Distillery Lane Ciderworks owner Rob Miller (left) discusses one of his ciders during the Ciderworks' monthly cider-making class. Head cidermaker Tim Rose looks on. (Fritz Hahn)

Over the past few years, hard cider has gone from being a rare tap in an Irish pub to one of this country’s hottest beverages. Cider sales have risen 84.5 percent since 2011, while craft beer sales are up 17 percent, according to market research firm Symphony IRI. With Sam Adams, Anheuser-Busch and other big brewers launching their own cider lines, interest in fermented apple juice has never been higher.

But as with craft beers, the popularity is bringing a new focus on smaller producers as well as the big boys.

At Distillery Lane Ciderworks in the rolling hills of Frederick County, 45 varieties of apples are grown on more than 3,000 trees, just waiting to be pressed into fresh cider, and then fermented into hard cider. These ciders are very different than sweet, fizzy Strongbow or Woodchuck — they’re full of rich, dry flavors and lingering tartness. If you’re curious about cider, the Ciderworks are open one Saturday each month for visits, tastings and a cider-making class, which covers the basics of apple varieties, the chemistry of fermentation and how to brew your own cider. (The $100 registration fee includes four gallons of cider and all basic supplies, except bottles.)

The tours start in the orchard, where distillery co-owner Rob Miller explains the basics of the operation, from the 50,000 bees brought in to pollinate the trees each spring to how to tell if apples are ready to juice. Then it’s on to the “classroom” — actually, chairs sitting next to a giant, 14-bushel hydrologic press — to discuss the best ways to convert fruit into a beverage that contains 7 to 8 percent alcohol.

Miller and head cider maker Tim Rose lead the discussion, which moves easily between the scientific, discussing the right pH balances for tart flavors and less spoilage, and the sensory, with plenty of tastings as demonstrations. While explaining the qualities you look for when blending apples, Rose brings up the English Tremlett’s Bitter apple, and has everyone take a sip of some funky, full-bodied vintage cider. “The Tremlett’s Bitter by itself is not very good, but it provides a taste you can feel in the back of your throat,” Rose says. “Do you feel that?” We do. The bitter-sweet apple makes up about 25 percent of the recipe — just enough to let its taste come through.

The course can be technical, but it’s easy enough for newcomers to grasp. For first-timer Michael Alexander, the cider bug bit after a particularly successful day of apple picking with his fiance last fall. “I thought, ‘What will we do with all these apples?’ I was Googling for information about making cider, and I came across” Distillery Lane.

Alexander signed up for the introductory cider-making class, and the 32-year-old, who works in commercial real estate, came away impressed with the instructors. “They’re very passionate about the Old World traditions of cider, and passing that information on,” he says. He was most surprised to learn about the effects of yeast on cider, and enjoyed trying ciders made with different yeast to compare and contrast flavors. (Rose said in class that his “ongoing experiments” including trying the same cider with up to 20 different yeasts, and he provides samples for students.)

After the three-hour class, Alexander’s confident his first batch will turn out delicious — once he finally tries it. “They said it could age for up to a year, but I don’t think I’ll wait that long,” he says with a laugh.

When classes started two years ago, says Miller’s wife, Patty Power, many of the students were homebrewers. Now, she said, demographics are changing. “We get a lot of foodies who want to know more about cider, or want to do this for themselves.” Plus, she adds, the rising number of people with celiac disease has people turning to cider instead of beer. “In every class, two or three of the students are gluten-intolerant,” she says. Some of these are homebrewers “who can’t have beer anymore, so they think, ‘Hey, I can have hard cider.’ ”

Because classes are kept to around a dozen students, there can be waiting lists. Even if you don’t get a spot in a class, cider fans are invited to take a self-guided tour around the orchard and participate in a guided tasting, which costs $5 and includes samples of four different kinds of hard cider.

Classes are suspended in the fall, when all attention turns to producing cider. But Miller says he looks forward to teaching the classes every spring and summer, and guiding students to create a specific kind of cider. “We started like this,” he says with a broad smile. “Lots of experimentation.”

if you go

Classes will be held on Saturday; May 11,
June 4 and July 6. All classes run from
9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and cost $100;
a $25 deposit is required at the time of reservation. If you’re just visiting, the Ciderworks is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on class days. Starting July 6, visitors are welcome from 10 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.

Distillery Lane Ciderworks, 5533 Gapland Road, Jefferson, Md. 301-834-8920. www.distillerylaneciderworks.com.