Cider Language
Cider Language
Label Data & Lexicon Development in the American Cider Industry

Cider Language

Label Data & Lexicon Development in the American Cider Industry
















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What is cider, and how do we describe it?

The American cider industry continues to grow, but it remains confusing for consumers. One of the most significant barriers to understanding is a lack of clear language, specifically evaluated and defined in the context of cider. The United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) has launched a Cider Lexicon Project to “improve and unify the language of cider in the United States” in order to make it easier for consumers to find cider they enjoy. But where are we starting? Before the language is improved and unified, we need to identify what language is already being used.

Labels are the cidermakers' first moment of interaction with the consumer, as well as the most direct opportunity to describe the cider and sell their product. Beyond that, the label tells a story—where is this cider from? Who made it? Is it sweet or dry, light or full-bodied, straightforward or complex? The words we use have power, and the stories we tell about cider can wield huge influence over consumers, building expectations of quality, character, and even taste. By identifying the full range of language currently in use on cider labels, this project will provide a foundation for the further definition, improvement, and unification of language across the American cider industry.

This project focuses on the language used to describe cider on consumer-facing labels, asking, “How is cider written about on consumer-facing labels, and what does that show about the language of the American cider industry?” Over the past two years, I have developed a data set of the descriptive words used on more than 500 cider labels from American producers in 35 states. The data set is regionally diverse, brand blind, inclusive of both small and large producers, and representative of heritage, modern, and specialty cider categories. I developed the initial work on this project—including data collection and theoretical research into the importance of lexicon development—in fulfillment of a Master of Arts degree in the interdisciplinary, social science-based Food Studies program at New York University. My theoretical background, as well as my professional work as a writer and podcast producer in the food media space, naturally pulls me towards language and storytelling. With this project, I hope to help the American cider industry by laying the foundation for developing a cohesive vocabulary that can improve communication with consumers, elevate the industry, and sustain its growth.


"Is it wine, or is it beer?"








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When I talk to people outside of the cider industry, I always hear the same question. “Is it wine or is it beer?”  Ingredient-wise, it’s apples. But the culture of cider—from making it to drinking it—is stuck in between grapes and grain. Historically, cider was more common in the US than wine or beer, but it disappeared from the market for 150 years thanks to industrialization, prohibition, immigration, and changing tastes.  In the past ten years, though, the market has exploded. Nielsen data shows that the industry has grown to 800 cideries in 48 states, accounting for $500 million dollars in annual sales. Cider comes in cans, on tap, and in 750mL bottles. It’s in dive bars and at restaurants, at liquor stores and wine shops. Cider can be sweet, and it can be dry. It can be sparkling or still, sour, funky, or straightforward. Communicating those differences in style and taste are where cider is struggling. We borrow words from wine and beer, but they don’t always mean the same thing in cider. We're not comparing apples with apples, and that can be confusing. If the cider industry can find its voice, define its language, and use that language to educate consumers, they'll start to understand the breadth of what they’re looking at on the shelf.

"Language is a way to elevate our industry and the types of growth we want." 

Ryan Burk (Cidermaker, Angry Orchard)

Quoted at CiderCon 2018


The definition of a clear vocabulary will create a standard for words that are currently used in an unstandardized, and thereby confusing way. How can a consumer judge the claim of “bone dry” on a cider when there is no benchmark for dryness? What does “vintage” connote in cider that differs from its meaning in the wine industry? Are hopped ciders brewed in the same way as beer? Defining words related to styles and trends can minimize confusion. For example, distinguishing between a heritage rosé cider made from red fleshed fruit and a modern rosé cider flavored with hibiscus not only helps set expectations for new consumers—who may be entering the cider category because they appreciate rosé wine and are looking to try something similar—it offers an educational moment about the diversity of American cider as a whole. These are prominent examples from the data set that reinforce the need for cidermakers, salespeople, industry professionals, and consumers to share a common language and clear definitions of the words within that language. This project’s identification of the words already in use will highlight the trouble spots in cider’s current lexicon, give a focus point for definition and standardization, facilitate communication, and help tell the stories that will bring consumers in.


The Data Set





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"Wild apples from Vermont... Extra dry. Elegant fruit, dressed in flannel."


"Inspired by old school IPAs. Dry hopped... resinous & fruity."


"Contained herein is an effervescent, dry apple wine."


Data, Visualized

This word cloud is a representation of the entire data set—500 American cider labels, including heritage, modern, and specialty ciders from producers across the country. The Top 10 most frequently-used words, which you’ll see in the largest font, are fresh, sweet, orchard, gluten-free, tart, wild, yeast, fermented, blend, and dry.

Michelle McGrath, the Executive Director of the US Association of Cider Makers, says “Dry is the biggest problem, both philosophically and practically," and it's the most frequently-used word by a landslide. “Dry,” in cider, means “not sweet.” But there’s nothing regulating how it’s used. What is the difference between a semi-dry cider and a bone dry cider? Cidermaker's preference and interpretation, usually. Recognizing and defining just this word would catapult consumer understanding. USACM has included research into a Dryness Scale as part of their Lexicon project, and the New York Cider Association is working on developing an Orchard-Based Dryness Scale. Regulating what "dry" means has been successful in other industries (the International Riesling Foundation has a scale that defines four categories of sweetness, using category terms instead of numbers on labels, literature, and in conversation). It's a big task to tackle, but the results of my data reinforce the need for action in the cider industry.

Want more? I'm sharing the top 100 words, countdown-style, on Instagram: