Feds' Rules Tell Cider Makers to Shut Up About Vintage Years on Labels

Producers prohibited from sharing information with consumers about the year their apples were harvested.


Bhofack2 /

In The Cider House Rules, John Irving's 1985 novel, the guidelines to which the book's title refers are a set of rules posted in the Maine cider house where much of the book's action takes place.

"Please don't go up on the roof if you've been drinking—especially at night," reads one such rule. These rules, posted by management to govern the behavior of the workers in the cider house, are mostly ignored by those same workers, who live by their own set of rules.

If workers in a fictional cider house are subject to an array of sometimes-sensible rules they often ignore, real-world cider-house management is stuck having to comply with oftentimes-idiotic rules for which compliance is not optional.

I'm talking about government rules, of course. And these rules, you may be surprised to learn, can be complicated.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), is housed within the Treasury Department and is charged with drafting and enforcing rules for hard cider. A 2016 TTB presentation, Cider Industry Federal Compliance Training, makes light of its complicated rules a handful of times, as here:

"How Does TTB Regulate Cider… Products?

…it's VERY complicated!"

It is! It is! Maddeningly so.

Space (and frustration, and lack of interest) doesn't permit me to elaborate on the lengthy discussion of the rules. But I want to highlight something that somehow didn't make the cut in that 244-page TTB presentation: TTB's unconscionable ban on disclosing a cider's vintage.

Nick Hines, a staff writer with VinePair, which covers alcohol beverages, wrote a great piece earlier this month on the frustration the TTB vintage ban causes for cider makers. It follows earlier calls, in publications like the Cider Journal, to lift the ban. That ban, which Hines notes dates back to Prohibition, results from a set of overlapping rules.

"On the TTB and FAA websites, cider is still labeled as a fruit wine, meaning it must be 'produced by the normal alcoholic fermentation of the juice of sound, ripe apples,'" Hines writes. "But when it comes to the TTB's labeling laws, only grape wine can use the 'vintage' labels."

In other words, cider is fruit wine, but only grape wine can list its vintage.

Why might a cider's vintage—the year its apples were harvested—matter? For the same reasons a wine's vintage might.

"The variety comes from the way the blend of apples used from the start and the way the cider is fermented, stored, and aged," explains a 2015 blog post from cider makers Ash & Elm. "Variety also comes from the vintage of the apples as well, just like wine—some years are great growing years, others aren't, and the soil and ecological conditions where apples and grapes are grown affect the flavor of the cider or wine from year to year."

Consumers want to know. And producers want them to know. Shy not allow a company like Ash & Elm the freedom to display their cider's vintage?

"Cider makers should be able to put a vintage on their cider bottles if they feel like it accurately describes their product," VinePair's Hines told me this week by email. "A vintage can help a consumer understand what's inside the bottle, and how it can vary from year to year. The regulation of alcohol and its marketing is important in terms of health and accuracy, but I couldn't figure out a real purpose for keeping vintages off cider bottles."

It certainly sounds like a rule designed to do nothing more than to protect the grape wine industry.

The freedom to display cider vintages exists in other countries. You can buy a 2015 vintage cider from your local ASDA grocer in England, for example. Such vintages have been around for a long time, too.

"[C]ider of a good vintage year will fetch a high price," notes an 1889 U.S. government publication on English cider production.

Are today's TTB rules simply outdated–a vintage holdover of Prohibition-era lawmaking? That's charitable. I think they were never a good idea in the first place. They're clearly not helping cider makers or consumers. And they should be repealed at once.

"The beverage market is expanding," Hines tells me. "The general public isn't limited to choosing between beer, wine, and a common spirit anymore. Rules that govern alcohol and its marketing should reflect that."

Note: I've employed this very low-tech hard cider recipe to make tasty batches at home.

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  1. I’ve had some good luck with just taking putting store bought apple juice/cider with no preservatives and champagne yeast in a carboy and letting it ferment for about 3-4 days at basement temps before transferring to a second carboy and then sticking it in a fridge to slow fermentation. Keep the cap loose of course. Enjoy as soon as its achieved fridge temperature.

    Slightly sweet, fair amount of alcohol, and unlike the stuff I left to ferment for a month, not at all harsh.
    Granted its not carbonated, but that doesn’t matter to me.

    1. I did this as well, but I used a sharpie and marked the bottle with the VINTAGE!!!

  2. “The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB), is housed within the Treasury Department and is charged with drafting and enforcing rules for hard cider.”

    I have heard numerous supporters make the claim that Trump is for “small government” but I have yet to hear or read a single syllable from Trump that he’s going to leave some government positions unfilled. His decision to do so would bring tears to the Left but a smile to libertarians. I’m patiently waiting.

    1. Trump is more Baathist strongman authoritarian than libertarian.

      1. So he’s not literally Hitler anymore, now he’s literally al-Assad?

        1. Which means SJWs are literally ISIS.

        2. I do believe he was referring to Saddam Hussein. I mean DT and SH do look like twins separated at birth.

          1. PB’s pronoun is “xer”, please respect that. You monster.

      2. Destabilising Libya was a masterstroke of a geopolitical manoeuvre. Because reasons.

        1. While drone bombing 7 other countries.

          1. But thanks to our efforts Libya is not in the middle of a civil war


            1. why isnt she 50 points ahead?!

  3. I don’t know about apples,but, 2016 is a great year for whine made form sour grapes.

    1. I literally LOL’d

    2. I don’t like the government telling what I can and can’t do in cider!

    3. I don’t like the government telling what I can and can’t do in cider!

      1. Only the insiders can do whatever they want, in cider!

        The rest of us un-connected peons are left with a bunch of rotten apples in Government Almighty, telling us what we can and cannot do, for totally random and arbitrary non-reasons!

  4. The bottom line, as is so often the (literal) case, is that the Supreme Court took a wrong turn by refusing to hold that all truthful advertising enjoys full First Amendment protection. Until that changes, stories like this won’t stop.

    1. Indeed. SCOTUS amended, de facto, the First Amendment to exclude “commercial” speech. Not the only such amendment, and I’m afraid it won’t be the last.

      Its of a piece with courts generally exceeding their authority to strike down statutes that are unconstitutional by amending such statutes to make the constitutional. They’ve done this a fair amount, but the most recent and blatant example was gay marriage. Many olde marriage statutes were specific as to the sex of the participants; there was no way to “interpret” them to allow gay marriage. You could only get there by changing the actual words of the statute. Courts don’t have that authority, only legislatures do, but the courts went right ahead anyway. They should have just struck the statutes and told the legislature if they wanted to license marriage, they had to do it constitutionally.

      And think what a better result that would have been for libertarians.

    1. To me the darker the beer the better. Stouts and porters are my favorites. I guess that makes me a ‘Super Freak’.

      1. I’m an eclectic beer freak. My two favorite styles are Porters and Hefe’s. Ebony and Ivory, if you will

    2. Those beers look warm!

  5. Wingnuts predictably pissed off that Facebook is finally fighting fake news:…..fake-news/

    1. Pretend that they were doing so based on a consortium from Fox news, National Review, and the Cato institute all funded by the Koch brothers and maybe it will make more sense to you. On the other hand maybe that means Rolling Stone articles won’t show up in my news feed now so there is certainly a nice silver lining for people who dislike fake news.

      1. Imagine the fake news patrol included Wattsupwiththat. Notice that “fake news” seems somehow peculiarly restricted to political news – notoriously given to convoluted “interpretation” and therefore difficult to classify in a rigid true/false dichotomy – rather than including just about every last one of the “new study shows….” bullshit science articles as well as most entertainment news, half the business news taken straight out of marketing press releases, and a shitload of crime reporting where nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about.

        1. They won’t ban truthiness. The media would be out of work. You know,like tax cuts cause lower revenue.

        2. Any tool built that can be easily used for censorship will be used for censorship.

          I invented a tool that can instantly remove posters, glue and all, so you can’t tell one had ever been put up. (30 seconds later.) Hey, where did all the political posters around town go?

          Per rudehost’s suggestions, if it were Cato, I think the result would be the fairest of just about anyone because they would be extremely hesitant to add anything at all to the list.

        3. It makes sense that it is only political news. The left has 1 and only 1 interest and that is political power. They have no need to manipulate the sports news people are allowed to see.

    2. If they start by fighting the fake news that the CIA/intelligence community has determined that Putin hacked the DNC servers, I will be impressed.

      So far, that story is entirely anonymous hearsay not confirmed by any official statement or supported by any released evidence, in the service of a particular political party, as far as I know. If someone has put their name or letterhead behind it, please post a link.

    3. unfake news cites named verifiable sources in the process of telling what when where who and how. Fake news does not. Commentary does not, but is (should) clearly marked commentary.
      And unicorns do exist. And the democratic party represents the best interest of the working man.

  6. If you don’t like sensible regulations preventing businesses from providing relevant information to consumers you should just move to Somalia.

  7. On the TTB and FAA websites

    The FAA? Even if you do get high as a kite on hard cider, kites aren’t generally high enough to trigger FAA oversight, are they?

    1. Airline pilots need to be kept in the loop about anything regarding alcohol. I mean, they are the experts.

  8. Oh, FFS! Just put the vintage on the label but call it something else.

    “Best by (wink, wink) 2013”

  9. This is easily worked around by writing the most recent major sports champions on the label. You could even go further by saying you “support” (with real small donation) whatever chartity org those teams have set up. The odds of overlap in any year are pretty small. Vintage? What vintage? I see no vintage mark on this bottle!

  10. Shy not allow a company like Ash & Elm the freedom to display their cider’s vintage?

    Cute typo.

    I’m with Rich. Find a clever way to display this if the government is going to keep it illegal. For example, change the label every year in some consistent way (maybe put an apple tree seedling one year and have it grow noticeably next year into a sapling, and so on). Then people can go to the web site and see which year their label corresponds to.

    Fuck protectionist trade laws.

    Finally, it’s awesome of you to provide a link to a recipe at the end. I may have to try it sometime, I do love hard cider!

    1. Seems like something as simple as a “Born on Date” would work. Instead of the day, month, and year, just use season and year. “Born Autumn 2015”

      1. Pretty sure the govt. censors would see right through this. You can bet your ass that the wine industry will pounce and turn them in. My point was that there is probably no way to tell a cider brewer they can’t change their label every year.

        1. “My point was that there is probably no way to tell a cider brewer they can’t change their label every year.”

          Actually, I think Baylen had written about this here before. The process for getting alcoholic beverage labels government approved is actually lengthy, difficult, and expensive.

          1. Even if everything on the label is the same as last year but the artwork? That is retarded.

            1. Please, Zero. Think of the JOBS!

            2. Ok. Already approved labels can be changed fairly easily without a new approval process. Here are the guidelines


            3. There are some way to work around it. For wine makers, they actually can keep the label the same even the ABV as long as it is within something like 0.5 % pts from the prior year.

              A cidery in Richmond actually does a series of ciders that are different blends of apples but they make adjustments to make sure they all come to the same ABV and then just write the name of the cider on it. I think if you are only selling within one state you don’t necessarily have get the TTB to approve the label, but states have laws about the labels too.

              I actually need to figure this all out because I want to get a TTB registration so I can (legally) sell some of the cider I make.

              1. “I actually need to figure this all out because I want to get a TTB registration”

                I wish you godspeed on your journey into the dark labyrinth of derp known as “government regulations.” It is road fraught with perils and retards.

          2. The answer is point of sale advertising. It’s not on the label. Of course an unscrupulous retailer could, shall we say, “antique” a rack of cider falsely.

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    1. jubebibu knows ENB? But who is Janice… Oh, I bet it’s “Palin’s Buttplug.” Her comments usually are unimaginable

  12. Cider has become a huge industry in the last 10 years. I, as an apple grower, saw it coming and looked into getting on the train early. The amount of investment to just buy the equipment was high, then there was the permits both state and federal, but the biggest issue was planting new varieties of apples just for cider. Just like with wine, you would not want to eat real cider apples. Any ways, my state could not come to an agreement about what was being produced. A winery has different rules from a brewery, but apple cider doesn’t have enough natural alachol to qualify as wine, but is obviously not a beer.

    I gave up.

    1. That’s too bad — a lot of the bigger cider growing states moved to classify cider as wine (which it technically is because there is no brewing involved, just juice and yeast.

      I make about 150 gallons of cider mostly from culinary apples that make a good cider as well, although I’d love to work with some real bittersweet and bittersharp apples.

      1. I trailed some English cider apples, but the results were pretty bad. Too much heat here in Tennessee. Arkansas Black makes a good single variety cider, but lacks the full tannins of the real cider apples. I’ve read recently of some research going into American cider cultivars, but these will likely be for northern climes. I still make my own and don’t really miss having to deal with more regulators.

        1. Trialed

          1. “…across the heaths the Flying Poodle stalked his pomaceous quarry…”

            1. I read this in my best David Attenborough voice.

        2. I think we are going to have to Johnny Appleseed our various climates again (plant lots of seedling apples) in order to get good bitter apples for cider. English cider apples aren’t great in Virginia either (Foggy Ridge seems to have some success but they are very high elevation with a cooler climate than where I am).

          1. There are a lot of old forgotten orchards around here with 100 year old tree’s that still produce, I believe they are now trying to find out in the lab what sorts of tree’s we they all are since no one remembers!
            On a side note I’ve been trying to find a decent press for some time, lots of crab apples around here but the only place they seem to turn up at is in antique shops. Can anyone make a recommendation on modern made brand that doesn’t have to be shipped from Europe?

            1. Depends on your volume and if you want to sell it. For a small operation like mine a bladder press and an electric crusher is about right. All stainless. I’ve also got a 100+ year old Improved Buckeye that can process about 20g/hr. Bear to clean and labor intensive.

            2. I use an electric grinder to make the pomace and I built a big oak rack and cloth press (you build layers of pomace like layers of cheese in a thin muslin-like cloth and then use a bottle jack to squeeze all the juice out).

              You can get screw presses easily but the yield isn’t that great. I can get about 3 gallons per bushel with mine.

      2. Crab apples are your friend. Dolgo makes fucking awesome cider.

        1. Yeah. Ben looking at planting a new block and utilizing wickson and dolgo as polenizers.

  13. I’m going to keg 20 gallons of cider from 2015 today.

  14. Anybody here, or know anybody, who’s gotten good results from lambically fermenting cider?

    1. I think the challenge with that is cider is already so tart, that you might make a cider that is too sour. You’d probably want to start with a lower-acid juice.

      Traditional spanish ciders have some acetic fermentation in them and are very funky/sour. Some of them, I like, some of them are too acetic for me.

    2. Do malolactic fermentation on the cider and age with French oak. This will produce a flavor profile which has a lot in common with barrel-aged, sour ales.

      1. I finished a couple of batches from last year with French oak spirals and they were fantastic.

  15. Cidermakers need to get together and draft the rules and then push them through the TTB. I don’t think it will be that difficult. In order to avoid confusion with winemakers, they could even come up with a new term — something like “pommage” instead of vintage (the vin in vintage is literally referring to wine).

    I know a lot of cideries in Virginia store a lot of their late season apples and don’t press them until after Jan 1 — but the fruit is all from a specific growing season, so they just need to draft a rule that states that you can add the year as long as the fruit was from that year. TTB isn’t going anywhere so just work with them.

    1. Apples are “sweated” stored intact (for cider) not just for storage, but to develop flavor. As you point out, it’s the conditions of a particular growing year that any consumer care about.

  16. The Cider House Rules, your brewery drools.

  17. Clearly the industry doesn’t have enough lobbyists.

  18. If the label does not already have a “lot number” or something like it, add one. Free app to a cross-reference and we are done here. Next crisis please.

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  20. Central committee knows what’s best.

    Top officials studied How To Regulate Cider at the Woodrow Wilson School of Government.

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  22. Busybody prohibitionist, regardless of what they call themselves, are just the gift that keeps on giving.

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