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Proposed Pa. cider law could unleash a flood of new varieties

In 2011, when brothers Hank and Steve Frecon wanted to grow profit at their family's 71-year-old Frecon Farms in Boyertown, they began turning some of their apples into hard cider.

In 2011, when brothers Hank and Steve Frecon wanted to grow profit at their family's 71-year-old Frecon Farms in Boyertown, they began turning some of their apples into hard cider.

They were venturing into the fastest-growing alcoholic beverage category in the country - and a thicket of red tape beyond anything they could have imagined.

First, they obtained a limited winery license and began fermenting crab apples, Granny Smith, Winesap, and other varieties, producing ciders that, due to apples' natural sugar content, came in around 7.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or higher.

Then, to sell through beer distributors - where most consumers look for hard cider, but where, under state law, hard ciders' ABV may not exceed 5.5 percent - they added a second, lower-alcohol cidery, called the Other Farm, under a brewery license.

"Think about the silliness of this!" Hank Frecon said. "We had to create a separate business" to sell a different version of the same product.

That could soon change. Allegheny County Rep. Mark Mustio introduced a bill last month that would raise that alcohol limit to 14 percent.

Frecon, who with seven other cideries is organizing a new trade association, the Pennsylvania Cider Guild, wants to take it a step further: "We all feel that it's really important for cider to be recognized as its own commodity. It would be great to have a uniform structure in Pennsylvania to support this industry, which is growing at a really amazing clip."

Cumbersome liquor laws aside, the hard-cider boom is already well underway. Cider sales were up 79 percent last year, according to market-research firm Nielsen, and 24 brands launched in 2014 alone.

In Pennsylvania, which is fourth in the nation in apple production, growers are taking note, said Carla Snyder, agricultural entrepreneurship and marketing educator at Penn State Extension in Adams County. These days, she gets at least three inquiries a day about hard cider.

In the Philadelphia region, newcomers this year include Kurant Cider, which shares space with Round Guys Brewing Co. in Lansdale, and Sir Charles Hard Cider, which is fermenting its first 500-gallon batch for distribution. They join producers small and large that have entered the market in the last five years - most notably, Boston Beer, Sam Adams' parent company, which produces the top-selling cider, Angry Orchard, in Ohio and at a plant outside Allentown.

For those who didn't get in early on the craft-beer wave, it feels like a can't-miss opportunity.

That's the case for Kurant co-owner Joe Getz, who turned from brewing to fermenting in hopes of tapping into a less-crowded cider market.

Craft-cider-makers like him are modeling their products on traditional French, Spanish, and English ciders, using fresh juices rather than concentrates, and less sugar than industrial producers do.

"A traditional cider would be dry with a quality like white wine," he said. Kurant is launching with three flavors made mostly from Pennsylvania apples: the crisp Cider Daily, a hopped cider, and a tropical cider sweetened with pineapple juice.

One challenge is convincing consumers wary of sugar overload that cider actually can taste good.

"People often say, 'I don't like cider.' And we try to say, 'This is extremely different. Give it a shot.' "

Still, he said, a bigger challenge is meeting state limits on alcohol content, because he has licensed as a brewery, subject to that 5.5 percent ABV limit.

"One of the biggest hurdles in Pennsylvania is legislation that puts hard cider in a large gray area with very different possibilities, depending whether you're producing under a brewery license or a winery license," he said. "It's really prohibitive."

On the flip side, Big Hill Ciderworks in Adams County opted to go for a winery license when it opened last year.

Co-owner Ben Kishbaugh said business was going well - but, he added with a sigh, "we're going through growing pains.

"There are two of us," he said, "and we're doing all the manufacturing, the bottling, the kegging, the delivery, and sales."

He and his partner, Troy Lehman, have their own orchards, where they grow American and European heirloom cider-apple varieties, which are higher in tannins and acid than apples sold for snacking. To achieve 5.5 percent alcohol ciders, they have to dilute them, adding fresh cider to the fermented stuff.

Still, they're considering seeking a brewery license. It would let them sell through a distributor and grow their business. It would also be an added expense: about $5,000 for the paperwork, plus administrative costs for running a second company.

Given the fractured nature of the current marketplace, varied interests including apple growers, wineries, beer distributors, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board all have their own ideas about what direction the industry should take in Pennsylvania.

A push from beer distributors was what sparked Mustio's bill, he said. He has since been hearing from other constituents, and will consider modifying the proposal once hearings are held.

Federal regulatory changes raising limits on alcohol content and carbonation levels, and reducing taxes - the CIDER Act - are also under consideration in the Senate.

But boosters aren't waiting around for those bills to be enacted.

At Penn State Extension over the last year and a half, Carla Snyder has been running workshops, leading cider-marketing tours, and helping growers develop marketing and business plans.

The Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program is dedicating its Specialty Crop Block Grant fund this year, $29,000, to cider market research, community education, and technical assistance. But it's not enough, said Julie Bancroft, executive director.

"Continued research, especially that dedicated to varietals," she said, "will be critical to the ongoing success of the industry."

In the meantime, Jason Harris of Stone & Key Cellars in Montgomeryville, said he has found plenty of interest in the ciders he has been making since 2013, fermented from Solebury Orchards' apple cider and available in farmhouse-style, brandy-barrel-aged or "apple cherry pie."

It's an easy sell to bars, he said: "Going to them and saying, 'We have this product that acts like a beer, but it's gluten-free' - that drives it."

Michael McCaulley, wine director at Tria, said that, six years ago, he wasn't offering any ciders. Now, he has two taps dedicated to it at Tria Taproom, and bottles at other locations.

"We're at the best period in cider as far as availability," he said. "There's lots of new ciders that have become available in Pennsylvania in the last year."

But finding them can be confusing. Because of state laws, McCaulley buys some ciders from wine distributors, while Tria's beer buyer purchases the lower-alcohol ciders from beer distributors.

As John Kowchak, of Glenolden, launches his Sir Charles Hard Cider, he'll be closely watching the news from Harrisburg.

He designed his flagship product with the 5.5 percent ABV limit in mind. But relaxing the rules would yield a whole new set of possibilities.

"It would allow us to have not only our original product, but also to play around with some stuff to be sold in bigger bottles at higher ABVs," he said. "It would open up the cider market in Pennsylvania almost overnight."