NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Hard cider has evolved from that potent pint of Cider Jack at the college pub or that syrup-sweet bottle of Woodpecker someone left in your beer fridge in the mid-'90s.

Too often dismissed as the wimpy little stepbrother of macro and craft beer, cider has come into its own and broken up the boys' club around the tap handle. Cider sales skyrocketed 25%, to $49.6 million, during the 12 months ending Oct. 30, according to research firm SymphonyIRI. That outpaces the 2% growth of wine, the 5% growth of the craft beer segment and the 1% decline in overall beer sales just a year earlier. Considering that SymphonyIRI's research excludes sales at liquor stores discount stores such as Wal-Mart, that number's likely still a little light.

That's still fairly small, considering cider makes up only 0.2% of the overall U.S. beer market, according to a report by Nomura Research. Compare that with Boston Beer ( SAM), which holds just about 1% of the U.S. beer market and still brought in $138 million in the third quarter of 2011 alone. Yet cider's growth is hardly surprising considering the upticks in craft beer and wine sales and the increased popularity of products such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, which helped parent company Mark Anthony Group's sales grow 23% in 2010.

There's a segment of the drinking population that likes their drink of choice a bit sweeter. Roughly half of cider's consumer base is made up of women, compared with only 20% for beer. As if that's not enough incentive for brewers to build their cider base, cider sells for an average of $35 a case, according to Nomura. That provides a dramatically larger cut that the $29-a-case commanded by imported beers and $33 brought in by craft beer.

Though Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD), MolsonCoors ( TAP) and SAB Miller haven't caught on to the U.S. cider market as of yet, there are still big players involved. Boston Beer is best known for its Samuel Adams beers, but its Hard Core cider sales grew 21% last year. Heineken International, meanwhile, imports England's H.P. Bulmers Stongbow cider to the U.S. and watched sales spike 34.7% in 2011.

Those heavy hitters are hardly the only cider options on the shelves or stick. Whether you're a cider sipper who contributed to last year's surge and wanted to try something different or an insecure beer stalwart who secretly wants to taste some apple or pear in your pint, here are five strong cider suggestions worth sampling:

Magners
One bit of advice to cider novices: Don't step into a pub in Ireland or an Irish pub on the East Coast and tell someone sitting at the bar with a cider in their hand that they should have a real drink.

Unwise, to say the least.

The Irish have been making hard cider on a grand scale since the mid-1930s, when the first batches were made by William Magner. Cider now accounts for 12% of Ireland's beer market, and that original cider Magner made makes up a huge part of that percentage.

Though it's known as Bulmer's in Ireland for reasons that involve former ownership by H.P. Bulmer and a lot of brand wrangling we're not going to go into here, Magners is hugely popular among East Coast Irish expats and pub crowds. Sales were up more than 29% last year as the sweet, mild cider set its sights on even more U.S. growth.

Its owners, C&C Group, recently bought Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery's Hornsby's cider brand -- the No. 2 brand in the U.S. -- and seem fixed on expanding Magners' presence from coast to coast. That's great for West Coast rugby watchers looking for a bit of Irish authenticity in their local pub, but could get confusing for cider fans who'll wonder what all those ice cubes are doing in their drink. If you want a real pint of Irish cider, it's best enjoyed on the rocks.

Woodchuck Cider
There are two schools of thought on Woodchuck.

The first is that the original recipe is a sorority-sister drink that should be packed away with Dave Matthews CDs, bar crawl T-shirts and other mementos once college is over. The other is that the original amber cider has stayed true to its roots as a craft product from Middlebury, Vt., and one's misspent youth shouldn't preclude him or her from enjoying it and Woodchuck's other varieties.

A whole lot of cider drinkers seem to fall into that latter category. Woodchuck's parent company, Vermont Hard Cider, accounts for 60% of the cider market. Woodchuck alone makes up 47% of all hard cider sold in the U.S. and saw sales jump 36.5%, to $23.5, million last year.

Why? Because the product is good and the company runs itself like a true craft brewer. Its flagship amber cider is surrounded by other core varieties including pear, raspberry, Granny Smith apple and the darker, drier 802 apple flavor. It also produces seasonal varieties including a spring flavor with maple and brown sugar and a fall version spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and white oak.

It even makes occasional small-batch brews such as its sweet Farmhouse Select Original '91 in 750-milliliter bottles or its bourbon-laced Private Reserve Barrel Select. Consider that base amber your training wheels and enjoy the ride with everything else.

Original Sin
Cider's great and all, but there are all those bubbles to contend with and all that dry alcohol flavor.

Yeah, Original Sin has none of that. Concocted by a bunch of folks from New York City back in 1997 with a little help from their more agriculturally inclined upstate neighbors, Original Sin is built around sweetness and not much else.

Its apple and pear flavors are more akin to a Jolly Rancher than any of its sudsy neighbors in the beer coolers. With 6% alcohol by volume, however, it still has plenty of pop hiding beneath its sweet exterior.

Though it's contract brewed through Florida Beer in Melbourne, Fla., and is nowhere near the orchards in New York, Original Sin still manages a full, fruity flavor that's a perfect fit for casual cider fans. More hard-core drinkers may be left flat by the base offerings, but could be swayed by 750ml bottles of their Cherry Tree and Newtown Apple ciders.

Samuel Smith's Organic Cider
We've already hit on the Irish love of cider, but the English are no slouches as cider drinkers, either.

Cider takes a 17% bite of the U.K. beer market thanks to Magners and Strongbow. The country's best cider export, however, may be in the 550ml bottles sent over the pond by Samuel Smith's.

This organic cider isn't quite as hard as some of its competitors. At 5% ABV, Samuel Smith's Organic Cider falls in line with mild English session beers that make it easy to drink more than a pint without getting sloshed. Fortunately, it has a flavor compelling enough to make that second pint a distinct possibility.

Its pale gold color belies a strong orchard scent, a dry apple tartness and a whole lot of carbonation that makes it feel more like a sparkling cider than something that came out of a brown bottle. As mild as an English ale but as sweet as an American malt beverage, Samuel Smith's Organic Cider is well suited for extended tastings on long winter nights.

Crispin
When even the craft beer geeks take note of your cider, you know you're doing something right.

Based near the epicenter of apple science at the University of Minnesota -- which created the Honeycrisp apple -- and pressed amid the orchards of California, Crispin puts the apple first and hides any cider fermentation or beeriness all too well. It's base "Blue Line" ciders are modeled after European ciders, offered in original, light and dry brut varieties and are best served over ice. There's no malt, no grape wine and no added alcohol. Just fresh-pressed apples and some inspired brewing that helped sales quadruple in the last year alone.

"The Crispin series is quite interesting, if only because it's been fermented with ale yeasts," says Matt Simpson, "The Beer Sommelier" and owner of TheBeerExpert.com. "Lends to a great combination of flavors, aromas and complexity."

It also aims for a slightly more learned market than the average pint of Magners. The 5.8% ABV Browns Lane Imported Classic English Dry Cider is named for the original Jaguar car factor in England and is made from cider apples imported from the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire. Its "artisanal reserve" cider The Saint reaches 6.9% ABV with some help from Belgian Trappist beer yeast.

Crispin's hard ciders are at their best, however, when they drop the stuffy wine-label exterior, ditch the Connecticut wine snob marketing and get down to some real brewing with their limited releases. The playful, powerful Stagger Lee, for example, melds apple wine aged in rye whiskey barrels, witbier-style Belgian yeast fermentation and unfiltered, fresh-pressed Gravenstein apple juice. What follows is a 6.9% ABV beast of a cider that's as pleasant on the nose as it is on the palate.

The next time you're being bullied by craft beer geeks for buying cider, bust open a bottle of Stagger Lee, let them get a sip and then leave them to their sad, little yesterday's news IPA. It'll taste like their Bud-loving cousin's homebrew when compared with Crispin's masterpiece.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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