BOSTON -- It's not bad for something that tastes like a cross between apple juice and flat beer.
Hard cider has had fans since at least 1165, when English monks brewed it by pressing apples and fermenting the juice until the sugar turns to alcohol.
Today, as microbreweries that boomed earlier in the decade look for ways to expand profits, some are banking on hard cider as the small-batch brew of the future. And bars across the country are making room for it on tap.
It's for the yuppie crowd tired of Chablis and microbrewed beer, too sophisticated for wine coolers and not tough enough for bourbon.
Retailers think it's neat to have something unique, says Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and the largest of the "craft brewers" in the United States.
(Technically, microbreweries make fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer a year. Since almost no companies are still that small, "craft brewer" is the term used to describe what most Americans think of when they think "microbrew.")
Koch said he got interested in making hard cider a few years ago, in part because of its long history in America. The Pilgrims brought it over on the Mayflower, and by the mid-1800s it was one of the country's most popular beverages.
But it died out here, so when Koch started his research he relied on information from home brewers. People like Stanley Joseph and Lynn Karlin, who helped keep the cider tradition alive by writing about it in their book, "Maine Farm."
"Making cider is one of Fall's rituals I enjoy most," Joseph wrote. "This home brew has added its own special sparkle to many a happy occasion."
His account came complete with two pages of how-to brew info and photographs of a friend's pigs nuzzling through the apple mash that remains after pressing out the juice.
But Koch needed more sophisticated information if he was going to mass market. He hired a retired English cider brewer to help him develop HardCore Crisp Hard Cider, unveiled last year.
"The entire cider market in the United States is teeny," Koch said. "Hard core is a very small part of our business but it's a fun part."
Boston Beer has since developed two more hard ciders: HardCore Black, a darker, softer version, and cranberry.
Others are emerging as well: Woodchuck Draft Cider out of Cavendish, Vt.; brews from the Berkshire Cider Company and Hornsby's Pubdrafts Draft Cider, made by Ernest and Julio Gallo in Modesto, Calif.
The winery launched its product in 1995 after executives recognized cider's popularity in Europe and decided to bring it back across the Atlantic -- again.
It goes great with fall-weather foods like roasted chicken, curried beef, pumpkin pie or spice cake, but hard cider remains a novelty to most Americans. Drawing mostly curiosity drinkers, its market share is only about one one-thousandth of beer sales and for the Boston Beer Company, it's still a money-loser.
"It's not like Gillette rolling out a new razor blade," Koch said. "It takes years."
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