Cheffing is a second career for Jessica Alonzo. Originally a hospital administrator in Dallas, she liked the stability and the benefits, but wasn’t happy. She longed for the days around the kitchen table with her mom, cooking for large family gatherings — “I have such fond memories of food.” Hospital pay got her through culinary school, and then she joined the acclaimed Dallas restaurant FT33 as a line cook. It was there that she got introduced to fermentation.

“With fermentation, the transformation of ingredients is just insane,” Alonzo says. “Fermentation is not new, it’s something that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s a lost art and now it’s starting to make a resurgence.”

Fermentation and whole food utilization are Alonzo’s specialty. Whole food utilization, the cooking technique of using the entire animal or produce, marries perfectly with fermentation. Instead of discarding food scraps, skilled chefs are using the byproducts in brines, condiments and sauces. 

“I preserve with a purpose,” says Alonzo, a Texas native. “I’ve worked with farmers long enough to understand what works with their produce throughout the year and what doesn’t. I’ve harvested with them, I’ve worked on their land. It plays a big role in fermentation to know how to properly preserve what farmers are harvesting.”

Alonzo is the sous chef at Dallas-based Petra and the Beast, a James Beard Award semifinalist known for its seasonal tasting menu. She stepped back to part-time status this year and launched her own business, Native Ferments TX, a larder shop that sells local ferments and offers virtual fermentation classes. Below are highlights from TFA’s interview with Alonzo. 

The Fermentation Association: Tell me where the idea for Native Ferments came from.

Jessica Alonzo: Misti (Norris, chef/owner at Petra and the Beast) and my husband really pushed me to do it. They were like “You have the drive, you have the knowledge — why not share that talent with others?” People are always messaging me on Instagram asking me about different fermentation methods, and now I can teach them through classes. I love fermentation, I’m just fascinated with it, and it’s just continuous learning for me. You feel like you never really learn everything with fermentation, there’s so many different types of cuisines and techniques. 

TFA: Why is it so important to you to support local farmers through fermentation?

JA: With both Native Ferments and Petra and the Beast, I get to work with farmers and support them, which is really what I love doing. Noma is helping make fermentation popular again, opening people’s eyes to the fact that fermentation has been happening forever. Fermentation is not new, there’s a tradition to respect. It was done back in the day because of necessity, people had to figure out how to save their harvest, and fermentation made it so they’d have the nutrients from their harvest throughout the rest of the year. 

During the pandemic, restaurant sales for farmers dropped off drastically. At Petra, we had one of our farmers come to us with like a hundred pounds of mushrooms they couldn’t sell and they were going to go bad. I preserved them and made mushroom conservas and dried and did all these things with it, and then we ended up selling some of the mushroom pickles and conservas. I don’t know if any other restaurant did that in Dallas. It forced us to be really creative with food.

On my website for Native Ferments, I have profiles of the main farmers I use. When I sell at farmers markets, I have a big board with their Instagram handles. It’s their livelihood, I don’t want any of their produce to go to waste or to compost, I want the community to enjoy it. The magic of fermentation is transforming these simple ingredients with the natural microbes around you. I’ve worked with many of these farmers long enough to know what type of technique works well to pickle or ferment. I want to help educate people and get them excited and spread the word about the farmers’ hard work.

TFA: Tell me more about whole food utilization. 

JA: At Petra, Misti was more the meat charcuterie person. She knows how to utilize every part of a pig or an animal. My mind goes more to vegetables, which I think is why we make such a good team. It makes sense that whole food utilization and fermentation go hand-in-hand. It’s part of preserving. We may be prepping something for tasting and then we have like carrot scraps or like some sort of vegetable or fruit scraps and we’ll automatically turn that into a vinegar. Or we dehydrate our char and dehydrate skins and turn that into part of a seasoning for another dish. Or I’ve done like roots from spring onions, I’ll brine those or I’ve chopped them up and parts in a condiment. We try to be as low waste of a kitchen as possible. 

I do that with my ferments here with Native Ferments, too. In my fennel kimchi, I use the entire part of the fennel in that fennel kimchi, the fronds, the stems, everything, and then if my ratios were a little different so I did have some fronds left over, I dehydrate those and make that into a powder and now i’m utilizing that powder into a cure that I’m using on carrots for vegetable charcuterie. Understanding flavor profiles, too, helps when you’re cross utilizing your larder. 

TFA: So tell me what have been some of your favorite fermentation creations you’ve been working on lately.

JA: Vegetable charcuterie is pretty cool, I’ve gotten some local produce in different root vegetables and I’m working on different charcuteries with more whole utilization in the curing. So like using the fennel from powder for part of the cure with carrots. I’m doing some shiro shoyu for another chef here in town and gluten-free shoyu for myself. I just smoked some beets and I’m pickling them in a shio koji that I made with a half sour brine and some spring onions. I’m hoping it takes on a meaty, smoky-like brisket, I was really craving barbecue when I did it.

TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?

JA: I think chefs are understanding the importance of the different complexity that you get when you build with fermented food in your cuisine. When Misti and I create dishes at Petra, we always in every dish that we create have some sort of pickle or ferment. Whether it’s an actual fermented vegetable or it could be an amino sauce that I’ve made or a shoyu or using shio koji or something, you don’t get that same transformation just by sauteing vegetables. You see the transformation by marianating them in shio koji first or using a brine in your pasta sauce rather than using a lemon juice. That’s how you build on these complex flavors. Some chefs are really trying to understand that. Utilizing fermented foods in their cuisine, being more creative with their flavor profiles, that’s what we do.

TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?

JA: With the resurgence of fermentation, I think it’s going to be more accepted in every household. I would hope that it would be something that every household would have. My parents grew up in the ‘60s, when everything was in a can. We had our traditional Mexican food, but we also had those times where it was Americanized, like everything in a canned food. Fermentation, this really should be the norm. Consumers need to be more aware of how beneficial it is

Fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth — but how do industry professionals manage those complex microorganisms? Three panelists, each with experience in a different field and at a different scale — restaurant chef, artisanal cheesemaker and commercial food producer — shared their insights during a TFA webinar, Managing Fermented Food Microbes to Control Quality

“Producers of fermented foods rely on microbial communities or what we often call microbiomes, these collections of bacteria yeasts and sometimes even molds to make these delicious products that we all enjoy,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor at Tufts University, who moderator the webinar along with Maria Marco, PhD, professor at University of California, Davis (both are TFA Advisory Board members). 

Wolfe continued: “Fermenters use these microbial communities every day right, they’re working with them in crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut, they’re working with them in a vat of milk as it’s gone from milk to cheese, but yet most of these microbial communities are invisible. We’re relying on these communities that we rarely can actually see or know in great detail, and so it’s this really interesting challenge of how do you manage these invisible microbial communities to consistently make delicious fermented foods.”

Three panelists joined Wolfe and Marco: Cortney Burns (chef, author and current consultant at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a farmstead restaurant), Mateo Kehler (founder and cheesemaker at Jasper Hill in Vermont, a dairy farm and creamery) and Olivia Slaugh (quality assurance manager at wildbrine | wildcreamery in California, producers of fermented vegetables and plant-based dairy). 

Fermentation mishaps are not the same for producers because “each kitchen is different, each processing facility, each packaging facility, you really have to tune in to what is happening and understand the nuance within a site,” Marco notes. “Informed trial and error” is important. 

The three agreed that part of the joy of working in the culinary world is creating, and mistakes are part of that process.

“We have learned a lot over the years and never by doing anything right, we’ve learned everything we know by making mistakes,” says Kehler. 

One season at Jasper Hill, aspergillus molds colonized on the rinds of hard cheeses, spoiling them. The cheesemakers discovered that there had been a problem early on as the rind developed. They corrected this issue by washing the cheese more aggressively and putting it immediately into the cellar.

“For the record, I’ve had so many things go wrong,” Burns says. A koji that failed because a heating sensor moved, ferments that turned soft because the air conditioning shut off or a water kefir that became too thick when the ferment time was off. “[Microbes are] alive, so it’s a constant conversation, it’s a relationship really that we’re having with each and every one on a different level, and some of these relationships fall to the wayside or we forget about them or they don’t get the attention they need.”

Burns continues: “All these little safeguards need to be put in place in order for us to have continual success with what we’re doing, but we always learn from it. We move the sensor, we drop the temperature, we leave things for a little bit longer. That’s how we end up manipulating them, it’s just creating an environment that we know they’re going to thrive in.”

Slaugh distinguishes between what she calls “intended microbiology” — the microbes that will benefit the food you’re creating — and “unintended microbiology” — packaging defects, spoilage organisms or a contamination event. 

Slaugh says one of the benefits of working with ferments at a large scale at wildbrine is the cost of routine microbiological analysis is lower. But a mistake is stressful. She recounted a time when thousands of pounds of food needed to be thrown out because of a contaminant in packaging from an ice supplier.

“Despite the fact that the manufacturer was sending us a food-grade or in some cases a medical-grade ingredient, the container does not have the same level of sanitation, so you can’t really take these things for granted,” Slaugh says. 

Her recommendations include supplier oversight, a quality assurance person that can track defects and sample the product throughout fermentation and a detailed process flow diagram. That document, Slaugh advises, should go far beyond what producers use to comply with government food regulations. It should include minutiae like what scissors are used to cut open ingredient bags and the process for employees to change their gloves. 

“I think this is just an incredible time to be in fermented foods,” Kehler adds. “There’s this moment now where you have the arrival of technology. The way I described being a cheesemaker when I started making cheese almost 20 years ago was it was like being a god, except you’re blind and dumb. You’re unleashing these universes of life and then wiping them out and you couldn’t see them, you could see the impacts of your actions, but you may or may not have control. What’s happened since we started making cheese is now the technology has enabled us to actually see what’s happening. I think it’s this groundbreaking moment, we have the acceleration of knowledge. We’re living in this moment where we can start to understand the things that previously could only be intuited.”

Restaurants have been under tremendous economic pressure, suffering from business losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. And there’s now a staffing shortage, as long hours and low pay have driven many away from the industry.

Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh explored how restaurant dining may change in an Instagram live interview with Rene Redzepi, owner and co-owner of Noma, Copenhagen’s two-Michelin star restaurant world-renowned for its experimental fermentation lab. Pandemic restrictions shut down Noma twice, forcing Redzepi to create additional revenue streams outside the traditional dining room. 

In the summer of 2020, Noma opened an outdoor, walk-in burger and wine bar. Earlier this month, they announced Noma Projects, a direct-to-consumer line that will initially sell garums.

Below are highlights from Ghosh’s interview with Redzepi.

Ghosh: What did you learn about how people were feeling about returning to restaurants?

Redzepi: Restaurants, you don’t need them to stay alive but you need them to feel alive. That was very, very clear, that people were ready to go out. You know they say it’s the catch-up effect, and that definitely happened here in Copenhagen. People were everywhere, they were in piles to get a bite to sit down, have a glass of wine and meet other people.

Ghosh: When you began to think about reopening the proper dining space and planning your menu for the reopening, did you have any particular thoughts or concerns about whether people’s habits in restaurant dining might have changed in the course of the year that they were all locked up?

Redzepi: Yeah, so we went through the first lockdown, opened up, we were open for about five months and then it all came back and we had to close (again during the second lockdown). On the second lockdown, we were shut for six months and, in that time, we were very worried about everything, I mean we still are, but I guess we’re a little less worried now than before because we’re finally open again. We did think “Would people even sit for hours in a restaurant? What is it that everyone wants?” Besides that, people in Denmark, they started really cooking at home again. Takeaway offerings had become quite common, even from some of the best restaurants, something that would be considered completely impossible five years ago. If you had takeaway as a fine dining establishment, you sort of sold out in a way and that was starting to happen. 

But I decided with myself, and that was a personal decision, is that in my life I need this creativity, I need to have guests, I need to work on a menu on a daily basis, so during the lockdown I went to work every day in the kitchen as if we were going to open the following day. We actually made two full menus and one of them will never be served because we ended up being closed throughout it. And then we said “OK, let’s just open up and see what happens, will people still want to come out?” and we opened up our reservations knowing that we would cater only to 100% local crowd and it’s gone really well, really really well.

Ghosh: The thrill of being in a nice restaurant and being able to talk to people and enjoy a meal is incomparable um and I do appreciate the value of fun after the year and a half that we’ve all had. Can you give us an example of a dish that you have in your menu now that reflects this attitude of fun, the surprise.

Redzepi: Swedish saffron believe it or not, it’s really, really strong and tastes amazing. We make this fudge with it and we found out that you can actually use the sort of the cutting of walnut as a wig for candles because the oil content in the walnut makes it flammable. And so we basically shaped or molded this little toffee into a candle. It sounds complicated but it’s quite easy to do when it’s hot and then we put this walnut light into it and it comes to the table when they’re drinking coffee and people think it’s you know for coziness and then as it burns out people are then instructed to eat it that’s a that’s a moment where that’s fun you know it’s creativity, it’s delicious it surprises people and it just really makes it makes a difference to people you can feel that they’ve been needing something like that.

Ghosh: What have you learned that you didn’t already know about restaurant economics over the past year that now factors in your thinking about what Noma is and what Noma needs to be in the future. 

Redzepi: Oh man, you’re hitting something that we’ve been talking about for the past two years because, particularly in the last year-and-a-half, restaurant economics, they’re terrible. We’ve had 18 years of operation and we’ve had an average profit of 3%. It’s just enough to keep us running and keep painting the house, so during this pandemic we did think to ourselves “Are we going to continue like this for another 18 years, where we don’t have any money to change anything, even if we want it?” You know we’re going to have to find different ways of operating so that we can have a different economics in it. We have to figure out a way if we want to be here for another 18 years because you know it won’t continue like this. So we have definitely thought of many many things and recently we launched this thing that we call Noma Projects. Noma Projects is a sort of a platform to launch a myriad of things, it’s a for-profit company, but we only want to attack projects that also connect to some sort of a worldly issue, and the first project one is is a vegan and a vegetarian garum sauce that you use as a flavoring to add umami to your vegetarian and vegan cooking. It’s a way to help people eat more vegetarian so that’s project one, that’s something that we worked on almost almost since the first lockdown that happened to us we were like we need to step into this.

Ghosh: About six months ago, I did a piece about restaurant economics and the pandemic. I talked to your friend David Chang of Momofuku. We’re saying that we have to figure out more ways to find revenues outside of the dining room. You know, can we get 50% of the revenue from outside of the dining room where the margins are larger to sustain, to underwrite the amazing creativity that goes on in your kitchens? Is that possible? Have consumer tastes or consumer behaviors now changed in a way that will allow that kind of thing?

Redzepi: I think what happened during the pandemic is that it’s been considered more OK for restaurants of say Momofuku caliber or Noma to actually think of ways to put better economics into the system. That has opened a new door and for us, we’re grabbing that opportunity, we need to, definitely. Our industry needs to, in general. It’s an industry that’s under copious amounts of pressure, we deal with poor profit margins, low incomes, people are overworked, they’re underpaid, there’s bad management and a lot of it is a result of there’s simply no money in the industry, people can’t afford to do maneuver any new way they want, and we don’t have any business training either. It’s very interesting what’s going on. I think a lot of creativity is going to come out of restaurants in the next couple of years.

Ghosh: Now in addition to being a chef, you’re a thinker in your line of work. Through MAD Academy, which used to be anyway your annual gathering of of great chefs from around the world, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your industry and the future of your industry. I imagine that during the course of the past year, year-and-a-half you’ve had many conversations with the kinds of people who would previously have come to that conference. What are some of the common themes, the common challenges for fine dining establishments?

Redzepi: I think in food in general, the most common problem, and I think it’s going to continue for a while, is that there’s a gigantic staff shortage right now. I think in the pandemic, a lot of people have had an opportunity to rethink their life and say “OK, am I in this industry for the next 20 years or is this a moment for me now to start studying or become a farmer or something else.” That is really the biggest issue that we have right now, there’s no question in my mind. This is something that at MAD we’ve been discussing for almost a decade. If we’re not able to help transform (and this includes myself by the way I’ve spoken about this many times) this gigantic lack of leadership that we face as an industry where we have a poor ability to actually just manage ourselves, manage our restaurants and be supportive of people, that will be the first step that needs to happen which is slowly happening. But then providing better pay and better work hours, that are related to economics. I see our industry being far from that, unless we figure out a way to either charge more that there’s more value towards foods and people that work in the industry or we find other revenue streams. Those are the big, big questions that we are dealing with at MAD. At Noma, I deal with this as a employer myself, how to actually be an inspiration, but how to also provide for staff that are having children, and how can we have everyone stay here for 40 years in this industry? That’s really hard questions.

Noma Goes DTC

Noma is coming into the home kitchen.

The fermentation-focused restaurant, lauded as one of the top restaurants in the world, is selling its first line of packaged products. Two garums — vegan Smoked Mushroom and vegetarian Sweet Rice and Egg — will soon be available to ship internationally through the brand’s website, Noma Projects

“It’s a space for us to channel our knowledge, our craft and experimentation into a new endeavor,” says René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen-based restaurant. 

Redzepi shared details of the launch in a video on the site. Noma Projects will include pantry products and community-based initiatives, “a way for us to address issues we care about through the lens of food.” 

Noma’s Pantry Staples

The garums are Noma’s “take on a 1,000-year-old recipe that we’ve been developing over the past two decades.” Redzepi says the “potent, umami-based sauces” have been the “key to our success at Noma in our vegetarian and vegan menus. 

He hopes the garums will help more people cook plant-based meals, announcing in the video: “We want to help you bring more vegetables into your everyday cooking.” The garums provide the flavor of meat and fish without the animal. The website description notes: “Shifting towards a more plant-based diet is the easiest way for an individual to help the environment. We hope these garums will do the same for you that they’ve done for us, help inspire and create more delicious plant-based meals when you cook at home.”

These products were developed in Noma’s Fermentation Lab, where dozens of pantry staples were tested before landing on the garums. A garum is the “concentrated essence of its main ingredient” with a strong umami flavor, and Redzepi describes it to the WSJ. Magazine (the luxury magazine published by Wall Street Journal): “It has the potency of a soy sauce, except it tastes of what it is.” Both are brewed with koji rice, what Redzepi calls the “mother fungus.”

The garums are currently fermenting and will be ready for shipping in the fall or winter. The expected price point is $20-$35 for a bottle. 

And more garums are in the works. Noma Fermentation Lab director, Jason Ignacio White, says a roasted chicken wing garum is next. 

“It tastes like super chicken stock with umami,” White tells WSJ. Magazine, ”so it’s a familiar flavor, but there’s something about it that you can’t really put your finger on, that makes your tongue dance.”

Improving Profitability

Despite Noma’s expensive tabs — the 20-course tasting menu costs 2,800 Danish kroner (or around $447), and the wine pairing is another 1,800 Danish kroner (or around $287) — in the 18 years since it opened, the restaurant has hovered at only a 3% profit margin. Redzepi hopes Noma Projects will make more money. While it is “a family-run garage project,” its goal is to reach a million customers. 

Like many restaurants around the world, Noma shut down during the pandemic. They reopened as a burger and wine bar in June 2020, and the walk-up, outdoor dining experience was such a success that it became a permanent restaurant, POPL. 

Noma resumed regular operations on June 1, 2021. The pandemic closure allowed Redzepi and his team to finally tackle the retail brand, something he said they had debated for years. 

Dunkin’ Kombucha

Move over, Dunkin’ Coffee. The chain known for its coffee and donuts is branding itself into new territory — kombucha. Dunkin’ is the first chain restaurant (to TFA’s knowledge) to make their own kombucha. They are testing their new Dunkin’ Kombucha —  made in two flavors, Fuji Apple Berry and Blueberry Lemon — in select restaurants in the Albany, N.Y., and Charlotte, N.C., markets. 

According to their release, “Dunkin’ continues to democratize delicious by testing kombucha for the first time.” In any case, this test is further evidence of the fermented tea’s increased popularity as an alternative to soda.

Read more (Dunkin’)

“Magic Happens”

René Redzepi graced the pages of The New York Times again, but this time in the Arts section. The chef and owner at the world-famous restaurant Noma shared impressions on different musical pieces and other musings with writer Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. One of his favorites: Mort Garson’s “Plantasia” (an electronic album meant for plants) that he plays in Noma’s greenhouse. 

Redzepi also touched on fermentation. “It’s an antidote to the world where everything is so fast; on-demand; lightning speed. To actually have things that you have to wait for and then something magic happens, I love that. The happiest people I know are people who are in nature all the time: foragers, bakers, fermentation experts. Sometimes I envy that focus. My job is to be at the center of everything that is going on.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Pairing Sake with Food

Does sake go well with Western dishes? Josh Dorcak, chef of Japanese restaurant Mäs, tells Forbes why he thinks  sake is an excellent pairing with all food types, maybe even more so than wine.

“Sake pairs with everything,” Dorcak says. “With wine often it seems like there are these rules that one must follow while sake often fits the bill for creative pairings.”

Read more (Forbes)

The Flavors of Fermentation

From pickling foraged plants to experimenting with koji to vacuum-sealing tempeh, more chefs are experimenting with fermentation. Insights “for menu developers seeking unique concepts and ingredients” were shared during a session at the Research Chefs Association’s RCA+ virtual conference.

Sandor Katz, noted author and educator, discussed how research kitchens can increase their fermentation activities, from creating interesting flavors to expanding food preservation. 

“[Fermentation] can elevate the plainest of foods into flavor sensations,” Katz said. “Its uses in culinary traditions around the world are incredibly diverse, and yet visionary chefs are experimenting with exciting new applications of fermentation.”

Read more (Food Business News)

A sustainable food industry will be built by flavor, says David Zilber, noted chef and food scientist. 

Zilber made major headlines and surprised many in October when he left his job as head of the fermentation lab at Noma for a food scientist position at Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been regularly ranked one of the best restaurants in the world. In 2018, Zilber co-authored a bestselling book on fermentation with Noma co-owner Rene Redzepi. 

In an Instagram live interview last week with Al Jeezera’s Femi Oke, Zilber elaborated on why he traded an apron for a lab coat. The global food system, Zilber says, is unsustainable. Waste is prevalent, food is created with long footprints, agricultural production is shrinking, meat is heavily consumed and large corporations control the industry. 

Transforming Vegetables

“What I’m trying to do in my work is to make vegetables as God damn tasty as they can possibly be by using microbes, using things that are already at our disposal, and convincing people that this might have to have a little bit of a longer inventory life while you let it ferment, while you build a stockpile, but this is the result, this is why you’ll be able to convince people why eating this way is healthy for them and the planet,” he says. “Flavor is king.”

Ingredients created by Denmark-based Chr. Hansen (the company has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredients) feed 1-1.5 billion people a day. These include microbes in yogurt and yeast in beer.

“I work with them to try and make the food system more sustainable, to get more people eating vegetables,” Zilber says, adding that 30% of every calorie consumed by humans is fermented by bacteria, microbes or fungus. “No matter what we eat in the future, that’s still going to be the case. That slot of the human diet still needs some form of microbial transformation, whether it’s meat or dairy or oat milk or peas. I work to figure that out.”

It’s a different philosophy compared to the food technology many new companies are utilizing to create alternative proteins like Beyond Burger. He complimented the company for their high standards, but he says a Beyond Burger patty is not a replacement for a juicy, beef burger. People pay more for an inferior eating experience.

 “At the end of that day, that will not cut it,” Zilber says. “Why does food have to be that processed to be purportedly that delicious? With some skilled tricks in the kitchen, with some ninja jiu jitsu behind the stove, you can make vegetables really, really delicious.”

Sustainable Food Systems

A sustainable food system will look much like one from 300 years ago, Zilber hypothesizes. It will be localized, where people purchase food produced close by. Modern practices of shipping ingredients and processed food around the globe are harmful to the environment.

“A truly sustainable food system looks far more decentralized than [the current one] does right now. There are [only a] very few stakeholders that are responsible for really a lot of calories,” he continues. 

Oke questioned how Zilber could change a broken food system controlled by large companies when he now works at one of the major companies. 

“If you want to be an idealist, that’s great, you might end up being a martyr,” Zilber says. “Sometimes you have to work within those contradictory institutions to try to do as much good as possible.”

Restaurant Industry’s Responsibility

The restaurant industry plays a part in it too, Zilber says. Workers are stretched thin, overworked, underpaid “and then extremely vulnerable in a time of crisis.” The pandemic has exposed and highlighted these problematic parts of the restaurant business. 

Zilber says there are still too many restaurants. It’s hard to find good cooks, and staff is often undertrained. 

“I took a step into food production myself. Maybe more of these cooks, more of these people who are passionate about food, need to consider options beyond just the restaurant setting and see value in becoming a farmer, becoming a distributor, becoming someone who decides how those calories are made because restaurants aren’t the full picture of the food system,” he continues. “There are a lot of talented people within it who know food, who understand it, who understand the human experience of what it means to make good tasting food and satisfying food. There’s other places for them to work as well.”

Despite a year when cideries around the world were forced to close down taprooms and cancel restaurant sales due to the pandemic, cider sales grew 9% in 2020. 

“I know some of you are barely hanging on — but you are hanging on,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA). “We did not waver, we held our shares and we kept growing.”

McGrath presented industry statistics at CiderCon 2021, the ACA’s annual global cider conference. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference was virtual this year. Nearly 800 people from 18 countries and 41 states attended the three-day conference. 

Smaller, local cider brands sparked consumer interest in 2020. Sales of regional cider brands  grew 33%, while national brands  declined 6%. 

The impact of the pandemic, though, has been severe on certain sectors of the industry. On-premise cider sales (in restaurants, breweries and taprooms) declined nearly 70% from 2019. 

“We’re resilient, we’re tough, we’re savvy. You couldn’t have predicted how your business would have stood up to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Anna Nadasdy, director of customer success at Fintech, a data company for the alcohol industry.

Nadasdy’s keynote on expected consumer trends in 2021 cited the key drivers influencing consumer behavior — the economy, politics and natural disasters. Here are seven of her takeaways for cideries: 

  1. Consumers Buying all Alcohol Types

Though consumers have long been loyal to one type of alcohol — beer, wine or spirits — the “beer guy or wine gal” label is disappearing. Over one-third  of consumers are purchasing from all three major categories. 

Hard seltzer is the third largest beer segment (16% of dollar share, behind domestic premium and imported beers), but it’s the fastest growing. This is exciting for cider makers, Nadasdy notes — hard seltzer in 2018 was the size of the cider market today.

  1. Fruit-Flavored Cider is Growing

Though apple cider still dominates the cider market with 52% of sales, fruit-flavored cider grew three points in the past year to 12% of sales. The top three fruit-flavored products are: Ace Pineapple Craft Cider, Incline Scout Hopped Marionberry Cider and 2 Towns Ciderhouse Pacific Pineapple Cider. 

(Other products in the cider category include: mixed flavors, dry cider, seasonal cider/perry, herb/spice cider.) 

  1. Cider is Making Waves in Craft Beer

Cider — tracked as part of the overall  craft beer category — is proving a worthy participant.Cider has 11% of the dollar share, second only to the category leader, India Pale Ale (41% of the  market). 

“That’s really impressive for such a small base,” Nadasdy says. “Even though you guys are a smaller segment, you still have a lot to contribute to the overall beer category. And I think it’s important when you’re having these conversations with retailers that you are able to point out these wins.”

  1. Hard Kombucha is Gaining Ground

Cideries are competing with hard kombucha. Though hard kombucha is a fermented tea and not a cider, retailers consider hard kombucha and cider comparable drinks. And hard kombucha sales are growing quickly.

“Although small now, keep an eye on (hard) kombucha,” Nadasdy said.

  1. Prepare for Changed On-Premise Sales

Once wide-spread vaccination is in place and on-premise dining returns, expect fundamental changes such as  more online ordering, healthier menu choices and a rise in food tech like tablet menus. The National Restaurant Association listed other significant changes that will impact cideries:

  • Streamlined menus. There will be fewer menu items, with 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they will  reduce their offerings.
  • Alcohol-to-go. Seven in 10 full-service restaurants added alcohol-to-go during the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of customers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers alcoholic beverages to-go. 
  1. Rosé-Flavored Cider is Out

Every brand of rosé-flavored cider is losing sales. The top three brands showing the most significant losses in this category are: Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Virtue. 

  1. Cans Are King

Cans are leading the dollar share of the market, growing at 1.5 times the rate of bottles. Six-pack (11-13 ounce) cans are now the top share item with 29% of total cider sales. This is followed by six-pack (11-13 ounce) bottles and 4-pack (18-ounce) cans. (These figures do remove shares of Angry Orchard, which sells in bottles. Because Angry Orchard dominates 40% of the cider market, they skew the data.)