Ciders seem like something new, but they have been around for centuries. In fact, cider was once the favorite drink of of the early settlers and colonists, from the arrival of the pilgrims (cider equipment was on board the Mayflower) and well into the 1800s. And then, after some decades of diminishing interest as beer and whiskey became more popular, Prohibition struck a near fatal blow.
The beer and whiskey industries were (eventually) able to recover from Prohibition, but cider wasn’t - for one distinct reason: There were fewer cider apple trees left standing. The best apples for making cider are known as “spitters” because they are so bitter in taste. If temperance fanatics hadn’t burned these spitter cider apple trees down, farmers came along and uprooted them to make way for dessert apples and other fruits. It can take years if not decades for newly planted cider apple trees to become viable, making many modern farmers loath to invest.
But, now, thank goodness, ciders are back! The variety available various and vast and can be mind-boggling. We hope this little overview helps you choose ciders you enjoy right from the first sip.
New World: Modern Ciders in the U.S.
Ciders available in packaging similar to craft beer - 12oz or 22oz bottles, 12oz or 16oz cans, and on draft - typically fall into this category. Modern ciders are produced in large quantities and sold at tempting prices, often in line with what you’d pay for craft beer. And these modern ciders are often refreshing and easy to drink.
Some modern ciders are made with apple juice concentrate (Angry Orchard, for example), either from domestic or imported sources. Others are made with juice from commonly grown apple varieties usually intended for eating such as Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh and Jonathan. These apples may be too blemished or misshapen to be sold in a grocery store, but they are fine for making juice. The juice might be pressed from recently harvested apples, or the juice could be pressed from apples kept in refrigerated or controlled-atmosphere storage; in this way, modern ciders can be made year-round, like beer.
Modern ciders often have an intense apple aroma. They will typically be medium-sweet to very sweet, even if the label claims the cider is dry or off-dry. Carbonation will often be medium to high, similar to beer.
Many cidermakers use these types of cider as a base to which they can add other flavors: Pears, apricots, cherries, peaches, and various berries can be added to create a fruit cider. Hops can be added to create a hopped cider. Cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and other spices can be added to create a mulled cider. The results of such mixing can be interesting.
New World: Traditional Ciders in the U.S.
Ciders available in packaging similar to wine - 750ml bottles are standard but 500ml and 375ml bottles are also used - typically fall into this category. These ciders are often inspired by Old World traditions, but can possess their own New World flair. Traditional ciders are usually produced on a smaller scale than modern ciders and command prices on par with many wines. And traditional ciders often pair well with food and are typically more complex than modern ciders.
These traditional ciders are typically made just once a year, from apples pressed soon after the fall harvest, similar to a wine vintage. Blending different varieties to produce a balanced cider is an art much to be admired!
Few traditional ciders will be overtly sweet. Bone-dry to off-dry is common, medium and semi-sweet less so. Apple aroma can range from subtle to easily detectable. Acidity - a common element of the “finish” in wine - is necessary to render the cider good for pairing with food, while tannins add mouthfeel and complexity, even when present in only small amounts. Yeast character is typically neutral. Carbonation can range from still to sparkling, though most traditional ciders are less carbonated than modern ciders.
And somewhere beyond and in between…
Newburgh’s own Graft cidery, located on Ann Street, is typical of a newer trend, which is the making of ciders that are anything but typical! Innovation is the key here, as tart goes and sour, salty, funky, non-traditional ciders are made in small batches for daring sippers and connoisseurs. This may be the more exciting category of new world ciders and Newburgh, with Graft, is right at the center of the excitement. Next time you’re having shellfish and come into Palate for a wine to pair with your meal, don’t be surprised if Steve starts touting Graft’s “Salt and Sand” as an ideal pairing.
Old World: Europe
European ciders are still not widely available in most North American markets, though we are getting a nice selection built up here at Palate. And enterprising beer, wine, and cider importers are bringing more shipments across the Atlantic all the time.
If you enjoy complex aromas and bold flavors, ciders from England, France or Spain might be to your liking. While these cidermaking traditions are very different from one another in many respects, they do share one important trait: Old World ciders typically use naturally occuring yeast that can be found on the fruit itself, on the milling and presssing equipment, and inside the fermentation vessels. This type of fermentation - referred to as wild or spontaneous fermentation - results in a markedly different flavor profile than cider made with yeasts that have been cultured in a laboratory.
If you have a bit of a sweet tooth but still crave balance and complexity, ciders made in Normandy and Brittany are worth a taste. Using techniques similar to those winemakers use in Mosel, Germany to retain a balance of acid and residual sugars in their Rieslings, cidermakers in France use a technique called keeving that arrests the fermentation process before the yeast can convert all the natural sugars to alcohol. These sparkling ciders are packaged in strong glass bottles topped with a cork and cage, like champagne. Ciders labeled as Brut are the driest, but will almost always be somewhat sweeter than many dry ciders from other cidermaking regions. French ciders labelled as Demi-Sec or Doux will be sweeter still.
If you enjoy cider a bit drier and more austere, ciders made in England may be a good choice. As with French ciders, most English ciders use tannic apple varieties known as bittersweets and bittersharps that contribute a pleasant astringency and bitterness to the finished cider. The dominant aroma and flavor notes are often spice, smoke, or, in some cases, a funkiness sometimes labelled “barnyard”. The mouthfeel will be similar to that of red wine. Some bottled English ciders are still, but modest carbonation is more common.
If you enjoy your cider on the funky side, ciders made in Asturias and the Basque Country are worth a look. Sour beer lovers in particular will find much to like in this category. Traditional “sidra natural” is typically packaged in a 700ml or 750ml green bottle with a visible layer of sediment resting at the bottom. Unwary drinkers often try “sidra natural” and immediately turn up their noses. But when poured correctly - from as far above the glass as one dares and just a mouthful or two at a time - the vinegar taste vanishes and a refreshing cider emerges. Of note is that some of the best Spanish ciders will more closely resemble traditional New World ciders, though usually with more complexity and funk.
There are ciders from many more countries and regions, but they are going to resemble - in taste, funkiness, dryness or sweetness, carbonation, etc. - those of the countries mentioned above. Also, even within a small region, or from a single cidermaker, there may be wide variation in the cider products that are available. In the U.S. - just in New York, in fact - ciders and cider makers are as wide-ranging and various as craft beer makers. The fun comes with finding a few ciders you really enjoy and then experimenting with others to broaden your palate. As you gain in your knowledge and appreciation of ciders, you can start choosing which ones might be best to pair - like wine - with certain foods. But pairing is another subject altogether…
If you have any questions, suggestions or whatever, please write them in the comments here and we will do our best to respond in a timely fashion. See you at the shop!