While much has been said about the Canberra wine region in recent years, the spotlight has not been on another local industry that, according to at least one keen producer, is on a similar trajectory.
Local cider maker Ron Miller thinks he might be on to something - and, according to him, others are catching on too.
"I suppose it's like the wine industry when it really started to kick off in Australia. There's a whole lot of different people wanting to come in. I reckon I'd get one phone call a month from someone who wants to set up a cider business," he says.
The regular buyers come despite the fact that Miller isn't exactly a huge name in the industry - yet. He makes about 15,000 to 20,000 litres a year of his Jolly Miller cider from his property out at Gundaroo, sold entirely in kegs, ranging in size from 5 litres for individuals to 50 litres for local pubs and restaurants.
Miller, a 63-year-old former journalist and journalism academic from the University of Canberra, took up the craft in retirement after long thinking about boutique beer-brewing but looking for something more unique.
"I've been playing with it quite a long time. I bought some secondhand gear probably about 10 years ago now and started practising. It took me quite a few years to work out I didn't know what I was doing," he says.
So, in true academic style, Miller went back to class. He took a winemaking course at the Canberra Institute of Technology and learnt all the chemistry he hadn't paid attention to in school.
"Once I began to understand that cider is actually a wine made with apples rather than grapes, it made it a lot easier to work out what I was doing.
''They are quite different in some ways but they're very similar in others," he says.
Cider can be split roughly into two types, Miller says - Old World or brown ciders, made using cider apples and borrowing from old European techniques; and New World or white ciders, which use eating apples and are made more like a white wine.
From the time he started his commercial operation about three years ago, Miller has been making mostly New World cider - using apples like granny smith, royal gala and pink lady. He sources his juice direct from a larger-scale producer who juices varieties fresh on request straight into Miller's 1000-litre tank with no preservatives.
But in recent years he's also started growing cider apples, which are higher in tannin and give Old World ciders more body. He's also been selling grafts of the trees to excited locals. He knows a handful of people hoping to start making cider, and Miller himself hopes to produce a special batch or two in the Old World style from the cider apples in the coming year.
Over the other side of the ACT, in Reidsdale, near Braidwood, there is a family straight from the Old World, who stumbled upon a whole region of cider apple orchards and have been producing experimental ciders for five years.
Gary Watkins-Sully, originally from an old cider district in Wales, moved to Braidwood with his father, mother and sister and together they bought the Old Cheese Factory to begin making cider in about 2007. It was only after buying the facility and doing a bit of research that they discovered the remnants of old cider orchards in the area dating as far back as the 1860s and including varieties of cider apples that weren't even known to have existed in Australia.
They make Sully's Cider using a mix of the cider apples and feral apples with cider-like qualities in small batches (100 to 300 litres) using traditional and experimental methods - from store cider and bottle-conditioned cider, to making cider by keeving (which involves separating nutrients from the juice and then fermenting slowly) or methode champenoise (made just like champagne).
Unlike commercial ciders, which Watkins-Sully says are generally made using imported apple-juice concentrate that is fermented then watered down and sweetened, traditionally made ciders have a complexity of flavour that can change each year in the same way as wine.
"Our cider is done like wine, it's on a vintage. You actually crush the apples. And our ciders end up about 7 per cent [alcohol], theirs [commercial companies'] would be about 4.5 per cent. Ours would have more body, more flavour, while theirs would be sweeter, and fruitier because commercial ciders tend to taste a bit fruity whereas cider tends to taste like, well, cider - it's hard to explain," he says.
The success of the commercial ciders in recent years - the cider industry has grown by an average of about 20 per cent every year since 2008 - has been both a boon and a burden for boutique producers like Watkins-Sully and Miller. As Watkins-Sully explains, with increased interest in cider comes both the potential for new markets but also the watchful eye of government regulators and tax authorities. Smaller cider producers in Australia want more attention given to definitions of what constitutes real cider. "There's a huge interest in cider, but I don't think many people know what cider is,"Watkins-Sully says. "So I think there's a big gap there to be able to grow the market with education. But small cider makers like myself are now benefiting from the market that the commercial guys [developed]. They pushed cider to the forefront … but I think we're winning off that because people are starting to look around at what else is there."
The flip side is a proposed new tax on the drink, prompted largely by the sweetness of commercially made cider, which would see cider taxed at the same rate as alco-pops, or pre-mixed spirits like Vodka Cruisers or Bacardi Breezers. Rather than being classed as a wine, cider would be treated like a ready-to-drink spirit-based beverage, increasing the tax from about 23 cents per standard drink to 95 cents.
While Watkins-Sully says the commercially produced cider might be similar to the sugary alco-pops ("there's nothing wrong with it, it's a perfectly good drink"), comparing it with traditional cider is like comparing "margarine and butter".
Miller says the tax, if it's introduced, would kill the small producers like himself who could otherwise catapult Australia on to the boutique cider world map.
"If we were forced to pay it from dollar one, then most little cider makers like me would just go under. ''You couldn't increase your wholesale amount to that and still survive," he says. "It's a bit of an issue training the drinking public's palette as to what cider really is. So you get that really high-end sweet stuff which I don't particularly consider to be cider.''
Cider Australia, a coalition of producers around the nation, has been lobbying against the new tax, as well as working to raise the profile of one of the country's up-and-coming alcohol industries.
President James Kendell, who also produces cider at Small Acres Cyder in Orange, says the sustained growth in popularity over the past five to seven years indicates cider is more than just a passing fad.
"I don't think it's a fashion, I think it's more becoming a part of the Australian repertoire of choice," he says. "Just running our cellar door here at Small Acres, people are walking in, wanting to know more, and are starting to understand that there is a difference between the different styles of cider, and they're really sort of hungry for information, which is fantastic. Whereas when we started seven or eight years ago, it was oh, cider's supposed to be bubbly and sweet, isn't it?"
The association held its third annual cider awards over the weekend. These are open to both local ciders and ciders made overseas but available for sale in Australia. And, as a testament to the growth of the local industry, it's the first year an Australian cider has won top prize.
The Champion of Show category was taken by South Australian producer the Hills Cider Company's pear cider, and was one of a number of awards given to local cider makers over their international competitors, including two bronze medals for Southern Highlands producer the Apple Thief, based out of Mittagong.
Sully's Cider had no entries this year due to a family health emergency. Neither did Jolly Miller bring home any medals. But Miller won't be discouraged. He'll be at a Canberra Cider Festival at Siren Bar in Gungahlin this coming weekend, and says with the local interest and with new orchards being planted regularly, the Canberra region has a lot of potential to become a known cider locality - although there's a bit of a way to go yet.
"I graft cider apple trees each year, and this is our third year of grafting and we've sold all the trees," he says. "With all this growth we're still only less than 3 per cent of the market, so it will take a lot to become a really big, significant player … [But] it's a strong possibility."
>> Hamish Boland-Rudder is a staff writer.