Innovators

Crafting the Future of the American Cider Industry

In her capacity as head of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, Michelle McGrath is helping define what American cider is—and what it can be

Michelle McGrath, Executive Director of the US Association of Cidermakers. Photo courtesy of Michelle McGrath.

Awarded for: The American cider industry has long lacked a central organization to unify the growing beverage segment; Michelle McGrath is working to change that.

As the executive director of the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM), Michelle McGrath is the de facto head of the modest but rapidly growing American cider industry. Under her tenure, USACM has helped a loose-knit collection of cider professionals band together, create a vocabulary for the industry, and promote cider as a beverage worthy of its own category. 

Through educational initiatives like the Cider Lexicon Project, the Certified Cider Professional program (CCP), and CiderCon, the industry’s annual conference, McGrath is helping bring this historic American tradition into the 21st century.

The Importance of Shared Language

Greg Johnson, a beverage consultant and the cider maker at ANXO Cidery in Washington, D.C., sees USACM’s educational programs as crucial resources for a community striving to define itself. “The industry is really trying to find its identity as a whole,” he says. “It’s kind of like a teenager right now, just trying to figure itself out.” 

He believes the major value of these programs—especially the Cider Lexicon Project—is providing a cohesive cider vocabulary as the community grows. “It helps to organize the language of how cider is talked about,” he says. The nascent industry currently lacks universal guidelines and even a definition of what cider actually is. When cider makers use flavor additives like berries in large quantities, Johnson wonders, “when do we stop calling it cider?” 


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Paul Vander Heide, the president of USACM’s board of directors, hopes the association’s work in developing a shared language will “better educate the consumer on the broad range of cider depth. Cider is as broad a category as wine, beer, and spirits.” McGrath agrees—it’s her hope that cider will be separated from beer in stores and from beers on lists in restaurants and will be recognized as a category all its own, with its own unique language.

Providing Accreditation Through Education

Aside from lobbying on a legislative level and launching consumer education initiatives like the Lexicon project, USACM also aims to empower those working in the cider industry with the first cider accreditation programs: the Certified Cider Professional program (CCP) and the recently introduced Certified Pommelier exam. “It’s not terribly dissimilar to Certified Cicerone [the beer certification and education equivalent],” says Johnson, who earned his Certified Pommelier title in February, at CiderCon, and who had previously earned his Certified Cicerone ranking. McGrath and Vander Heide enlisted cider makers, chefs, sommeliers, retailers—and “people we consider to be at the front line of cider sales,” says McGrath—to gather a wide range of information in developing the certification exams. 

Michelle McGrath Executive Director of the US Association of Cidermakers
Michelle McGrath, Executive Director of the US Association of Cidermakers. Photo by Larvick Media.

McGrath’s Path to the Top

“I summarize my story as ‘sea turtles to cider,’” says McGrath, laughing, as she recounts her roundabout journey to becoming USACM’s executive director in 2016. A decade ago, McGrath was a Ph.D. student studying the impact of the seafood industry on the world’s oceans. Her research led her deeper into the investigation of sustainable food systems and agriculture, and she eventually abandoned her doctoral research to “pursue a food path,” starting first at farmers’ markets and moving to the nonprofit sector at Gorge Grown Food Network in Oregon. 

Over the next few years, she hobnobbed with agricultural producers, including a small cluster of organic orchardists operating in the mineral-rich Columbia River Gorge in the rural north of Oregon. They were looking for ways to diversify their income streams, and cider was “just taking off,” according to McGrath. This was the future, she realized. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and have the right passion.”

Her developing knowledge of cider—coupled with her experience in nonprofit management, agricultural systems, and grassroots advocacy for sustainability with the Oregon Environmental Council—uniquely positioned McGrath to take the helm of USACM at a critical time in American cider history. Increasing demand for alternative alcohol choices, legislative efforts like 2015’s CIDER Act (which redefined cider’s allowable alcohol-by-volume and carbonation for a more favorable and flexible tax structure), and evolving reciprocity laws in states such as Oregon and New York are positioning cider as a legitimate stand-alone segment. 

Photo courtesy of Michelle McGrath.

The Future of American Cider

McGrath plans to concentrate her efforts on developing resources for additional consumer-facing education, providing online training for CCP Level One, launching additional levels of the CCP programs for more advanced designations, releasing an updated Strategic Plan for the association, and tackling a three-year legislative and regulatory agenda on behalf of the cider industry at a federal level.

Johnson thinks the time is ripe for such developments. “This is the first real wave since basically colonization,” he says. “The cider world never really existed as an organized industry before [now], as far as I can tell … This is the first real big push almost ever. [The USACM] is the first real organization—our first real chance to build a community.”

Beth Demmon is a beer columnist at San Diego Magazine and West Coaster magazine. She’s a BJCP-certified judge and a winner of the 2019 Diversity in Beer Writing grant from the North American Guild of Beer Writers. Her work has been featured in BeerAdvocate, Saveur, VICE Munchies, Playboy, and many other publications.

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