Hard Cider Ferments Growth at Sundog Cellars

By Jim Cyphert & The Flight Crew
COLUMBIANA, Ohio — A subtle name change for a popular maker of wine and hard cider in Columbiana came because of a not-so-subtle trend at the cash register.

Sundog Cellars Winery & Ciders is now Sundog Cellars Ciderhouse & Winery.

“Our ciders have become our best-selling product,” co-owner Nicole Ice says. “They represent about 80% of sales.”

The trend in cider is much like the trend in beer. Local cider houses are stealing market share from the big guys, just as craft breweries are doing to the mega brewers.

The cider industry is experiencing a boom. In the past 10 years, cider sales have grown by 10 times, according to Nielsen. Local cider sales are up 15% year-over-year.

“Since the COVID-19 crisis began, 70% to 80% of our customers had never visited before,” Ice says. “Many have come from as far as Cleveland and Pittsburgh.”

And as one of few cider houses in the region, Sundog is primed for growth. The focus on cider is proving to be a wise business strategy.

In 2019, Sundog moved to its new location at Firestone Farms and increased its production and fermentation capacity.

Sundog’s ciders are now also available at Homestead Kitchen and Factory 46 (Columbiana), Numbers Brewing (Lisbon), Casual Pint (Boardman), and several other locations. Plans call for increased distribution.

Passion is visible in co-owner John Channell’s eyes when he talks about making cider.

“Ciders are so much fun,” Channell says. “I really enjoy the creativity involved in developing new recipes.”

The Flight Crew enjoyed an evening with co-owners Nicole, John and his wife, Mary Ann. John’s daughter, Justina, rounds out the ownership group. Here are the ciders we enjoyed most:

Flight Crew 6-Pack (7.8% ABV)

Joe Sanfilippo – The Flight Crew is always looking for the latest, greatest beers in the Mahoning Valley. On this trip, we found something we really haven’t tested the waters with. What a great outing we had!

The Sundog crew hooked us up with a flight, and “Cider Boy” wasn’t disappointed at all. A few weeks back, Nicole asked each of us to identify our favorite fruits. From that list, she came up with the Flight Crew 6-Pack Cider. The base apple cider is from Hays Orchard in Columbiana.

Then kiwi, pear, peach, cherry and star fruit were added. Boy, did they nail this! A nice fruit mix that wasn’t too dry and definitely easy to drink. Ciders from Sundog are a perfect summertime drink.

But you need to watch – they’ll sneak up on you quickly, with this one coming in at 7.8% ABV. Head down, grab a pint and fill a growler to go.

Cucumberland Lime (7.8% ABV)

Jason Jugenheimer – I usually have a favorite craft beer or two available as go-to hot summer day slammers. I’ve found something else to add to the rotation. No wonder this cider won Ladies Choice at our 2020 Brew Ha Ha beer taste, besting past champs Birdfish Brewing and Biker BrewHouse.

This cider is the perfect combination of light and complex. Over 1½ pounds of cucumber and lime per batch create this refreshing concoction. The cucumber is light and crisp, while the lime adds a slight tartness to the finish. All in all, it’s the perfect summer Pool-aid.

Sunfish Birddog (7.8% ABV)

Brian Long – Although it was a difficult decision based on all the delicious craft ciders we were presented with, one kind of stood out from the rest for me – this hazy hopped cider.

Citra hops, apples and lime juice make up this magnificently refreshing cider, sure to please any craft beverage enthusiast. Plenty of fruity, citrus aroma with just the ideal amount of hops. It’s enough to please a beer drinker and also to present to a non-hopper. This truly crisp, funky flavor – without the bitterness – will have you coming back for more.

Rat Rod (7.8% ABV)

Dave Shively – Chemistry was never my favorite subject. But I still marvel at how two elements can be combined to create something totally different, like H2O.

There’s a certain chemistry that goes into the formulation of Rat Rod cider, even though it doesn’t resemble an exact science. The phrase “Rat Rod” comes from the custom car world, where enthusiasts create custom cars by using cast-off parts from various automobiles.

At Sundog, during fermentation, several ciders are created at the same time. Invariably, there’s leftover cider from each batch. That excess is combined into one tank, which leads to a unique, never duplicated medley of flavors called Rat Rod.

So, if you’re into surprises, I encourage you to add this cider to your next flight. Turns out, it was my favorite!

Snake Bite (8.4% ABV)

Roger Gillespie – I’m a grown man with an irrational fear of snakes. Snake Bite Cider was recently released and, true to its name, it’ll get you quickly.

It doesn’t look that threatening, but a quick flash of heat from the habaneros hits the back of your throat. Immediately, it’s soothed by the smooth agave finish. At 8.4% ABV, it won’t take long to quench your fears.

Night Rider (7.8% ABV)

Jim Cyphert – It was tough to pick just one delicious cider to review. But the symbolism of Night Rider made my choice a little easier.

This strictly apple cider is Sundog’s original. It got the ball rolling and helped to drive growth, expansion and popularity. Most important, it sparked a new passion in the man it’s named after – John Channell.

In his former career as a truck driver, John’s big black semi with lots of lights won him the nickname “Night Rider.” As passionate as John was about delivering a load on time, you can see excitement in his eyes when he talks about crafting new cider recipes. Be sure to taste John’s passion. You won’t be sorry.

Pictured: The Flight Crew toasts social distancing while sampling ciders at Sundog Cellars Ciderhouse & Winery in Columbiana.