How Not Wanting to Waste Apples Led to a Successful Hard Cider Business

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Reverend Nat’s The Passion is just one example of how the hard cider maker has changed a traditional drink. Photo: Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider

Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider has its roots in the common apple, but the creative spirit of the craft beer world is what lifts the company’s branches.

“I find no passion in making simple cider,” founder Nat West told us during a recent stop at Yahoo Food, where he poured a few of his brews for thirsty staffers. “I love to take grocery store-type apples and add some really unique beer yeast, hops or other ingredients. The characters of those open up a world of flavors.”

You can taste that approach in Reverend Nat’s summer seasonals: Padre Nat’s Tepache and The Passion, two examples that do a fine job illustrating the good reverend’s craft-beer credo. (West, by the way, gained his title through Universal Life Monastery, so he could officiate his friend’s wedding. He has yet to officiate another.)

West launched the seasonals a few years ago and has changed the recipes for each season’s rollout. Alterations like that in a mainstream brew would infuriate brand loyalists. But those tweaks, he said, are accepted under the philosophy of most craft beer lovers, who are open to exploration and discovery. They’re driven to try something new, even if they’re not sure they’ll like the drink. The experience is what matters.

“It’s about what you feel like drinking right now. It’s about adventure,” West said. “Consumers are telling us they’re drinking cider like they drink craft beer.”

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West serves up Reverend Nat’s flagship Revival Hard Apple at a recent Yahoo tasting. (Photo: Jeff O’Heir)

Those drinkers nationwide chugged down about 75 percent more hard cider last year than they did the year before, according to market research firm IRI, handily beating the 18 percent increase in craft beer sales. While cider sales make up only about 1.2 percent of the overall U.S. beer market, the increase proves the drink’s appeal — dry, light, tart, easy to pair with a variety of food, gluten free — is spreading beyond traditional hotspots in the Northwest, Northeast, and Great Lakes. 

West, a former database developer, began making hard cider about 10 years ago as a way to use up bushels of unwanted apples that dropped from his friend’s tree. Shortly after that, he and his wife began hosting potluck dinners every Wednesday night, where West served his cider to neighbors and, eventually, more and more strangers who caught wind of the free brew. Everyone raved about it. “I loved taking a waste product and making it into party time,” he said.

In 2013, when West’s cider production started to creep over the legal limit for home brew, he opened his cidery and taproom in northeast Portland, Ore. As of last April, sales of Reverend Nat’s 100 different year-round and one-off brews increased 158 percent, West said. He expects to double overall production next year to 300,000 gallons. The ciders currently ship to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, British Columbia, Japan, and Singapore.

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The new taproom offers a little more room than West’s basement and garage, where he used to house production and hold tastings. (Photo: Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider) 

That’s just a drop in the bucket compared with the amount of cider produced by giants like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors, SABMiller, and Boston Beer Company. But it does show an uptick in demand for the craft-beer type approach Reverend Nat’s is taking with its seasonal and other ciders.

How is Rev Nat’s unlike anything else? Take Padre Nat’s Tepache as an example. Based on the drink sold by Mexican street vendors, the tepache is fermented from the rinds and scales of the pineapples and wild yeast, which is difficult to control but produces unique flavors. Although the Tepache, released around Cinco de Mayo, is one of Reverend Nat’s best sellers, he knew he could make it better. “Even if it’s not perfect, but still very tasty, I’ll release it anyway and improve upon it,” he said.

This year, West began sourcing a different type of piloncillo, an unrefined whole cane Mexican sugar that exerts a richer molasses flavor than versions he used in the past. The Tepache has a low 3.2 percent alcohol content and should be mixed with other drinks, such as a light lager, “bottom-shelf” champagne, hard cider or spiced rum.

“It has a real earthiness; it’s not overly sweet. There’s a lot of depth,” West said, adding that he doubled 2015 production to 2,000 12-bottle cases. “This year I think I nailed it.”

A similar story lies behind The Passion, scheduled for mid-June release. Last year, this sour brew (6.9 percent ABV) consisted mainly of passion fruit and apples. West added coconut and vanilla to give the new batch a bit more depth and flavor. The changes, he said, are subtle but important. It drinks more like a Berliner weisse than a cider.

“I like to have flavors that you can’t necessarily pick out,” he said. “But if you remove them, you’d notice it. I’m all about complexity.”

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