as excited as I was to try the output of a previously unknown-to-me American cidery, my excitement was tempered by concerns that the fruit ciders would be along the lines of the gloopy, anodyne, generally-uninspiring creations with which I’m more familiar and which fill me with such pessimism when I have to judge that category during the International Cider Challenge. (I must have a word with the Chairman…)
So I was thrilled to come across a range that offered such fresh, clean flavours and full textures and in which the levels of sweetness would pass for “dry” in almost any British cider competition. If the base measure of a successful flavoured cider is a drink in which the apple base and the added fruits and spices dovetail harmoniously, then these all qualify as successes. Even in instances like the Honey Berry, where the added fruits were clearly more intense in their flavour, the crisp acidity of the apple base worked to lift and freshen everything and create a balanced and very drinkable whole.
Of the seven flavoured ciders here, the triple berry and the pear are the only two I might take or leave, and that is partially because I can take or leave strawberries in the case of the former, and because the influence of the pear felt a little marginal in the latter. I would drink any one of the others again, and I’d happily drink all three of the apple-only, too, though, picking nits, I’d have loved the bittersweets to have been allowed a little more force of personality in the Heirloom Apples.
I talk a lot about ciders which fill my soul and engage my brain; ciders which evince the myriad complexities of apple and orchard and vintage and the particular mindset of the maker. These Wild State ciders don’t do that, but they’re not supposed to. The brief for each one of these creations is to be a very honest, tasty drink that a large number of people will enjoy. It’s easy for those of us who lose ourselves down the rabbit holes of interesting drinks to forget that not everyone wants blistering intensity, off-the-wall character and complexity to be pored over for long hours in the evening.
The real lesson of these Wild State ciders is that it is possible to cater to a broad audience, to provide something that is tasty, fault-free and has wide popular appeal, without dumbing down products with water and sugar. I have no real frame of reference, but if this is the standard of fruit ciders enjoyed in America, I can see why the category is so much more respected by enthusiasts on that side of the Atlantic than it is here in Britain. These cans may not be Albee Hills or Queen Mabs, but they are an important and worthy part of the world of cider, and would do a great deal of good – and perhaps teach our own fruit ciders a thing or two – were they available over here. If Wild State find themselves with distribution I shall certainly be a customer.
Samples of these ciders were sent by Wild State. That doesn’t affect our editorial control or critical opinion.