Malaika Tyson is one half of the blogging duo Cider Soms, which was started as a way to introduce wine lovers to the world of cider. Created along with her husband Sean, the “Soms” blog seeks to uncover and explain the complexities of ciders in a fun way.
During an icy January week, over 1,000 cidermakers, orchardists, and enthusiasts descended upon Portland, Oregon, for the 14th Annual CiderCon. CiderCon, which started in Salem, Oregon, with only a few hundred attendees, has blossomed into the world’s largest conference for the hard cider industry. Registration was 20% higher than the previous year, with attendees pouring in from 40 different states, including Alaska and Hawaii and Washington DC, and 14 different countries.
Despite the multi-day ice storm, with congregations initially limited to the Convention Center and lobby (I heard it was coined “LobbyCon 2024”), the energy remained high. In chatting with people, I learned that Kelsi Paul, Cidermaster at Taves Estate Cidery, was excited to meet new people and liked that the conference offered opportunities to learn about lots of different topics. CiderCon veteran Gidon Coll (founder of Original Sin Cider) found, “It was enlightening to witness the level of enthusiasm for cider culture in the Pacific Northwest.”
Cider Share, the American Cider Association (ACA)-coordinated industry tasting, featured dozens of cideries from all around the world. Quince cider from Italian cider maker Floribunda was one of the crowd favorites. Cideries from the Northwest were located on the perimeter of the hotel ballroom and inside there were several “islands” of tables. The Northwest Cider Association also coordinated an invite-only special preview hour of Cider Share for wholesalers, buyers, media and influencers to sample cider from throughout the Northwest region.
The conference formally opened on Thursday, January 18, with the ACA’s CEO Michelle McGrath welcoming us to her home city, and ACA headquarters. McGrath highlighted the continued partnership with the Cider Institute of North America (CINA), who coordinated the conference’s production track, aptly named “Making Amazing Cider.” Connecting with Consumers in an Age of Endless Choice was the theme of the conference, and McGrath talked about how cider is a regional beverage, with many cidermakers growing their own fruit.
The three keynote speakers were multigenerational orchardists Kaitlyn Thornton (Tonasket, Washington), Randy Kiyokawa (Kiyokawa Family Orchards in Hood River, Oregon), along with cidery owner Lara Worm (Bivouac Ciderworks in San Diego, California). Each speaker expanded upon the discussion of the conference’s theme.
Thornton impressed upon the attendees to understand “what is your why” and the importance of storytelling. Kiyokawa discussed embracing endless choice to connect to the consumer and drive growth and subsequent success of the industry. Worm focused on elevating education, accessibility and sharing stories with a wider audience. I agreed with Worm when she said that cider has more depth and staying power than anything else on the market, but cider is one of the few beverages where consumers quit the whole category if they find something too sweet or too sour.
Following these short presentations, Zoe Licata of Brewbound hosted a panel discussion, investigating the state of the hard cider industry with a selection of cidery representatives from around the country: Aaron Sarnoff-Wood (2 Towns Ciderhouse in Oregon), Casey Baxter (Blake’s Beverage Company in Michigan), Shannon Edgar (Stormalong Cider in Massachusetts), Caitlin Braam (Yonder Cider in Washington) and Eleanor Legér (Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont). The panel shared their individual takes on the state of the industry. Sarnoff-Wood discussed how national grocer access and visibility is one key driver of growth. Braam acknowledged that smaller cideries also have growth and stock challenges, especially if they want to work with other small businesses.
Legér, whose cidery makes less than 25,000 gallons each year, talked about how small cideries are focused on restaurants, e-commerce and following the trends of natural wine making. Another trend discussed were low/no and high-ABV ciders. Baxter opined that better-for-you lifestyles and occasions are driving these trends, and while Blake’s introduced a light cider five years ago, it was caught up in the hard seltzer wave. Edgar shared some barriers for the high ABV, or imperial ciders, and noted that when Stormalong introduced an imperial cider, it got some traction but was going to continue to require big marketing pushes.
After the speaker sessions, McGrath announced that Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR-D), who was one of the recipients of the 2024 Apple Advocate Award, and Mike Kelly (PA-R) introduced the Bubble Tax Modernization Act of 2024 (HR 7029) to the 118th Congress of the United States. This garnered resounding cheers from the audience! The “Bubble Bill” will amend a carbonation threshold disparity for lower-alcohol wine, cider and mead made with fruit.
Sonya del Peral (Proprietor & Manager at Nine Pin Ciderworks) sat in on the opening session and she agreed that the industry needs to continue to educate consumers. She was interested in attending the low-ABV panel — like Blake’s, Nine Pin launched a low-ABV cider several years ago and is now revamping the product. I also sat in on “An Introduction to Low-ABV & Non-Alcoholic Cider Production” moderated by Dave Takush (Head Cidermaker and co-owner of 2 Towns Ciderhouse). The standing-room-only crowd illustrated that there is continued and growing interest in this trend.
There were 37 other educational sessions across several categories, including Crafting Amazing Cider, Doing Better Business, Exploring Cider’s Flavor & Terroir, Growing Bountiful Apples and Selling More Cider. There were also 12 sensory sessions, including a tasting with cidermakers visiting from Sweden and Norway.
My favorite panel was “The Burden of Burnout.” Focusing on one’s own mental health is something that is often overlooked, especially in an industry so many business owners/operators and their staffs have to grind it out to be successful. As Ellen Cavalli, co-founder of Tilted Shed Ciderworks, said in her “How to Stay Small” panel: “Someone needs to have a day job.”
The panel, moderated by Katie Muggli, (Founder and Executive Director of Infinite Ingredient), and featuring Maura Hardman (Marketing & PR Manager for Seattle Cider Company), Ben Calvi (COO at Vermont Cider Co.) and Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham (Director of Social Impact at the Brewers Association), talked about how important it is to recognize burnout and what leadership’s role is in managing their team’s burnout.
Hardman noted how it is easier to see burnout in others, but you need to self-identify to take care of yourself. Calvi acknowledged that burnout is hard to address in a manufacturing environment and how challenging it is for leaders to have a sustainable and durable company.
Jackson-Beckham, known by many as “Dr. J,” discussed how many small producers’ business models are built on burnout, and a real challenge is finding a way to make the numbers work without burning people out. Dr. J also talked about how marginalized groups often come into work feeling they have something to prove and are personally invested in being hyper- competent in their jobs, further exacerbating burnout. Muggli also provided several useful tips and strategies for burnout management (“The antidote to burnout is engagement”).
Several panels also discussed the value in educating consumers while also being authentic to yourself. Julie Rhodes (Strategic Business Consultant at Not Your Hobby Marketing) discussed knowing your market audience (“North Face couldn’t just market to everyone who didn’t want to be cold”) while also recognizing that market launches can take time. In several of the sessions, panelists discussed making your mark, finding effective partnerships and figuring out how to avoid the “beer-ification” of cider, especially with distributors.
CiderCon always brings in new attendees, including the nine recipients of the Cider is For Everyone Scholarship, and this year the CiderSoms hosted the Newcomers Networking Session, sponsored by Maletis Beverage. There were also several other networking opportunities, including a BIPOC Cider Professional Meetup and an Orcharding Meetup where attendees exchanged apple tree scion wood.
I sat with first-time attendees Jordan and Lesley Zehner of Incline Cider Co. during the Friday lunch session. Jordan mentioned they’ve gone to the Northwest Cider Symposium in the past, and that they’d been having fun at CiderCon connecting with a different group of speakers, and hearing different perspectives from all over the world. Lesley found that the conference sessions had common themes of low/no ABV and consistent marketing.
Scholarship recipient William Santiago (a bartender at Crafted Concoctions), wasn’t sure where he would fit in at CiderCon, but by the end of the conference he had found his calling. Santiago found, “A sense of purpose of what I can do, and what I can bring both to the [cider] side and to the cocktail world, which is where I’m coming from. Being here gave me the opportunity to brighten my horizons, make new contacts [and] try some new flavors and cider styles.”
CiderSoms has been involved with the Scholarship program since the start and it really warms my heart and excites me when the recipients leave the conference with this kind of energy and clarity.
The ACA also welcomed their new leadership. Josie Mielke of Urban Orchard Cider Co. and Shannon Edgar of Stormalong were newly elected to the Board. Christine Walter of Bauman’s Cider was elected Board President, a role previously held by Legér for the past three years. Sarah Hemly of Hemly Cider was elected Vice President.
Overall, CiderCon was an amazing time. We always love making this yearly cider pilgrimage to make connections with our cider family, get to see people in real life that we’ve only seen online, and welcome newcomers into the cider community. There truly is no place like the “Con!” Sean and I can’t wait to host you all next February in Chicago for CiderCon 2025.
- Photos: Brandon Buza