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A hard cider revolution is afoot in America, but you wouldn’t know it by a perusal of the beverage lists at many restaurants and bars, which might feature a token bottle or one draft cider. Looking to change that by example are a handful of cider-focused establishments, including Capitol Cider in Seattle, Bushwhacker Cider in Portland, Ore., Upcider in San Francisco and Tertulia in New York City.

“Craft breweries and distilleries have led the way and opened the door for cider,” says restaurateur Aaron Zacharias, who is launching what is believed to be Chicago’s first cider bar, The Northman, this spring. Zacharias’ two current restaurants, Fountainhead and Bar On Buena, offer between six and 10 draft and bottled ciders at any one time. The idea for The Northman was inspired by strong cider sales at Zacharias’ established concepts.

Hard cider is a fast-growing category, says Chicago-based researcher Technomic, which pegs volume increases at retail and in restaurants at 78 percent in 2012, with similar growth in 2013. Recognizing the trend, all the major beer companies have recently acquired or invested in hard cider brands, reports Technomic.

“Today, I don’t see how a restaurant or a bar can not offer a cider,” says Jeff Smith, owner of Bushwhacker Cider, credited in the media as the nation’s first cider bar and only cider brewpub. Since opening in 2010, the bar has earned healthy sales growth year over year and ramped up its cider list to 300 different selections. Similar to whiskey bars and craft beer specialists, Bushwhacker’s cider-only stance and diverse list gives it a distinct point of differentiation and competitive edge, says Smith.

Beyond the extensive bottle list, eight taps offer a continually rotating selection of ciders; drafts are priced at $4.50 a pint. “We don’t make much on each sale, but we make that up in volume,” says Smith, who notes that the bar goes through 25 kegs of cider a week. Besides the 40-seat pub, the 11,000 square-foot space also houses a retail area and cidery. The ciders Smith brews onsite from locally sourced apples are atypical ones, such as an applewood-smoked cider aged in oak barrels.

Who is ordering cider? “Beer geeks and women are our primary consumers,” says Zacharias. Smith believes cider has a broad appeal to all types of drinkers. Both operators point out that cider is naturally gluten-free and thus attracts that growing customer base. Bushwhacker’s offers gluten-free snacks on its food menu to pair with the selections. “Cider is super food-friendly,” says Zacharias, who is planning on serving cider-accented bistro fare at his new restaurant.

When it opens this April, The Northman will offer 100 ciders, with 18 on draft, and will include still and sparkling, sweet and dry varieties. “Glassware is also vital to the experience,” says Zacharias; depending on its characteristics, cider can be served in anything from flutes to goblets, tulips and wine glasses.

Among the innovations at The Northman will be two built-in firkin cradles, for serving “real” unpasteurized cider direct from the cask, and high-drafts—a theatrical pouring technique typical in the Basque and Asturias regions of Spain. The cocktail list also will be apple-focused, mixing in Calvados and apple eaux de vie as well as ciders.

“We want to reintroduce Americans to our national beverage, which is what cider once was,” says Zacharias about his new restaurant. Smith’s customers are already there. “On weekends, it’s standing-room only at Bushwacker,” he says. 

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