In the not-too-distant past, hard cider drinkers in this country might have been reluctant to say they enjoyed a sip. But thanks to the craft brew movement, those times are changing.

A limited amount of hard cider was available in this country a decade ago. It was mass produced, overly sweet and quickly dismissed as a “girlie” drink. Now small-batch makers are creating bolder or more nuanced ciders, and they’re earning respect from even hard-core beer drinkers, male and female.

People such as Tiffany Rush of Charleston are helping fuel the sales growth of alcoholic apple and pear ciders. Category sales rose 25 percent in the year ending Oct. 30 to nearly $50 million, as reported last fall in Advertising Age.

Rush, a 33-year-old chemistry instructor at the College of Charleston, favors darker brews such as stouts and porters when she’s in the mood for beer. But she’s also developed a taste for hard cider.

Her palate was introduced after a trip to Ireland about five years ago. Cider is much more common in European countries.

“There’s less of a social stigma,” Rush explains. While cider has been considered a fruity drink in the U.S., “not over there,” she says. “They tend to do drier, more robust but less sweet.”

On this side of the pond, the craft beer industry has created consumer excitement for new tastes, says Aaron Lucas, beverage director at Closed for Business bar and restaurant on King Street. Cider is “an alternative to wine, and it’s not beer,” he says. “It’s a nice middle ground.”

Will Fincher, the restaurant’s chef, says ciders have become the staff’s beverage of choice. Closed for Business usually has at least three choices of cider on tap.

“They’re really refreshing,” he says. “A lot of beers aren’t as refreshing. ... Some of the new artisanal ones are really awesome.”

Fincher says ciders have a range of acidity that makes them food-friendly as well. To that end, he has created a five-course cider pairing dinner at the restaurant next week.

“What’s great about cider is that it cuts through the fat and cleanses the palate for the next bite,” says Fincher.

Pork and cider are a natural fit, but so are mussels and pear cider, he says.

“In some instance treating (cider) like a white wine,” he says.

Rush, who likes to cook at home, agrees.

She recently paired a cider with a cranberry pork dinner she prepared. She also likes cider with fattier, richer meats, such as duck.

Additionally, she says, “Ciders do a really good job of bringing out flavors. Anything you would want to add a citrus to, add a cider to. You’re going to get a more subtle flavor, but you’ll definitely get some fruit in whatever you add it to.”

Dark green vegetables such as kale also do really well with ciders, she says.

Ciders were the nation’s most consumed beverage in the 1700s and 1800s, says Ben Sharkey, a salesman for Grassroots Wine Wholesalers in Charleston. Grassroots distributes only ciders produced by Foggy Ridge in southwest Virginia.

Sharkey also has seen a lot more interest in ciders, particularly among consumers with a thirst for different tastes. Since most ciders are carbonated, they are more like sparkling wine than beer, he says.

While American ciders do tend to be sweeter, many of the craft products are as clean, crisp and refreshing as their European counterparts, Sharkey says.

Jeanne Campbell and husband Tom Parler of Charleston had their first sip of hard cider at a New Year’s Eve gathering with old friends in North Carolina. The friends brought a pear cider from Sweden called Kopparberg to share.

Campbell was a convert immediately.

“It was very refreshing and delicious, (it) tasted a bit like Champagne with a pear accent, and it was light and festive. And it had a pear aroma, which I liked.”

The couple could not find Kopparberg in Charleston upon their return, but Parler has found others for his wife to try.

So far, her favorites are Spire Mountain and Fox Barrel, both pear ciders. Campbell says if she is in a more “sophisticated” mood, she might prefer a German Riesling wine to the cider, but she is finding a well-chilled cider hard to beat.

Indeed, cider is more similar to wine than beer, Rush says. “For me, a really good cider would be kind of like a good glass of wine in a beer pint.”

At any rate, Campbell is having fun tasting new ciders. Crispin and Julian are on her list to try. (Julian had been the staff favorite at Closed for Business, but it’s temporarily unavailable due to distribution problems.)

She also may encounter Foggy Ridge at some point, which is sold at Bottles and Whole Foods and offered by some local restaurants.

Foggy Ridge is an example of the ultra-purist cider maker, one that “manipulates” its product as little as possible, says owner Diane Flynt.

Flynt, who participated in the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in March, left banking and the corporate world in the late 1990s in pursuit of a rural, agricultural life. She and her husband bought 250 acres in one-traffic-light Carroll County, Va.

They planted 25 acres in apples, waited five years for them to mature and went to various cider-making schools in the interim. Foggy Ridge sold its first cider in 2006 and first in South Carolina in 2011.

For Flynt, the secret of good cider is in the apple varieties represented. The more complexly flavored heirloom apples make a big difference in a cider’s flavor and body, she says. That and letting nature take its course.

“I grow carefully selected apple varieties, harvest them by hand, and press when they’re ripe. We don’t do a whole lot to it.”

Flynt, whose cider comes in 750 ml bottles like wine, says people shouldn’t assume that all ciders are “craft” products even as the market becomes more developed and intense.

“Many are made from apple juice concentrate from China,” she says. Many of them are sweetened heavily and have added coloring, making them factory formula ciders as opposed to truly handcrafted.

The market is changing, especially for serious cider makers. Flynt attended the first “cider summit” this winter in Chicago. “It’s an exciting time,” she says.

Says Sharkey, “Cider is absolutely delicious and refreshing. I think the more people are exposed to it and realize it’s not just a sweet, syrupy drink, the more they like it.”