Five or so years ago, there were only a handful of apple cider producers in Ontario.

But today that number sits at more than 60, with cideries scattered throughout the province making unique and varied versions of this ancient fermented apple drink.

Once virtually unknown here, cider, like craft beer, has quickly gained popularity among consumers who are looking for a new beverage experience – and one that moves away from overly sweet versions cider makers were initially offering.

Using figures supplied by the Ontario Craft Cider Association the LCBO anticipates that cider sales will reach $250 million in just two years.

"Cider is really nothing like what it used to be," Kitchener-based sommelier Wes Klassen said. "While it's a little bit behind where craft beer is, people making cider well are doing it in the farmhouse style that you'd find in Britain or Normandy. The door is open for them to crank out some really interesting products that are extremely versatile with food."

'I saw it nowhere'

Cideries have popped up out of nowhere. Michael Kramar opened KW Craft Cider in north Waterloo in 2014 and the company now produces about 100,000 litres a year. He discovered cider when he worked briefly in England about 10 years ago.

"When I came back to Ontario, I saw it nowhere, but the idea of a cidery stayed in the back of my mind. For some of the same reasons people get into craft beer, I was driven to make something. I started working on it and a number of things came together. The next thing you know, the cidery got going," Kramar said.

A perceived gap in the market also got Amy Robson and Chris Haworth thinking. They own West Avenue Cider House 
in Freelton, Ont., near Hamilton. 

"We lived in England for seven years and visited beautiful cider houses. It's a culture there, but there was nothing here so we started experimenting," Robson said.

They opened the cidery in 2012 and now produce about 200,000 litres a year, selling it at the cider house and directly to bars and restaurants.

Sea Cider apple

You have to pick the right apples to make cider. The best apples for eating or pies aren't great for cider. (Sea Cider Farm)

Finding the right apples

Like many cider-makers, they found it hard to source the right apples to make traditional cider – dry rather than cloyingly sweet – so the solution was to plant 6,000 apple trees of about 100 varieties on 75 acres of land.

"The quality of the fruit will determine the quality of the cider," Robson said.

Before waves of immigration eventually brought beer-making to North America, boozy apple cider was a beverage of choice (and a necessity given unsafe drinking water) as early as the 1600s.

By the 1900s, the popularity of the beverage had declined in the presence of booming beer production and was essentially wiped out during Prohibition when entire orchards were chopped down. The next time cider appeared, it was the sweet concoction made by large producers.

Tariq Ahmed opened Revel Cider Company in Guelph in 2014 where he prepares farmhouse-style ciders that are "a bit more funky" and very dry, he said.

"Today, the industry is moving toward drier products. A lot of our ciders have zero sugar, and that's pretty unusual across the industry in Ontario," the University of Guelph graduate added.

Revel ciders are often acidic in the style that is typical of a Spanish cider, Ahmed said. The apples he uses come from a single orchard near Grand Bend, Ont., and he often adds stone fruit and makes one-off flavours that he says makes cider attractive to his restaurant customers.

He noted that currently the industry doesn't have a lot of access to cider apples that have the right tannin content as they do in Europe and the United Kingdom.

"We're moving toward more acidity because that's what we can get with our apples. More tannins would be ideal." 

Tariq Ahmed Revel Cider Company Guelph

Tariq Ahmed of Revel Cider Company pours a sample at an event in Guelph this summer. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

More like wine than beer

What is a good eating apple is unlikely to be a good cider apple, according to Robson.

"We use what we call spitters. Apples so bitter that you have to spit them out."

The fermentation process results in a bone dry beverage which cider-maker Haworth, a former chef, may back-sweeten slightly with honey or maple syrup. 

Cider allies itself with wine rather than its craft cousin beer, so much so that some Ontario wineries such as Tawse also make cider. Because of the nature of the fruit and the equipment used to make the beverages, that alliance is justified Klassen said.

He expects cider to show up on more restaurant menus to be paired with food.

"There are parallels with wine, even more so than beer, in terms of the flavour profiles, the mouth feel, tannins and bitterness," Klassen said.

"People are open to traditional and classic styles of cider that are bone dry, whether it is a scrumpy (from west England) which is a rough farmhouse-style cider that's collected from different apple varieties or a single vineyard crabapple cider. There are no boundaries to what people are deciding with what they want to do with cider."