HARRISBURG, Pa. — As president of the Pennsylvania Cider Guild, Ben Wenk wants people to give cider more consideration as an adult beverage.
And if they like it, he hopes they become consumers and support a fledgling industry.
That option was made a bit easier at the 2020 Pennsylvania Farm Show, where the state’s cidermakers were allowed to sell their products for the first time. It marked the culmination of a long process at the Farm Show that began in 2018 when the guild was allowed to hold its first statewide cider competition. In 2019, a second competition was held, and cider samples were offered.
And now that sales have been added to the mix, the guild’s booth in Main Hall was a busy place during this year’s show.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for cider producers.
“January can be a slow sales month, and the first quarter of the year is tough. To have this opportunity to add revenue when normally there’s a lull in business is an enormous benefit,” said Wenk, who produces Ploughman Cider at his business, Three Springs Fruit Farm in Adams County.
The opportunity to sell boosted excitement among producers for this year’s show, Wenk said. There were more than 100 entries in the cider competition, and the 26 different competitors represented more than half of all the cideries in the state. At the first competition in 2018, there were 26 entries across seven categories, ranging from sour to spiced.
This year, a dessert category was added and Wenk believes there will soon be another category for a cider variety that’s specific to Pennsylvania.
“I’d like to see that develop, and I think it will as the industry gets more recognition and continues to grow,” he said.
Wenk commended guild co-chairs Mary Bigham, Troy Lehman and Brian Dressler with helping to make sales a reality, and he said that’s not the only benefit of being at the Farm Show.
Education is just as important, and having a booth at the largest agricultural event in the state allows the Pennsylvania cideries to reach an unprecedented audience.
“To have access to this many people who can sample and learn about what we offer, it’s an enormous boost for us. This is a category of beverage that is still in its infancy, as the industry is only 30 years old,” Wenk said as he passed out samples from behind the booth on Monday.
“Everyone knows beer and wine, but cider is something people are still learning about.”
One thing that Wenk believes will help the cider industry grow is variety. Not only can cider beverages be accented with different fruits, but a range of tastes can be achieved depending on the variety of apple.
Heritage cider, he said, is made with bittersharp or bittersweet apples such Dabinett, or crabapple varieties like Wickson and Manchurian that contain natural tannins that give a hint of bitterness in the finish and allow the cider to age better.
But when it comes to apple varieties, Wenk believes that’s where the industry has a lot of room to grow. The market for cider with bittersweet or bittersharp characteristics is small, he said, because the apple varieties needed for the unique taste aren’t commonly planted in orchards.
In addition to Dabinett, other apple varieties such as Kingston Black and Brown Snout have little value if they’re not used for cider. In order for growers to plant such varieties, there needs to be a market, and that’s where Wenk believes the Farm Show can help.
“Selling at the Farm Show could help build that market by having a large number of people try something for the first time,” he said. “We were fired up to get to the point where we could sell at the show, and it can make a big difference in this industry.”
Among the Farm Show attendees trying cider for the first time was Naterra Tonsel, who stopped by the guild’s booth and sampled a few flavors.
“The one with cherry in it was really good, really in your face,” she said. “I thought it was going to be like a regular apple taste, but it was a lot more than that.”
Now that the state’s cider industry has reached the three-year milestone at the Farm Show and can compete, offer samples and sell, Wenk said it’s important to keep learning from the experience to make it successful.
In coming years, he hopes Farm Show attendees grow accustomed to the cider booth and make it a routine stop.
“We want to see the cider industry move forward in Pennsylvania. The Farm Show will help us do that because if people have a good experience at our booth and like what they taste, hopefully they’ll patronize a cidery near their home,” he said.