An Apple (Cider) A Day...
Swap out your go-to beer for a seasonal cider.
My personal discovery of the glories of hard cider came when someone left part of a six pack behind at a large house party I threw many years ago. I was mowing the lawn several days after on a blistering summer afternoon, and when I wrapped up I walked inside and realized I was out of lawn beer. There were two bottles, however, of Woodchuck Granny Smith Apple Cider, and I cracked one thinking “better than nothing.”
Before I knew it, the bottle was drained. It was fresh, bright, tangy and thirst-quenching, and I opened the second one to savor on the porch as the sun dipped low. Ever since that day, a good hard cider has had a place in my heart.
Grapes are the best known fruit for making alcoholic beverages. The grapevine produces a mind-boggling range of species that produce flavors in a multitude of climates. But even grapevines have their climate limits, and the more northerly residents of Europe discovered that the wide variety of apples (and to a lesser extent, pear) available in their cultivated orchards produced its high-quality, intoxicating beverage. Hard apple cider is perhaps the only fruit-based fermented drink that can compete with wine for complexity of flavor.
England is the most famous cider-drinking and producing country, and notable high-quality versions are popular in pockets of France, Italy and Spain as well. The U.S. has a long tradition of cider consumption dating back to colonial times, when apples were grown all over New England and Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made their own batches.
The rise of beer allowed cider to fall out of fashion. European producers continued at their craft, but by the end of the 20th century, Woodchuck dominated the category almost singlehandedly. It’s hard to say what changed. Perhaps it was some of the large beer conglomerates seeking more growth in an untapped sector, but Samuel Adams’ parent company launched Angry Orchard in 2012 and quickly muscled into top share of the market.
Renewed interest in the mass market also drew attention to the import side of things. English producer Strongbow established a strong presence in the U.S., as did the Irish Magners and even the venerable Samuel Smith’s.
Even better, there has been a rise here of new craft producers, like Shacksbury (Vermont), Ace (California) and Seattle Cider Company. These small producers pay homage to classic styles and experiment with new flavor combinations and techniques to make cider.
Ace is known for mixing other fruits into base cider — the Pineapple cider has crazed aficionados who hunt the city for it, while Seattle Cider Company mixes innovative seasonals (Basil Mint cider? Delicious!) with the classic dry and semi-dry styles. Shacksbury also makes dry and semi-dry styles, but it’s their smaller production, individually bottled ciders that are worth driving around to find. The super limited Pet Nat bottle produced from wild heirloom apples and bottled like an ancient sparkling wine is superb.
The traditional European ciders are also starting to make some inroads in America. Basque cider is much drier and cloudier than American and most English ciders. Spanish examples are becoming easier to find in the U.S. Shacksbury also makes an example with 30 apples from Basque species grown in Vermont, then fermented with native yeasts. Sour beer aficionados will love Basque cider.
For wine and Champagne aficionados, the beautiful French ciders from Normandy are a lovely treat. This region grows a huge variety of apples, and in French fashion they are well-delineated into categories: bittersweet, sweet, acidic and tannic (many cider apples are inedible on their own). Much like Champagne does for wine, each Norman cidery has a formula that blends various proportions of these heirloom species to produce a house style. Normandy ciders are complex, deep and still very refreshing, and can even reward cellaring for five years or even more. Domaine du Normandie and Etienne DuPont are locally available.
There are more ciders arriving locally every day. Whether it’s a thirst-quencher for a hot day or a fancy meal pairing, there’s a cider for you!
Woodchuck Granny Smith – This old-school classic is hard to beat on a hot day. It combines just the right amount of subtle sweetness with tart green apple notes and has a very clean finish.
Strongbow Gold Apple – This is widely available and a good introduction to English cider (don’t be afraid to branch out if you see others on the shelf). This is a rounder, richer, mild cider with a faint yeasty note.
Shacksbury Basque – I’ve been really impressed with both the regular and limited releases from this cidery, but you can kill two birds with one stone by tracking down the Basque. It’s sour, tart and tangy as biting into a just-picked apple!
Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouche – This has been the most widely available French Farmhouse cider in the area, and it is a delightful example of what the French can do with apples. The yeast and aging produce a complex beverage with apple-tart and pie-crust notes, with vibrant acidity to keep it lively!