The apple juice of your childhood is working its way into the food and drink of adulthood.

Fermented apple juice – or hard cider, as it’s more commonly known – has become a venerable part of the bar. But it’s also making inroads as a drink for food pairings, as an ingredient in dishes and as the foundation for a concept.

Hard cider sales at off-premises retailers (which include restaurants) surpassed $436 million last year after topping out at $44 million in 2010, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.

Once the table wine of American settlers, hard cider fell out of favor during Prohibition – and only recently re-emerged as a favored beverage, thanks to the proliferation of upstart craft cider producers over the past decade, and their efforts to transform its flavor profile from sickly sweet to complex and multidimensional. Hard cider’s lower alcohol content is also a draw, operators say.

What’s more, cider has proved to be an excellent choice for menu pairings, says Aaron Zacharias, managing partner of Chicago cider pub and bistro The Northman. Cheese leads the charge as the perfect pairing, but it can really run the gamut from grilled and fried fish to earthy foods and grilled meats, he says. Indeed, cider matches up with nearly anything, including pork and gamey meat.

Ciders work especially well with heartier fall and winter fare, says Mattie Beason of Black Twig Cider House in Durham, North Carolina. “It’s the best all-around pairing” for the flavors of those seasons, he explains, because it brings elements of sweet, sour and tart to the food.

But any menu item paired with a complex, high-acid white wine could also partner with a farmstead cider, says Gregory Hall, who started Fennville, Michigan-based Virtue Cider. “Certain ciders ... can have as much or more acidity than wine,” he says.

With so many cideries cropping up around the country, from Michigan to the Pacific Northwest to upstate New York, hard cider gives restaurants another way to express their local ethos. Restaurants can showcase their knowledge of the global cider market, meanwhile, by adding varieties from Spain’s Asturias region or Normandy, France, to their drinks menu.

“The domestic market is making it easier, from a price point, to get cider in front of people,” Beason says. But it’s also helping drive up revenue.

“People love things on tap,” he continues. “The smaller the serving, like 12-ounce cans at 6% alcohol, (the more likely it is) you’ll get a third sale out of people. It’s low-alcohol, easy to drink and clean.”

For many consumers, she adds, the thinking is: “If you want one more drink, have a cider.”

To boost the beverage’s versatility, many producers blend cider with juice from other fruit, such as cranberries and cherries, or from spices like ginger. Some infuse cider with hops to attract hops-loving beer drinkers. And others are aging cider in used wine or bourbon barrels for more complexity. Because cider mixes well with most spirits, it’s become a fun twist for cocktails.

It’s also great to cook with, says Sara Harvey, chef de cuisine at Seattle’s Capitol Cider, one of the first cider-focused restaurants in the country. With 20 rotating cider taps and an additional 150 bottled ciders, Harvey’s opportunities for experimentation are endless.

“With its sugar content, it reduces quite well, so you can make amazing gastriques or sauces,” she says, adding that she also includes cider in her fish batter for complexity and crunch. “With our rotating and robust draft program, I get a constantly updated selection of ciders to play with.”

Press On

2 concepts keyed into hard cider:

Wassail, New York City
Owners Jennifer Lim, her husband, Ben Sandler and Sabine Hrechdakian

  • Twelve ciders on tap, around five by the glass, and 100 by the bottle
  • Cider-centric restaurant offering a seasonally driven menu inspired by cider-making regions locally and around the world
  • Wide selection of cocktails incorporating cider and other apple-based spirits

Capitol Cider, Seattle
Owner Julie Tall and Executive Chef Erik Jackson

  • Over 20 ciders on tap and more than 150 domestic and international bottled selections, including France, Montana, California, Spain, British Columbia and England
  • 100% gluten-free menu
  • Eating and drinking are complemented by live music, movies and games split on two levels