In recent years, the appetite for an alternative to craft beer in Alberta has been growing. The province’s beverage scene is vibrant and rich, yet craft cider has rarely been top of mind for local makers. But as the cult of cider grows around the world, Alberta finds itself in the early stages of a cider boom. With every new cidery that pops up, the makings of a reliable and captivating craft cider community are starting to take root.
This is due to a couple of factors — the initiative of locals to bring cider to the community, and the growing need for more options for those looking for a beverage free of gluten, or just preferring something a little lighter than beer.
Alberta’s first cidery officially landed in Calgary in May of 2019. SunnyCider initially came to fruition in Calgary’s Sunnyside community, where a group of neighbours came together each fall to pick apples. The abundance of produce they ended up with each year created a particular challenge. After making applesauce, apple pie, and apple juice… they still had more apples than they could use. Someone brought up the idea of fermentation, and after a few years of trial and error, they landed on some cider recipes that their friends, family and neighbours were raving about.
“A few of us decided that with the craft beer boom, Alberta could handle some cider,” says SunnyCider’s General Manager, Dennis Scanland. “So cider was born out of an opportunity, rather than a beverage choice.”
For Tyler Crowdis, Owner of Calgary-based Bramble Cider, jumping into the craft cider business came about a little differently. When he was diagnosed with celiac disease, his love of visiting breweries and trying all the new local brews was suddenly off the table. “I decided to take things into my own hands, with the vision of making craft ciders reminiscent of my favourite experimental craft breweries,” he says.
In an effort to create his dream cider — a dry and hoppy one similar to his favourite, now off-limits, IPAs — he started experimenting in his own kitchen. “Soon our little basement was filled with carboys. I tried different fruit flavours and interesting yeasts like Brett (Brettanomyces), again trying to emulate a brewing philosophy.” When friends and family started praising the product, he decided to quit his career in the electrical industry and start Bramble with his wife.
Broken Spoke Cider came to be when neighbours James and Jenny Black and Nick Ford tried and failed to make cider from Ford’s backyard apple tree. With this failed attempt they quickly learned that a great cider requires a wide variety of apples, but that didn’t discourage them. In July of 2020 they officially launched, giving Edmonton its first cidery.
Bonnyville’s Journey North Cider Co. is the furthest north cidery in Canada, and the only one in Alberta situated on its own apple orchard. Owners Amber Jury and Jeremy Bourboing had always wanted to start a winery, while their business partners, Kelly and Brian Fieger, had always wanted to start a brewery. “Growing grapes in Alberta is possible, but we aren’t exactly known for our wine region,” Jury notes.
Apples, on the other hand, are plentiful in Alberta, so a cidery was the perfect compromise.
“It combines all the beautiful aspects of an estate winery without the pretentiousness that wine often gets labelled with. And we get to have all the fun of craft beer, making seasonal varieties and experimenting with new flavours.”
And the relative newness of cider to the northern market allows them to serve as educators. “The number one question I still get asked in the taproom is, ‘What is cider?’ So hopefully with more exposure, people choose craft cider as their drink of choice,” Jury continues.
Many Alberta cideries also help deal with the overabundance of fruit that would otherwise be wasted each fall, by accepting donations. SunnyCider’s Fruit Donor program is a resounding success, and has become their most valued tradition. Each fall, anyone with extra produce can drop it off, and if the donation is over 15 kg, they will even throw in a free glass of cider.
“We’ve made a raspberry rose from a pallet of raspberries that had been rained on, so not marketable. We made a peach cider with 1,000 pounds of peaches that weren’t consumer quality. Generally, the public is happy to donate their fruit to keep it out of their green bins and provide a local business with a good product,” says Scanland.
Does this mean the cider revolution has arrived in Alberta? If the scene isn’t in full bloom yet, it is certainly on the horizon. There are nearly 20 cider manufacturers in Alberta now, according to Liquor Connect. That number will only continue to grow in the coming years.
“People are realizing that there is more to cider than a sweet sugar bomb. It can be dry and complex, similar to that of wine,” Scanland notes.
And if there is one key to creating a perfect craft cider, it’s time. “Cider is like wine in that it needs time for the flavours to come out,” he continues. Crowdis agreed. “It's very difficult as you want to get your product onto the shelves, but time is your friend.”