The USDA has given a half-million dollar grant to a pair of researchers to create a universal language for American cider.

By Mike Pomranz
September 30, 2020
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While there are certainly cider enthusiasts in the United States, it's probably safe to say that many Americans don’t quite “get” cider. The drink often gets lumped in with beer because of their similar colors and alcohol levels. But unlike beer, cider doesn’t require any “brewing” or multiple ingredients like hops and barley; cider is fermented fruit juice, making it more akin to wine. That said, cider shouldn’t have to be compared to anything: Ciders should be compared to other ciders—and a new research project is setting out to help Americans do exactly that.

“The average consumer knows that an IPA and a lager taste different, and they know what to expect if they order one or the other,” explained Jacob Lahne, an assistant professor of food science at Virginia Tech. “But that doesn’t exist for cider.”

Credit: bhofack2/Getty Images

Lahne, alongside partner Clinton Neill—an assistant professor of population medicine and diagnostic sciences at Cornell—has received a $500,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to create a unified language of cider, allowing cideries to better target their products for consumers and drinkers to better explain what they want. The hope is that solidifying America’s cider vocabulary will help boost an industry that’s seen a major revival in the past decade but isn’t growing as quickly as it was at the start.

“Cider makers have differing opinions about what makes a cider dry or sweet, and this confuses customers,” Neill told Virginia Tech Daily. “If we can aid the cider industry in creating a consistent and descriptive marketing language, then consumers are much more likely to not only try new ciders, but also find a type of cider they can enjoy again and again.”

The duo’s four-year study will take place across three East Coast states known for their cider—Virginia, New York, and Vermont (also home to the researchers’ two universities)—using focus groups to better understand not only consumers’ interest when it comes to cider but also to hone in on the specific descriptors people use. This info can then hopefully be disseminated within the industry to improve cider’s marketing by putting everyone on the same page.

“We’re not trying to dictate styles to the industry,” Lahne added. “But we are trying to get a big, accurate snapshot of a large sample of ciders so the industry can start rearticulating their sensory qualities for consumers the same way the beer and wine industry does.”

Interested in tasting cider for science? A rep for the Virginia Tech Food Science and Technology Department says they usually recruit volunteers through the department’s social media accounts (including the VT Sensory Lab Facebook page), flyers, and their mailing list, which can be signed up for here. What's a better excuse to drink some cider than doing it for science?