There's a small and quiet conspiracy afoot in the American beverage industry to change the meaning of the word "cider." Say that word today, and nine Americans out of 10 think brown, thick, sweet and seasonal, something the children will enjoy in the fall.

The one in 10 who thinks otherwise probably has memories of ciders elsewhere. In Canada or Europe, the word "cider" evokes a golden-clear, dry or sweet, often bubbly alcoholic drink served year around. In these days of light beer and wine coolers, a few people in the American beverage industry are thinking, why can't cider mean the same thing here?

There are plans to bring more British cider into this country. There is a Maryland businessman making and selling hard cider right here. But there are just as many stories of recent cider failures as there are of cider start-ups these days. It just makes one wonder, why does an alcoholic apple cider have it so tough in the American marketplace today?

"It's really kind of sad," says Ron Levison, general manager of Showerings, a bottling plant now owned by Anheuser-Busch in Havre de Grace, Md. Nine years back, Tetley Inc. owned Showerings and imported Will Gaymer's Pub Cider, a popular English product, shipping it into Havre de Grace in 4,000-imperial quart tankers. He bottled the product and attempted to sell it, but soon gave up the plan.

"At the time that it was tried -- 1978, 1979 -- it was a product ahead of its time," says Levison. "Certainly wine coolers didn't exist as we know them today. A group of us got together and formed the Cider Association of North America, and there were several people that gave it a shot." He names English, Canadian and American cider manufacturers who tried and gave up in the late 1970s. "From an American point of view, cider has a certain connotation to it," says Levison. "People didn't want to pay $1.99 for the same amount of stuff that they could get in a jug for 50 cents. They didn't perceive it as an alcoholic product."

Another company that tried was Barton Brands, a Chicago-based producer and importer of spirits. It test-marketed a Canadian cider, called for the American market "Apple Amber." It was light in color, 6 percent alcohol, sold in an unusually shaped liter bottle. But, in the words of Fred Mardell, Barton's executive vice president, "it was not an economically sound proposition.

"Based upon the costs of product packaging, distribution, and marketing, we felt that we could not make enough money fast enough to make the product go well," says Mardell. "The product was received very well, but we could not afford not to be advertising. One of the things that we learned is that we had to educate people in what they thought of as cider. The product did not have a tradition." Cider in England The search for the tradition of alcoholic cider leads one quickly back to England. Visit England today and cider appears to be a nationally beloved drink. You can get Strongbow or Woodpecker, Merrydown or Blackthorn anywhere you go -- in pubs on tap, in restaurants with your meal, in the grocery in a liter bottle or a four-pack. You can choose among labels and brands, among flavors from sweet to extra dry, among strengths from 3 percent to 9 percent alcohol or higher.

But it has only been in the last 15 years, says importer Peter Dutton, that cider has grown to have such nationwide popularity in the U.K. Dutton grew up in Devizes, Wiltshire, and makes a living importing fine British products, from linen and silver to jellies and jams, into the United States. He now imports Taunton ciders, produced in the county of Somerset, to the U.S.

"The old country boys in Somerset used to drink it in a rough form, out of a barrel: hard, rough, cloudy stuff," says Dutton. In fact, the three different cider-making areas of England had three different cider traditions. People from different areas even called cider different names: "scrumpy" in Somerset, "cripple" in Wiltshire. Outside these apple regions, cider was rarely consumed.

But since World War II, and in particular since 1970, three major cider manufacturers come to dominate the British scene -- Bulmers, Gaymer's and Taunton -- by making consistent, available products and by diversifying their cider lines to meet particular tastes and habits. In 1984, 67 million gallons of cider were sold in the U.K., almost double the amount sold in 1973.

Tradition matters in this phenomenal growth in the British cider market, says Dutton, but not as much as tastebuds. "The real art in brewing cider is being able to taste the stuff and to blend it," says Dutton. "Each cider mill has a cider maker. Schools actually give degrees in cider-making, like yours here give degrees in winemaking." Apple varieties are identified for the flavors they impart to cider -- sweet or bittersweet, sharp or bitter-sharp -- and the juices are blended to meet the tastes of target buyers.

"They have really come out with a range of ciders to accommodate everybody's taste," says Dutton. Taunton Cider Company, with which Dutton works, bottles six different ciders; its competitor, Bulmers, bottles seven. Both product lines range wide in flavor and image, indicating the diversity of English cider consumers. Strongbow, as Bulmers' literature tells it, is "a strong, dry cider with masculine appeal," as indicated by the muscle-bound archer on its label. At the other end of the spectrum is Pomagne, a near-clear, highly carbonated premium cider bottled like champagne. There is enough demand for cider on the British market that there is room for a company like Merrydown, in East Sussex, which touts its cider as being made with eating and cooking, not cider apples, or for a company like Dunkertons, in Pembridge, Herefordshire, which uses old country recipes, methods and equipment. Cider in America With cider flooding the markets across the Atlantic, why hasn't the same thing happened here at home? According to Jim Case, owner of the Chesapeake Cider Company in Edgewood, Md., up until Prohibition American cider bubbled voluminously too.

"If you look at a dictionary published in this country before 1920, you will find that the meaning of 'cider' is a fermented apple drink," says Case. "When Prohibition came into existence, there were lots of American companies and cider mills. They could no longer sell what they had been making. Some guy in New England began to call his fresh apple juice 'sweet cider,' and the name caught on."

Case now wages a continuing battle against the current meaning of the word. He produces Chesapeake Hard Cider, a sparkling hard cider, medium dry, amber in color, 6 percent alcohol. Last year he made and sold 12,000 gallons, up 2,000 from the year before. Chesapeake Hard Cider sells in large liquor stores and specialty shops from Massachusetts south to North Carolina. Case spends a lot of time selling it himself at wine festivals and art fairs. Although that method is time-consuming and doesn't produce a high volume of sales, Case figures it is one way he has to re-educate people as to just what the word "cider" can mean.

"It's very difficult," says Case. "When we sell the stuff at a festival, half the people come up and want to buy it for their children. Then, on the other hand, you know perfectly well that the people who are walking by the booth without a glance are doing so because they don't know it's alcoholic."

In fact, hard cider has an image problem in this country, says Sandra Johnson of October Imports Ltd., a Maryland firm about to import an English cider called October Gold. "What do most people think of when you say 'hard cider'?" says Johnson. "You go out on the side of the road and give a guy a dollar for something in a clean Clorox bottle. But in England there is a great, great tradition. We hope to bring the Englishness of it here."

October Gold is 6.4 percent alcohol, very light in color, with an appley flavor that gains character by aging six months in casks that held wine, sherry or rum. Different from the other ciders now coming onto the market, October Gold is a "still" cider, and it will interest the wine drinker more than the beer drinker, Johnson believes. "I feel that the still cider will do very well, even though we are a nation of beer drinkers," says Johnson. "It puts you more in mind of wine. Frankly, I think it's a more adult drink" than the sparkling ciders. The Law and Cider Anyone considering the import or manufacture of hard cider in this country has to contend with another force on the scene: the law, at both state and federal level. "I would say that the reason we have no hard cider on the market here is our Puritan alcohol laws," says Sam Reid, president of the Murray Cider Company of Roanoke, a 60-year-old operation that yearly makes over a million gallons of cider -- sweet cider, pasteurized for sale so it won't go hard. Reid sees the market potential for alcoholic cider in this country, but he says his family's company isn't about to take the plunge.

"The reason we would be reluctant to get into hard cider is the complications as the law relates to alcoholic beverages," says Reid. "I called the state of Virginia to ask about it. If you grew your own apples and made hard cider, then they would give you a permit. But we buy most of our juice apples from the surrounding growers. We would need a commercial wine producer's license, which jacks the price up. I would have to ask the local beer distributor to take the hard cider from me, apply for a license for our roadside stand and would have to buy hard cider from the distributor. Hard cider is coming, when someone wants to go to all the hassle to abide by the law."

It's not just state laws that alcoholic beverage producers have to contend with. The federal government imposes taxes, too, and at prohibitive levels for certain types of products. Stephen Martinelli, of Watsonville, Calif., whose family has made sparkling apple cider, hard and sweet, since 1868, says that the federal "champagne tax," as he calls it, keeps him from producing an alcoholic beverage now. According to federal code, still wines up to 14 percent alcohol are taxed at 17 cents per gallon, but sparkling wines are taxed at $3.40 and $2.40 a gallon, depending on whether they are naturally or artificially carbonated, respectively. The code defines a sparkling wine as any containing carbon dioxide in a level over 0.392 gram per hundred milliliters of wine.

"The Canadians don't have such ridiculous legislation, and their product tastes the better for it," says Jim Case of the Chesapeake Cider Company. His hard cider contains 0.391 grams of carbon dioxide per hundred milliliters. Cider's Future Will an alcoholic cider ever make it big on the American market? Those who have tried and failed view the prospects with skepticism. Those who are involved in new ventures speak optimistically. Tempering their optimism, though, people like Peter Dutton, Sandra Johnson and Jim Case see another eventuality lurking on the horizon. If the popularity of British imports or local products begins to build, how long will it be before the big American producers -- Anheuser-Busch, Coors -- get into the act? In a sense, Jim Case's Chesapeake Hard Cider is banking on its own smallness. "You can't mass-produce hard cider," says Case. "If you mass-produce it, you can't mass-market it, because the awareness isn't there."

But changes can happen. It happened in the U.K., and is happening still. "The biggest thing in Britain today is Budweiser," reports Peter Dutton. If they can turn around, so can we. SPIKED APPLESAUCE (Makes about one pint)

10 to 12START NOTE: cq END NOTE medium-sized cooking apples

1 cup hard cider

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Peel apples, then slice thin chips (amounting to about one quart) into large saucepan. Pour in cider, sprinkle in sugar and salt. Bring to boil, stirring often, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until apples soften (about 15 minutes). Depending on desired consistency, mash with fork or whiz in food processor. Stir in cinnamon if desired. CIDER-POACHED CALVES' LIVER (2 servings)

1 cup hard cider

1/4 pound calves' liver, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons butter

2 rounded tablespoons flour

Dash salt

1 apple and 1 orange, thinly sliced, for garnish

Heat cider in large skillet. When just beginning to boil, slip liver into cider and let simmer for about 5 minutes on each side. Meanwhile, make a roux by melting butter in a small pan. Sift in flour and salt. Keep stirring as mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Reduce heat.

Remove meat from pan and keep hot while making sauce. Bring cider back up just to a boil and whisk in roux. Continue to stir and heat until sauce thickens slightly. Serve over liver with a garnish of thinly sliced apples and oranges. HEREFORD PORK CHOPS (4 servings)

2 tablespoons oil

4 pork chops

1 large onion, sliced

6 ounces bacon, diced

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup hard cider

Salt and pepper

Heat oil in frying pan.

Brown chops on both sides. Remove chops and place in shallow covered baking dish. Gently fry onion and bacon in frying pan. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for about one minute. Gradually add cider while stirring. Bring to boil.

Season to taste.

Pour over pork chops in baking dish, cover and bake 400 degrees for 30 minutes. From H. P. Bulmer Ltd promotional booklet. BARBECUE SAUCE WITH HARD CIDER (Makes about 1 cup)

1/3 cup hard cider

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons worcestershireSTART NOTE:cq END NOTE sauce

1 teaspoon dry mustard

6-ounce can tomato paste

Mix together ingredients, bring to boil while stirring.

Use as desired to top chicken or pork during last stage of baking in oven or on grill. MUSHROOMS WITH CIDER (6 servings)

12 scallions, cut to 1/2-inch lengths

2 tomatoes, peeled and diced

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon tarragon

2 tablespoons oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon hard cider, reduced to half by boiling

1/2 pound mushrooms, coarsely sliced

1 rounded tablespoon tomato paste

Parsley for garnish

Saute' scallions, tomatoes, and herbs in oil until scallions soften. Salt and pepper to taste. Add reduced cider and mushrooms. Cover and simmer about 5 minutes. Strain liquid off; keep vegetables warm in serving dish and return sauce to pan. Add tomato paste to sauce, heat to boil, stirring constantly, then spoon over vegetables. Serve garnished with parsley.

From Taunton Cider promotional booklet.