Question: What was America's first craft brew? Answer: hard cider.
Today, whether it's shelving at grocery stores or taps at the local bar, cider is steadily taking over real estate that once belonged exclusively to beer.
It's becoming increasingly redundant to talk about the U.S. craft-beer industry's growth in the past few years, which has risen from just over 11 million barrels brewed in 2011 to about 15 million in 2013. Over that same time span, production of hard cider has nearly tripled, making it the fastest-growing segment of the landscape of beer and flavored malt beverages. What's more, hard cider sales are forecast to rise at an annualized rate of 15.1 percent over the next ten years, according to industry market research firm IBIS World.
In the past five years, the number of U.S. cider breweries has doubled, making cider a popular choice for non-beer drinkers or the gluten-free crowd who still want to feel they're partaking of something handcrafted.
And commercial ciderworks like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard aren't the only ones capitalizing. In increasing numbers, smaller operations have started experimenting with cider — whether alongside their beer-brewing operations or as stand-alone projects.
Luckily for us, that includes South Florida.
Last November, the doors opened to Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks in West Palm Beach. Here, owner-brewer Matthew Stetson and his partner, Felonice Merriman, are making some of the area's best handcrafted hard ciders.
An avid homebrewer, Stetson says he originally began making gluten-free beer in response to Merriman's gluten intolerance. She couldn't sample his favorite beers, taste his homebrews, or explore new styles with him.
"It was very frustrating for both of us," says Stetson. "Basically, we were limited to buying wine or sorghum ales, which wasn't giving us that craft experience we were looking for. Eventually, I started making ciders too."
As time went on, the idea of making cider turned from hobby to feasible business venture. In 2013, with nothing more than a slim $1,200 budget and dozens of recipes brewing in his head, Stetson quit his job in technology and threw everything he had into making cider. His goal was to nurture an organic growth of a ciderworks by cornering the area's gluten-free market.
Over the past six months, Accomplice — the first of its kind in Palm Beach, Broward, or Miami-Dade counties — has seen steady growth.
"We're catering to everyone here," says Stetson, "the squares and the people with allergies and the craft-beer lovers who enjoy the brewery experience and want to try something new every week. Not only are we making a great craft product; we're making a great craft product anyone can enjoy."
A spacious industrial-style tasting room offers guests a total of 15 taps, 11 devoted to cider and four to Florida craft beer. In addition to the ciderworks' four core ciders, Stetson is continually offering experimental and small-batch releases. That includes his popular Sidewinder, a double cider made with Ceylon cinnamon that rings in at 8 percent alcohol by volume and tastes like apple strudel in a cup; or upcoming seasonal releases like mango cider.
At Accomplice, you won't find the cider of your college bar-hopping days. Instead, you get dry-hopped, barrel-aged, fruit-infused, or triple-fermented ones, what Stetson considers "new age" ciders that push the boundaries of what many still consider a syrupy-sweet, boozy apple juice.
"I don't put any limitations on what flavors or ingredients I can use," says Stetson. "Several years ago, it might have been a hard sell, but we're catering to a drinking culture that is open to the idea of experimentation, and they're more willing to try new things — including ciders."
Stop by the 1,800-square-foot West Palm Beach tasting room and you'll be able to sample a rotating selection of up to a dozen ciders. A short bar offers a front-row seat and a chance to speak with Stetson or Merriman in-person. Or grab a seat at any of the reclaimed-wood tables and benches that dominate the industrial, garage-like space. An enclosed courtyard out back offers additional seating, games, and an alfresco dining area to nosh on selections from any of the evening's visiting food trucks.
Despite its remote location and niche market, Accomplice receives a diverse and steady crowd; that might be thanks to several weekly events, including a paint-and-sip night, yoga night, and trivia. The biggest is the monthly Art & Artisan craft fair, where the couple invites local artists and vendors to sell their wares. An improv comedy night is also in the works.
In a nearby space 80 feet from the tasting room, cider production is at full throttle, the smell of apple juice lingering in the air. Stetson uses a traditional German cider-making process he learned from his grandfather when he was 9 years old. It begins with apple juice and concentrate sourced exclusively from orchards in Pennsylvania and Washington. A dual two-barrel stainless-steel fermenter allows Stetson to make his cider with a number of treatments and styles.
If you're curious, impromptu tours are often available when Stetson is onsite; a more immersive experience can be found on Groupon, where you can find a one-hour tasting tour and flight sample for $25 per person.
Sampling ciders is easy at Accomplice. Today, Stetson offers several flagship ciders daily in the taproom. There's the Golden (a honey-toned cider that avoids being too sweet while still maintaining a crisp, honeycomb note with just a hint of acidic funk); the Strawberry (a fruit-forward cider that pours a warm pinkish hue, offering a hint of berry flavor from the several pounds of fresh fruit Stetson uses during fermentation); and Big Berry (the strawberry cider twice fermented for a bolder boozier finish, ringing in at just over 7 percent ABV).
For those constantly chasing a new flavor, seasonal and rotating taps change weekly — if not every few days — with styles and profiles ranging from cold-brew coffee-infused to dry-hopped.
And there's more to come. Though Stetson began making cider due to its niche appeal, original plans were to create the area's first gluten-free brewery. With the ciderworks foundation in place, plans are to expand operations to include gluten-free beer made using a variety of grains — everything from quinoa and amaranth to sunflower and buckwheat, says Stetson.
If all goes as planned, Accomplice will serve its first gluten-free beer this summer.
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Even with its growing popularity, cider can still be a hard sell to those who are either "camp beer" or "camp wine" — and gluten-free beer is even harder, admits Stetson. But it's a gamble both Stetson and Merriman are willing to take.
"My mission is to make a whole-grain brew that can also be consumed by the gluten-free crowd," says Stetson. "Imagine a millet or teff beer. It will be a new breed of craft brewing, with a vast array of flavors no one has ever seen — or tasted. I want to blow people's minds."
Accomplice Brewery & Ciderworks is located at 1023 N. Florida Mango Road, West Palm Beach. Hours are Tuesday from 4:30 to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 9 p.m., Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday from 2 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 2 to 8 p.m. Call 561-568-7242, or visit accomplicebrewery.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.