With Georgia’s grape harvest well underway, it’s natural that the country lauded as the ‘cradle of wine’ has ghvino on the mind. But another, larger fruit harvest is also under way – and a group of cider makers have set out to turn it into a crisp new drink to sip on this fall.
The global market for cider is currently valued at $17.9 billion and expected to grow annually by 5% over the next ten years, says U.S.-based market research organization Future Market Insights. In Tbilisi, this apple-based drink is slowly popping up in local grocery chains as well as bars and natural wine shops. Cider, which dates back in origin to Celtic tribes around 3000 BCE and was a rumored drink of choice for both the Greek and Roman empires, has a story arguably as captivating as wine – yet is far less on the radar of Georgian drinkers.
This is strange, says Founder of the Georgian Cider Association George Cheishvili, given the extensive varieties of apples available in Georgia – which surpass grapes as the largest fruit produced in the country. In fact, in 2022, 130,000 tons of apples were produced in the country – representing 50% of the total fruit harvest, says Cheishvili.
He says he first became aware of just how unique Georgia’s apple offerings were when he decided to start experimenting with the idea of brewing cider nearly six years ago. “When I first decided to start producing cider, there were not many resources in Georgia. So I reached out to some producers in the UK and U.S. for tips. They were surprised that a guy from Georgia didn’t know about apples, pointing me to The Book of Apples by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards.”
This canon of sorts for cider producers, written in the 1990s, says of Georgia in its opening lines:
“It was in these forests that the domestic apple, together with many other temperate fruits, originated, and when plant geneticist Nicola Vavilov and his colleagues first surveyed the forests of Georgia and Armenia in the 1920s, they found wild apple trees, pears and quinces garlanded with vines so that in the autumn when the fruit is ripening a traveler passing through the forest of Transcaucasia might think himself in the ‘Garden of Paradise’.”
Apples to apples
And in fact, Georgia’s ‘Garden of Paradise’ is home to a wide variety of apples, both endemic and introduced. There are currently more than 125 varieties of apples in Georgia, notes Zviad Bobokashvili of the Georgian Scientific-Research Center of Agriculture in his research paper The Apple Breeding of Georgia: Past, Present, and Perspectives.
One specific variety, Brotsky, is proving a favorite for cider makers due to its bitter sharp acidity. Saidanaa owner and cider maker Nathan Moss says this type of apple, first brought to Georgia during the Soviet Union, is great for cider and cheaper to source due to its “powdery and sour” characteristics, which make it unfavorable for human consumption.
“There are four main categories of apples when it comes to their acidity and tannin: bittersweet, sharp, sweet, and bitter sharp. Most edible apples wouldn’t be considered sharp, sweet, or bittersweet – just sweet, which isn’t great for cider.” The bitter sharp characteristic of Brotsky apples, he notes, gives cider a fuller body and “depth of flavor,” but also makes them harder to source since they are not popular for consumption.
“I’ve started working in Marana, a village close to occupied Tskhinvali. The apples there were planted during Soviet times but have been largely untouched for 20 years because they didn’t have buyers – now I’m sourcing from multiple families in the village who are recultivating them again.”
For Cheishvili, apples have become a great way to differentiate Georgian cider from potential competitors abroad. “The UK and France, in particular, have very long traditions of making cider. If I were to use the same apples as them, like Fuji, Gala, or Golden Delicious, I would be competing with people who have generations of experience.” Instead, he says, he’s turned to varieties that are unique to Georgia, working with Georgian biological farming association Elkana, which has a demonstration yard that houses endemic varieties of apples collected from around the country.
“Last year, with the assistance of Elkana, I helped two cideries plant 20 different endemic varieties of apple that will be great for cider. Not only do we have the potential to create some unique flavor combinations and aromas, but we can do it while sourcing locally and supporting farmers in Georgia,” he says, noting that many of the apples used by cideries fall into the category of ‘non-standard,’ or unfit for human consumption, which farmers often struggle to sell.
A natural twist
Beyond a plethora of local apples from which cideries can source, some Georgian cider makers are using another local resource to their advantage – that is, about 8,000 years of winemaking experience. While different areas around the world are known for their own cider varieties – France traditionally offering a sweeter, carbonated cider and the UK known for its drier, higher alcohol content variation – several Georgian makers are experimenting with qvevri technology, as well as French wine techniques.
Cheishvili says that his cider, for instance, “is a combination of a French Pet-nat with a Georgian twist,” using wild yeast and no sulfites to create a “natural sparkling cider.” Moss of Saidanaa is also experimenting with the qvevri, using a winery in Sighnaghi. He’s also planning to partner with Cheishvili to start producing on a larger scale at their own cidery in Navtlughi, which has a 20-ton capacity. Cheishvili expects to produce 5,000 liters of cider this year, while Moss says he aims to produce around 1,000 liters.
Both are making a “natural” craft cider, Cheishvili notes, which is made from the juice of fresh apples with no added sugar or other preservatives. “Early interest in Georgia around cider predominantly came from some of the natural wineries, who have a lot of the equipment and skills that can be transferred for making this type of sparkling cider,” explains Cheishvili, noting that Gotsa Marani, a family-run winery in Kiketi, is considered to be one of the earliest cider makers in the country.
One cidery taking the theme of all-natural to another level is Cider Club Bazaleti, located less than an hour north of Tbilisi. The family-run eco-compound, which runs on solar, biomass, heat pumps, and wind energy, was created by Zaal Kheladze and his wife Nino Lezhava. It makes a range of ciders “organically, with no sugar added,” using a base of naturally fermented Brotsky apple juice mixed with other added fruit juices to create an array of flavor offerings. At last count – though Kheladze notes that he’s constantly experimenting – the club had six ciders on tap, including pomegranate, pear, blueberries, plum, and strawberry. Using the remnants from this process, they also produce 17 different types of schnapps.
The cidery, which is the largest to date in Georgia and produced 25 tons of cider last year, was also one of the first in Georgia to export their ciders. Last year, they shipped around 3,000 bottles to a couple of retailers in the UK city of Birmingham as a first “test” of external markets.
With favorable conditions and a market that is only growing, thanks in part to the increasing number of expats and migrants that bring with them an existing familiarity with cider, Georgia’s craft cideries have seen a boom in the last couple of years. “While we had around five serious cider markers three years ago, we’ve now got more than 15,” says Cheishvili. “And the demand is there. Last year we hosted a booth representing several of our member cideries at the food festival Taste Tbilisi in Dedaena Park, and there was major interest – we sold out of cider in less than three hours.”
Despite these positive indicators, the industry is facing some challenges – chief among them an exorbitant excise tax. Introduced originally to stop wine producers from diluting their grape juice with apple juice, any “fruit-based alcohol” like cider currently has an excise tax of 5 GEL per liter if its ABV is above 5%, falling to 60 tetri if the ABV is lower. This tax is significantly higher than that of beer (.12 GEL per liter) and wine, which has no excise tax, and is particularly burdensome for natural cider producers, who say it’s difficult to limit their ABV to 5% because of the fermentation process they use.
Cheishvili says this is a significant challenge for small cider makers, raising their costs to a point where it’s hard to compete with other alcoholic drinks on the market. “We are still facing marketing issues and educating the local Georgian market on what cider is – to add this high of a tax forces cider makers to raise their prices, making the cost for a person to try cider higher than it should be.”
To address this issue and others, the Georgian Cider Association is hard at work, convening a large portion of the country’s cider makers regularly to sample each others’ ciders, exchange tips and techniques – and try to create some lobbying power. “I’ve met with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, and while they supported the idea, they made it clear that until the cider market gets bigger, they’re not inclined to make any changes.”
And despite impressive signs of growth, cider remains a small market, registering only $161,000 in exports in 2022, according to data from Geostat. Though it also shows more than $500,000 worth of cider was imported into the country last year, which is double the previous year, and a strong sign of growing domestic demand for the apple-based drink.
There is also some positive news in the way of government assistance. Enterprise Georgia, the agency responsible for “business support, export promotion and investment in Georgia sectors,” this year added cider makers to the list of eligible industries for its micro and small business support grants, which offer up to 30,000 GEL to help small businesses further develop. Seven cider producers applied, and at least three successfully secured grants.
“The cider market in Georgia is at an exciting phase of growth,” says Cheishvili. “And looking at the wine industry, we have a great model for how the state can help support the growth of the sector.” As he notes, “Given that we have high quality water, unique varieties of apple, the oldest culture of winemaking, and the unique qvevri technology, Georgia is an ideal country for cider production!”
Aptly named as the product of a man who is all about promoting the cider market in Georgia, Georgian Cider Association Head George Cheishvili’s own brand, Georgian Cider, began selling just this year. His cider, which combines Georgian and French winemaking techniques, uses wild yeast with 20 endemic varieties of Georgian apples to create a “naturally sparkling cider” with no sulfites added. Sold in 750 ml bottles (great for sharing), you can find his cider at Saamuri (a natural wine bar located in hotspot/hostel Fabrika), Vino Underground, and Tsitska wine shop. You can also order it online from Veli.store. Prices per 750 ml bottle start at 35 GEL.
Cider Club Bazaleti
Located less than an hour north of Tbilisi along the shore of Dusheti’s serene Bazaleti lake is Cider Club Bazaleti. Housed in its own stunning eco-compound that overlooks the lake, the part-cidery, part-conference space is also home to the company Esco-S, which specializes in green engineering, energy audits, and energy consulting – having worked with wine companies, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals to advise on sustainable operations. Used as a proof of concept for sustainable living, the grounds, which feature two outdoor terraces, a tasting bar, and several meeting rooms, offer a perfect afternoon getaway from the bustle of Tbilisi.
While there, be sure to taste one of the six natural cider options on offer and get a taste of their cider-pairing menu. Recent features on the menu include an apple foam and cider prawn soup and a fruit jelly with a sparkling cider cream. You can also grab a bottle to take home with you or place an order on their website: ciderclubbazaleti.com Prices per 750 ml bottle start at 65 GEL.
A joint effort by partners Irakli Davitidze and Misho Mujiri, just 21 years old, who got their start producing fruit brandies, Skhva Khili (Another Fruit) was created by pure accident when the duo tried to make apple brandy “and accidentally created our first batch of cider.” But much like Hennessy, their accident was the start of a great new drink. They’ve since gotten connected in the Georgian cider-making scene and are experimenting with various recipes. Made from a variety of Georgian apples, their Petnat-style apple cider has moderate carbonation, natural sediment, and a tart taste. You can buy their cider at 8000 Vintages, Morevi Records, Jive Bar, Abragi, Wine Boutique, Pet-Nat Wine Shop, Wine Coworking, Tsitska, and Tiba Restaurant in Kazbegi, or order online via Instagram (@Skhva_khili) or Facebook. Prices start at 15 GEL. Also make sure to keep an eye out for their honey cider – the mead-like drink is currently out of stock but may be back again soon by popular demand!
A product of passion for Londoner Nathan Moss, who says he was inspired by “Southwestern UK style” ciders. He began producing small quantities in 2017, but only began retailing his cider, described as “100% Brotsky apples, naturally fermented, Pet-nat style cider that’s unfiltered,” this past year at his popular Vera-based shop Bagelin, where he also sells homemade bagels, charcuterie, jams, hot sauces, and more. Prices for a 750 ml bottle start at 33 GEL in his shop – though currently out of stock, you can find other cider varieties like Tsalka Cider and Georgian Cider here as well.
Founded by craft beer enthusiast Sergo Makarov in 2016, NaturAle Brewery started as one of the earliest producers of craft beers in Tbilisi. Shortly after, Makarov began experimenting with ciders, and now his brewery offers six different ciders – two of which recently took home medals at London beer and cider competitions. His ciders include Cider No. 1 (the bronze winner); Cider No. 2 – a strong aged version that’s 6.5% ABV; Cider No.3 – an English traditional style; Cider No. 4 – a chokeberry cider; Cider No. 5 – a dry, hopped apple cider that recently took home the silver at the World Cider Awards in the UK; and Cider No.6 – a semi-sweet apple cider.
With enough cider variations to please every palette, you can try his ciders at his bar near Freedom Square (30 Lado Asatiani), his shop in Saburtalo, (115 Shalva Nutsubidze St), or several other bars around Tbilisi, including Post Bar, Coffee LAB, Cheers, and Crafter. Prices start at 10 GEL per bottle.