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Cider is just as interesting and complex as beer and wine—if not more.
Two weeks ago, I found myself in a bar in the East Village that didn't serve hard liquor, or even draught beer—despite the number of taps lining the wall behind the bar. Instead, the taps housed cider from all over Europe and the Northeast. I'd entered the bar with a craving for a Belgian lambic, but had no idea where to start with fermented and pressed apples.
So I took the bartender's advice and ordered a Spanish cider, which he told me can have the same acidity and funkiness as a sour beer. Served in a snifter, it was slightly tannic with woody notes, and bore little ressemblance to the six-pack of supermarket cider I'd carried to the beach the weekend before. Jeff Alworth, the author of the upcoming book Cider Made Simple: All About Your New Favorite Drink, confirmed my suspicions, explaining that small batch, traditional cider (which he refuses to call by its redundant title, hard cider) is "strongly divorced" from its supermarket homonym.
He went on: "While people have strong opinions about cheap wine and beer, cheap wine is still 100% wine and cheap beer is still 100% beer. But most supermarket ciders only contain 50% cider." The difference is made up by sugar, flavoring, and other additives. This mass-produced "cider" may be why, as Jeff says in the introduction to his book, "In the United States, we're a little confused about what cider is."
Traditional cider—the kind made from 100% fermented apple juice, as it has been for thousands of years in Europe—was America's first alcoholic drink, and was one of the most popular drinks in the 19th century. But somewhere between Prohibition, urban migration, and the ease at which other drinks, like beer, can be mass-produced, cider earned a reputation as a backwoods drink, or worse, as an "easier" alternative to beer.
Fortunately for us, the United States is in the midst of a cider renaissance and cideries have started opening almost as quickly as breweries in some parts of the country. Want to get in on the movement? Here's the 101:
1. Get out of the habit of calling it "hard."
At some point during the 20th century, the word cider was reclaimed by apple juice companies to mean fresh-pressed juice, but cider, by its original definition, implies that it's fermented, and therefore alcoholic. Before I had even asked Jeff a question, he made sure I knew this fact: "Cider always referred to the fermented cider—if you have juice, you end up with cider anways [through aging]." The bar I visited, Wassail, describes the prefix on their website as a "charmless word...to differentiate the fermented stuff for grown ups." Avoid confusion and embarrassment—drop the "hard."
2. Cider is more similar to wine than it is to beer.
When Jeff first started researching cider, he expected the process to be "a piece of cake," given his past experience in beer (he is also the author of the blog Beervana and of the book The Beer Bible). Instead, he found, "Except for the fermentation, everything else is different. The only way that the finished product is like beer is that it is closer in alcohol content to beer [between 5% to 8%], and that cider is often carbonated." In every other way it's exactly like wine: "You pick the fruit, you ferment the juice, and you let the fruit express itself," he says. Unlike beer, which involves more cooking and recipe development, cider is more about the fermentation process and the expression of the fruit itself.
3. Ciders can be as complex as wines, but unlike wines, they rarely come from one varietal.
While bitter apples have the same malic acids and tannins that grapes do (which is why apples are used, as opposed to other fruits), single varietal ciders are rare as apples lack the complexity that single grape varietals contain. But blended together, they can create crisp and complex flavors as interesting and rich as a glass of wine.
Mass-produced cider is very one-toned and sweet, but French and Spanish ciders are marked by their depth of flavors.
4. Ciders differ dramatically from region to region.
You don't have to be a cider maker or a botanist to know that there are thousands of varieties of apples. Add to that the vast array of techniques used across the three primary cider-making regions in Europe—France, England, and Spain—and you have limitless options, but here's a cheat sheet:
- England: Since very bitter apples are used in English cider production, they often have "lip-smacking tannins," according to Jeff. He said, "They press it on-site and let it ferment naturally—this way the juice picks up natural yeasts from the skin of the fruit which will ferment itself and give the cider a wonderfully rich character." This yields a naturally still and dry cider which is typically back-sweetened by adding sugar and carbonation.
- France: The French use a system called keeving, which Jeff described as "a slow process of production that allows the ciders to starve the yeast of nutrients so eventually it runs out of gas and loses energy, which makes [the final product] sweeter. They can also use the process to ferment the cider in the bottle, which creates a cider almost as effervescent as Chamagne and much sweeter than English cider."
- Spain: Here, the process is similar to the English process in that they press the fruit on-site then put it into large wooden vents to slowly ferment. Jeff said that Spanish cider tends to be really acidic, and usually funkier, because of "a different variety of native yeast and bacteria."
5. Cider classifications are somewhat arbitrary.
You know more or less what you're going to get when you ask for a pilsner versus a barrel-aged stout, but in cider, there aren't the same cut-and-dry classifications. The closest thing, according to Jeff, are labels like "dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet"—but this is completely arbitrary. "Someone's dry is someone else's sweet." While it's possible to differentiate by asking for an "English-style cider" or by asking for something that's "light on hops," for example, the best way to know what you're ordering is to try as many ciders as possible. Twist our arm.
6. Ciders aren't always sparkling.
Most people prefer sparkling ciders—likely because that's how mass-market ciders are packaged—but Jeff believes that the flavors in still ciders present themselves better. It's a matter of preference—but don't write off still ciders if you've only ever tried sparkling.
7. Look for cider five to ten years from now—trust us.
While cider is having a moment right now, Jeff believes that it will be even more interesting ten years from now. The reason? Apple trees take about that long to grow—and while many craft cideries currently use juice from other orchards, in the next decade most will have their own trees to work with, which means more control over the apples as well as the ability to produce more, which Jeff said will lead to a "whole new era" of cider.
Here's how to start drinking ciders—the real stuff: If you don't live down the block from the only cider-only bar in the United States, there are still options. Jeff says that if you live in an area where cider is taking off (like the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, or Chicago), seek out local cideries. Otherwise, try to get your hands on European ciders to equate yourself with old traditions.
Here are some of Jeff's favorite cideries, in case you're lucky enough to live close to one of them:
- EZ Orchards (Salem, Oregon) do traditional French ciders with natural fermentation.
- Wandering Aengus (Salem, Oregon) makes English-style ciders that are thick and hearty.
- Abram Goldman-Armstrong's Cider Riot! (Pacific Northwest) is particularly talented at making cider that expresses the best of the apple.
- Farnhum Hill Ciders (New Hampshire) are very well known for their acidic varieties that are similar to sophisticated white wines.
Are you counting down to 5 o'clock to go find a cider? Still not convinced? Tell us in the comments below!
Illustrations by Lydia Nichols; photos by James Ransom