Ciders cover a diverse range of styles typically made from fermented apple juice. Some ciders may also be made with other fruits such as pears, or with various fruit juices added in conjunction to the traditional apple juice. As with wine, the character and quality of the resulting product reflects the variety and quality of the fruits used. This category ranges from common ciders to specialty ciders made all around the world.
Prohibition did the US many disservices, not the least of which was to divorce Americans from their drinking heritage, forsaking our fermented birthright. Our forefathers, landing in the New World, discovered vast plantings of apple trees. As American as apple pie, apple cider was easy to brew and slaked the thirst of the earlier settlers and colonists. It became not just a social lubricant, but also a community bond:
“He that drinks his cyder alone, let him catch his horse alone.”
- Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack
Quality cider was prized and shared both by farmers & lawyers and by craftsmen & politicians. Tavern discussions revolved around tankards of this readily available quaff; social policies and the future direction of this very country were debated over this tasty brew.
The American Revolution was fueled not by beer, but by cider.
Then came the time of Prohibition. In the years since, we have come to label this beverage as “hard”. More recently, apple cider has come to mean a sweet, unfermented, non-alcoholic beverage spawned from apples we would pluck from a tree and eat at our tables.
Americans are re-discovering what the rest of the world has never forgotten, and we are now embracing the beverage of our Founding Fathers. Cider. Fermented apples. What could be simpler, or more plentiful? For too long we have been subject only to commercial ciders whose consistency is admirable yet whose use of insipid juices has dulled our palates. There is a revolution under way, and the quality of ciders in this country has never been better. We are the Johnny Appleseeds of our generation, sowing new cider awareness.
It is tempting to think that cider is an ancient beverage, as old as wine and perhaps dating even back to the early mead-making days; after all, apples are not quite as picky as grapes about where they grow, and orchards are nearly as ubiquitous as bee hives.
It’s not easy to juice an apple. You can smash them, sure, but you’ll end up with a tub of apple pieces and not much juicy liquid. Technology must come to our rescue – some form of crusher. While grapes can be foot-stomped for a sugary liquid (quite tasty to our friend, yeast) and honey readily harvested by hand and mixed with water, apples are a bit tougher to massage into fermentable form. It is generally acknowledged that alcoholic cider is a fairly recently developed beverage because of its dependence on the development of certain tools.
Perhaps we owe it all to the Spaniards; there are ancient Greek references to just such an idea. We know the Romans made & drank cider – they very possibly learned their techniques from the Asturians of Spain who served in the Roman army. As is the course of history, the Romans marched through France and probably brought cider technology to that country. The Normans subsequently introduced cider-making techniques to the British Isles (naturally, the proud Brits will tell you they had been brewing cider all along, and the French don’t know what they’re talking about). Later, of course, the early colonists of America came from Britain and found apples in the New World – bringing their knowledge with them.
Cider Apples & Character
Cider apples are not your standard table varieties – no Red Delicious here. They are often a blend of different varietals, each with their own special contribution to the synergy, but single-varietal ciders are being well crafted here in the States. Sweet, bitter, and tart types all contribute different flavors to the final brew. Strangely, the best apples for eating are the least desirable for ciders and vice versa; great fermenting apples would not be too pleasant at a picnic lunch.
Tannins are usually present, either barely noticeable or noticeably featured. The sugars will represent themselves sometimes in the caramel vein, while smoky & funky barnyard & cheesy notes are often prized. Acetic notes of vinegar should be avoided; however, that delicate line can be tiptoed to and teased by some producers – especially in Spain. Malolactic fermentation will often showcase buttery notes, while mineral & floral notes are not uncommon.
The true art form is the balancing of these sweet/tart/bitter/tannic characteristics.
We can talk about the characteristics of different ciders: dry vs. sweet, sparkling vs. still, varietal of apple, etc., but what really seems to differentiate ciders is the tradition from which they derive their inspiration – their country of origin, in many instances. This gives us a good branch to hang on to when discussing different styles.
Good cideries tend to produce, well, good ciders throughout their portfolio. When you find one you like, it’s definitely suggested here that you explore the cidery’s other products. Always expand your horizons, though. It is in contrast that we determine what we enjoy, and it is our job to suffer through ciders not-of-our-liking to better appreciate the ones we do, and those that are well crafted.
French Cidres (yes, that’s how it’s spelled). Often from the region of Normandy, these ciders are usually spontaneously fermented and show all the representative terroir of the region. Expect a lot of ‘funk’ here; rich apple flavors, a bit of cheese, some barnyard thrown in, and a whiff of earth – these are all quite desirable characteristics. A glass of cidre, some Camembert, a baguette, and a blanket under a tree on a warm spring day … ah, now you’re in the countryside.
You might start your foray into French ciders with the notables:
• Etienne Dupont “Cidre Bouche Brut”
• Eric Bordelet “Sydre Argelette”, and others
• Christian Drouin “Pays d’Auge”
Spanish Ciders: Asturians call it sidra, while those of the Basque region call it sagardoa; whatever you’d like to call it is fine, but let’s put them together under the heading “Spanish Ciders” because they are truly a distinct style.
Traditional Spanish ciders have the reputation of being quite tart – the blend of varietals definitely leans toward the sharp ones, and away from sweet & bittersweet. This has its own appeal, but the locals have figured out the best way to enjoy their beverage: pour like the escanciadores do, by “throwing” the cider into a glass from four or five feet away.
This throw really changes the character of the cider, making it softer & more velvety & less acidic; it aerates the cider. Kids, don’t try this at home. Well, go ahead, as practice makes perfect. It helps to have a special nozzle, but isn’t necessary. Keep a towel handy.
A couple of great examples:
• Isastegi “Sidra Natural”
• Sarsola Sagardotegi “Sagardoa”
English Cider: to lump the different versions of cider in the U.K. under the term “English Cider” is to do them a terrible injustice, but this isn’t a textbook and we strive for simplicity. A tip-o’-the-hat is offered toward the great distinctive differences of various regions there.
These ciders tends to be a bit drier, more tannic, less ‘funky’, and a touch more bitter than those of the Spanish and French styles; a touch of smokiness is often welcome in English cider, as is a low carbonation. It is not uncommon for English ciders to be “single-varietal”.
True English ciders are often difficult to find in the States; better yet – go visit the U.K. and enjoy in situ. Keep your eyes open for:
• Gwatkin “Yarlington Mill”
• Aspall “Dry Cider”
• Burrow Hill varieties
New World Ciders: these ciders are what the Americas have proffered to the world, tempering the oft-times extreme characteristics of the European examples. New World ciders tend to avoid the bitter varietals that the English embrace; they dodge the tartness of Spain, and downplay the funkiness of France. “Session” ciders are what we’re looking for here, not too sweet and not too dry.
• Uncle John’s “Russet Cider”, “Hard Cider”, and others
• Farnum Hill “Dry”, “Extra-Dry”, and others
• Vander Mill “Hard Cider”, and others
Pear Cider: though we’re not talking apples here, the perry/poire tradition is very similar to apple cider tradition. Running parallel to its better-known cousin, pears make for a subtler and more nuanced fruit beverage. Ideally, look for true pear flavors – not sweet, nor cloying. Dryness and minerality are a plus, with carbonation at the discretion of the producer.
• Eric Bordelet “Poire Granit”
• Gwatkin “Blakeney Red”
• Christian Drouin “Poire”
Ice cider: so what happens when we treat cider like we sometimes do beer – concentrate them? You can partially freeze the apple juice (a la an eisbock) and remove the resulting ice; left over is a flavor concentrate. Look for a lot of viscosity here, lots of umami, and a ton of ‘old apple’ & caramel character. Also known as “Cidre de Glace”.
• La Face Cachée “Neige”
• E. Dupont “Cidre de Givre”
Specialty Ciders: Now we’re starting to play with some new flavors. Americans are always pushing the envelope with innovations to recipes, eschewing the “just apples” tradition. Kudos to those that experiment with different fruits, spices, and hops. Kudos to those that experiment with different techniques of fermentation, maturation, and barrel aging.
Among some to consider:
• Wandering Aengus “Oaked Dry Cider”
• ÆppelTreow “Sparrow Spiced Cider”
• Finn River “Dry-Hopped Hard Cider”
Commercial Ciders: these ciders generally use apple juice concentrate (vs. freshly crushed apples), are sweeter than other styles, and are intended to appeal to a large audience. Great thirst-quenchers here. To their credit, producers of commercial ciders are taking bolder steps to produce more interesting products.
Other appley beverages:
Cyser, a blend of honey & apples. This really belongs under the “mead” heading, so go check for a description there.
Pommeau is a blend of unfermented apple cider with calvados, generally in the high-teens of ABV. As this isn’t really a fermented product, we won’t consider it here. Just know it exists, and drink it.
Calvados is “apple brandy”, a distilled product of cidre, and a specialty of the Normandy region of France.
How to Serve Cider
Treat your cider well, and your cider will treat you well. European ciders are often best served at cellar temperature, their New World cousins better slightly chilled.
You can never go wrong with stemware, but pint and half-pint glassware is entirely appropriate when sitting down for a “session”; simpler-is-better is the rule here, especially when imbibing in a pub. It is traditional in some parts of France to take cidre in a teacup, but this practice is less well known on our shores.
Spanish ciders simply must be served by “throwing” the cider (see below, or check out YouTube). This aerates the cider, softens it, and is one hell of a show if you know what you’re doing.
Skip the ice, please. You wouldn’t ice down a wine or a beer, would you? In homage to Mr. Franklin, always drink cider with friends & family.
Old World ciders (Spanish, French, etc.) excel when presented with smaller dishes. Try pairing the cider with a cheese from the same country – Taleggio or Manchego from Spain (and some chorizo.), Camembert with a French cidre, and a Roquefort or Stilton with an ice cider. English ciders are sublime with fish & chips.
Ciders from the Americas are very versatile, and the new combos of fruits & spices open up a plethora of possibilities. Pork & cider is a no-brainer; simple fish presentations can pair nicely, as will a Thanksgiving turkey. Curries? Oh, yes.
It’s All Good
Now is the time for us to reach out to our farming roots. That appeal (pun intended) of apples freshly harvested, crushed, and fermented is near universal. Leaving wine to the elite, we bond with our fellow laborers and enjoy the literal fruits of their labor whether it be as a thirst-quenching pint of English cider or a gastronomic epiphany of Norman dining. Regardless of what brings us to the table, it is of benefit to all of us that cider has once again gained the attention of drinkers of this country.
Our palates have only to benefit.
“It seemed I was a mite of sediment
That waited for the bottom to ferment
So I could catch a bubble in ascent.
I rode up on one till the bubble burst,
And when that left me to sink back reversed
I was no worse off than I was at first.
I’d catch another bubble if I waited.
The thing was to get now and then elated.”
- Robert Frost, In a Glass of Cider