It’s Apple-pressing season in Michigan, and Greg Hall’s cidery in Fennville is filled with an earthy smell somewhere between an orchard and a wet bag of apples. Apples delivered by farmers across the state are being chopped, mushed and pressed into juice by half a dozen bearded men in plaid. Hall’s team then either pitches the juice with yeast or ferments it in wooden barrels. The final product, marketed as Virtue Cider since 2012, is sent to bars and restaurants nationwide. This year, Hall says, he’ll make 240,000 gallons, twice as much as he did in 2013.
It’s the right time to be in the cidery business. (Cidery is the industry’s short-hand for a cidermaking operation.) Demand for the beverage has soared, thanks in part to the buy-local movement and Americans’ increasingly eclectic palates. The gluten-free trend is also helping turn people from beer to alcoholic cider, say industry experts. Americans bought some $360 million worth of cider over the past 12 months, according to Nielsen, a nearly 400% increase from two years ago. The beverage is in 2014 what craft beer was in 1990: still niche, but ripe for mass consumption. “When I got into beer in 1988, nobody drank craft beer either,” says Hall.
Cider was once the American alcohol of choice, particularly in the Northeast, where it was too cold to grow barley to produce beer. Most colonial settlers drank cider daily and used gallons of it as currency. But beer gained dominance with the rush of European immigrants to the cities in the 19th century, and Prohibition nearly wiped out cider production. Droves of farmers took axes to their surplus apple trees. But recent interest in niche brews has spurred a cider renaissance. “There’s a lot of room for growth for cider, and a lot of it is going to be on the local side,” says Ben Watson, author of Cider, Hard and Sweet.
Hall stumbled on hard cider by accident. As the brewmaster of his family’s successful craft brewery, Goose Island, he was taste-testing beers in England in 2000 when he and some colleagues wandered into a cider festival in the northern city of York. Imbibing English cider at a dingy pub for the first time, Hall was hooked. “Some were dry and tart, some were scrumpy, unfiltered, rich, barmy,” he says. “We were blown away.” His mission: to bring the drink to cider-ignorant Americans. In 2011, the year Budweiser bought Goose Island, Hall founded his cider operation in Michigan.
Hall is far from the only one moving to cider. Some of the fastest-growing small cider brands include Wandering Aengus, based in Salem, Ore.; Sonoma Cider, based in Healdsburg, Calif; and Austin Eastciders, based in Texas. Connoisseurs say cider is more like wine than beer. (One exception: cider has an alcohol content of about 5%, similar to that of beer but half that of wine.) “Really, it shares nearly everything with wine and very little with beer,” says Hall. “What it shares with beer is how it’s dispensed out of a keg.” That, and the manner of its growth: local producers are leading the way. The revival of craft beer is pulling cider along with it, and big beer brewers like Miller, Boston Beer and Anheuser-Busch are quickly adding cider to their lineups. In 2010 there were fewer than 50 cider brands. Today there are 130.
Cider will have to overcome its reputation as a watered-down alternative if it is to become more widespread. That has led producers to take at least one page from beer’s book: tilting their marketing toward men. A commercial for Angry Orchard, which is owned by the Boston Beer Co., features a rugged farmer and the heavy blues riffs of a Viagra commercial, for example. The question now is, Will men swap their suds for cider on Super Bowl Sunday? “Those same guys have no problem drinking diet beer,” says Hall. “So I think so.”
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.