Here's a sweet fact: While überhopped India pale ales and boozy barrel-aged stouts have been shouting for attention, ciders have quietly become the fastest-growing category in beer.

The recent surge in popularity of fermented apple juice has brewers both big and small clamoring to catch the wave.

The Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, rolled out its new Angry Orchard cider line throughout the country in April. Anheuser-Busch InBev followed with its Michelob Ultra Light Cider in May, a few months after MillerCoors bought Minneapolis-based Crispin Cider.

Mosey into a tasting room at a St. Louis brewery, and you've got a good chance of tasting a locally made cider on draft.

Naturally gluten-free, cider has enjoyed a rebirth at a time when sales of such products are at a record high. Americans are expected to spend an estimated $7 billion this year on foods and beverages with "gluten-free" on their labels. (Click here for a recent Hip Hops column on gluten-free beers.) 

Traditional hard ciders are complex in their balance of sweet and tart, and of fermented fruit and tannins. Some skew too much toward the sweet side, while others have more acidity than a crisp white wine. But the best are light on the palate, refreshing and thirst-quenching, and have a dry finish.

Here are some American-made ciders I've tasted recently that have stood out, for better or worse. All of them are available in St. Louis.

Evan's pick: Angry Orchard Apple Ginger (3.5 apples out of 4): Fresh, clean-tasting Nigerian ginger proves to be a perfect muse for tart apples in this cider from the makers of Samuel Adams beer. It's the most intriguing American cider I've sampled this year. About $9 a six-pack; available at most supermarkets and liquor stores.

Ace Apple Cider (3 apples out of 4): California-grown apples give this cider a real fermentation funk and a tart flavor akin to a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.

Crispin Original (3 apples out of 4): A green-apple tartness shines through in the aroma and flavor from Crispin's flagship cider. The label recommends pouring this one over ice, which helps dilute the sweetness from becoming too pronounced.

Original Sin Premium Hard Cider (2.5 apples out of 4): This one feels a bit thin on the palate, but it has a pronounced apple flavor and a crisp, dry finish, thanks to fermentation with two types of champagne yeast.

Schlafly Blackberry Cider (2.5 apples out of 4): An infusion of fresh blackberries adds a refreshingly fruity dimension to this light cider that packs a punch at 7 percent alcohol by volume. Draft only.

Woodchuck Amber Draft Cider (2 apples out of 4): One of the original new-wave American ciders, Woodchuck has a flavor reminiscent of carbonated apple juice spiked with green-apple Jolly Rancher candies.

Urban Chestnut Bushelhead (1.5 apples out of 4): This higher-alcohol (7.2 percent ABV) cider has an unpleasant, vinegary aroma and a flavor that is lemony bordering on sour. Draft only.

Imported ciders worth trying: Blackthorn, Kerisac, Etienne Dupont, Oliver's, Samuel Smith's, Magners, Strongbow.

Evan S. Benn is the the Post-Dispatch's food critic and beer columnist. He is the author of the 2011 book "Brew in the Lou: St. Louis' Beer Culture - Past, Present and Future," available here. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.