Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"All Ships Rise in Rising Waters! Hop Aboard or Drown On Your Land"-Says Cider Market

Trending in the wine world is talk over embracing "industrial production."
For those who don't know what that means, that’s essentially the antithesis to “traditional wine” by way of all the modern tools available today. These tools, or 'advancements', extend far beyond the actual wine making part too and include advancements in grape farming, business financing, marketing and global distribution. A lot has changed in the 8000-year-old world of wine in just the last 40 years.

Proponents of industrial production say that it appropriately responds to our ever-growing economy and escalating human population by scaling itself accordingly, and its use of scientific and technological advances are in keeping with the modern lives real people live today. By employing all these measures industrially produced wine is able to keep prices far lower than traditional wine and reach more people who otherwise would never drink wine.

But critics argue that real wine can not be elevated above the natural processes. Industrial manipulation and scaling-up only creates a fake version of the real thing so it’s an erosion of the truth to liken it to the authentic version. “It’s either real or it’s not,” the purists claim. And traditional wine is usually characterized by it’s business models which are individually owned and personally financed. This, arguably, keeps outside pressures at bay and the focus on nature.

You can read more about leading arguments on both sides from Bianca Bosker and Eric Asamov, whos' opinions toil with additional baggage such as wine snobbery, farm and cultural ethics, and true artistry. These are great reads!

I think both sides have good, valid points but my ultimate opinion comes down to this one questions: What is more accurate in the minds of the consumer? Or asked another way, what does the customer picture when they picture wine? Because this is a matter of truth we are talking about. And it would seem to me that we are entering dangerous territory when we start eroding or manipulating this truth. Efficiency and economics aside, in my opinion, there is no acceptable trade-off when we compromise the understanding of wine.

Do customers picture the truth when they grab a 10$ bottle of wine from Trader Joes, or, is there something hiding in the bottle that the industrial wine-producer doesn't want us to know about the farming, the business model, and the wine-production methods? Well, yeah, probably there is something that the producer would rather not say. But that leads us to the slippery slope that we're talking about: Is it assumed that wine marketing is intentionally misleading, and if so, is that tolerable or acceptable now that we've entered a new world of other accepted half-truths?
(This ends up looking a lot like the “fake news” argument: Does misleading people eventually become an accepted form of new reality? Can one argue everything is subjective? No wonder this is a timely debate going on in the wine world today!)

Well, well, well... If the wine world only knew what was going on in the cider world these past five years!!! As the US Cider Association and other trade organizations have quickly, perhaps hastily, sought to unify any-and-all things "cider," the most pressing question of all has been intentionally subverted: Is industrial produced/ industrial farmed/ and industrially financed hard-cider really cider at all? And, if isn't, how can true cider align itself with the fake?

You can guess my opinion on the matter. And it’s not very compromising. I can understand why industrial producers would want to associate with the little guy (to make it look like their product is linked to nature, small farms, and tradition) but why did the majority of smaller producers help subvert this all-important distinction? When cider-alliances were being formed (and a lot have recently) why have so many small guys shelved their only advantage?

The answer I get time and time again is this: “The rising tide floats all boats.” Like Bianca Bosker, they argue smaller producers will reap unforeseen benefits from the influx of industrial-sized marketing dollars. They believe that having cider available everywhere, like beer and cheap wine, extends cider into markets and a demographic that may eventually find true cider too.

What they argue might be correct. I concede that “All cider” sales are up these past five years (including mine,) and a possible reason for this is the increased visibility of “cider” from dubious sources, but I reject the trade-off with elements of the truth. This involves what the customers imagine to be true. Are customers 100% aware of where industrial/ Modern cider breaks from their vision of cider? Absolutely not.

Big cider money might amount to free advertising for the little guy... but nothing is free.

I have seen mega-companies spend millions of dollars to lure customer into associating their products with traditional cider. And working the other way around, I have also seen dozens of small companies from Vermont to Maryland, from Michigan to Oregon attempt to "go industrial” without losing the perception of being traditional. But in the end, I will not, and can not, cooperate with them in the erosion of truth as presented to the customer, even if it were beneficial to me. Protecting the truth is more important than money.

Getting back to the real definition of cider (and is industrial cider still “cider”)… The relationship we have with the customer is inseparably part of the definition. The customer is not a blank slate for marketing to persuade. To the contrary, the customer is part of the tradition. They have a vision for cider. They believe in it, and they deserve input on the definition. We must serve that truth, or be very clear that we are approaching it differently.

This is my flood warning to all those who wish to collaborate with the big guy (Big cider, Bigger money, and Big apple farming): The rising tide does float all boats if  the boat is no longer tethered to land. But cider is not a tide, it is the land. Business is the tide. Cider is: farms, farmers, apple trees, and the local population, all immediately clustered around these combined components. This is what the customer still believes. And this is the goal. So to stretch the truth by "going-industrial”, scaling above your area, or to mislead the customer about the process, in my mind, is unforgivable. Even if a portion of the product is authentic the overall brand becomes tainted by dishonestly. And this extends up into trade associations too: Some of the producers might be the real deal, but if they are aligned with dishonest producers their credibility and the truth is undermined.


  1. I am with you on this. I think much of the trend you're describing and observing is at it's core more about the adherence to the religious dogma and faith of Progress than much else (not to mention the common vices of greed and such). The post-industrial West is obsessed with the belief in Progress, and as Dmitry Orlov eloqunetly points out in his new book Shrinking the Technosphere, it all adds up to handing over self-sufficiency, autonomy, and freedom to the realm of the technosphere. Replace small scale farming, communities and fermenters with industrial orcharding, big cities and markets, and massive debt burdens in stainless steel. Look at the press cider gets by and large and it seems fixated on million dollar build outs and expansions of cideries--most of which is either as a speculative investment by the wealthy or a speculative debt by the gambling. In the end it seeks to be megalithic, bland, and uninteresting to please as many bankers, investors, and palates as possible.

    I've seen online bickerments of cider makers arguing that no one should critique the industrial model, ask what "real" cider is and so forth. It's interesting what a hold the religion of Progress has and that few aspects of this part of the world get left untouched.

    Ultimately I see the trends with industrialization as having far more negative repercussions than positive for small-scale, local, resilient farming, food, and fermentation. But it will take a bunch more rounds of metaphorical banging of one's head on a brick wall before it susses out. For some reason Americans get fixated on everything becoming mainstream and industrialized. But Bob Dobb's did say "there's a sucker born every minute".

  2. I was not aware that anyone defined what true cider is. I am curious tho'; We had no cider industry for at least 2 maybe 3 generations in the U.S.. How is the customer part of tradition when there is no tradition?

    1. Perhaps I should have focused the rant to just "industrial" vs "traditional", but in answer to your question: there is unquestionably a true cider just as there is a true maple syrup. Log Cabin syrup, for instance, may "suggest" that it's the real, but it absolutely is not. This is inline with my warning to cider customers too, things may not be what the marketing team makes them appear to be.
      I may not have gotten this point across but I was hoping this rant would show how scale is absolutely part of this discussion. The pressures of scaling-up ultimately conflict with what the customer thinks of cider. (I don't know of a single cider or wine producer that boasts about how big they are. It's always just the opposite.)

  3. so the scale has been defined? I have been to places like Opus One and Geyser Peak in the wine world they are huge in scale to some pretty small wineries I have been too. (Still tiny compared to any gallo type place) However, these wines are made with the utmost care and quality. These are some of the finest examples of wine in the world. I think there are examples in the cider world too. They have been able to maintain their high quality and grow with the market. I am only aware of what is going on around me in my humble state. so what is your or what should be the cider worlds line in the sand here then. Is it a certain gallonage point the consumer resists; Is it one too many lighted logo signs, can cozies and bottle openers in the market? Or is it when they use some one else's money to grow? I agree the cider folks that care the most are not really interested in talking about how many gallons. They would be business silly not to talk about growth.

    1. I’m enjoying our conversation, though I’m towing a different opinion about Opus One. I do not perceive it as one of the finer examples in the world, or even the U.S., or California. To me, it's a very, very expensive marketing campaign by two of the world’s most dominant producers. If buyers are star struck by wealth or fame it will taint their opinion of the product but I know of few sommes who think of Opus One as anything but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Dubiously, it’s about upping the respectability of industrial bread and butter. (But what do I know, I’ve never had it.)
      Perhaps a similar big star business can be created for cider some day (artificially created, of course.) Perhaps customers will want to see ciders that only the richest companies in America can produce. But for now, I think the opposite is true. And I think customers do too. And I know that bigger producers hide their numbers, or start a secondary label or company, because of this fact. Just as many producers de-emphasize adding sugar, artificial C02 or flavoring, or preservatives, so too, they de-empahsize the scale of their company (or combined companies if there are several sister-companies.)
      In the end, we can either try to fool the customer, or simply just give them what they want (or want to be true.) Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the customer thinks of cider as small, local, and limited in production. This would allow for millions of producers instead of limited competition and survival of the biggest. And industrial producers must agree because why else are they trying to buddy up to mom-and-pops?
      I won’t fall for Opus One, or the similar campaigns currently undergone in cider. But if my moral high-horse stops in front of a mirror one day I’m sure I could fault myself as dishonest too.