By Marty Nachel
Once the most popular beverage in America, hard cider is making a comeback of sorts, hot on the heels of the microbrewing revolution. In fact, it is suggested that cider is now where craft brews were about eight years ago and closing in fast.
The word cider is believed to be a derivation of the Hebrew shekar, which means "strong drink". The recorded history of cider dates back to the first century B.C. Roman soldiers under Julius Caesar marching across the Kentish countryside in southern Britain discovered this drink and brought it back with them to Rome, introducing it to the rest of western Europe along the way. Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the consumption of cider increased immeasurably (being from the north of France, the Normans had no trouble appreciating this Champagne-like beverage). Under King Henry VIII, there were deliberate attempts to develop apple orchards in England for cider-making purposes. Cider production peaked in the 1700's, only to lose ground to the punitive results of increased taxation of cider in the 1800's.
In the United States, cider was the beverage of choice among the white Anglo-Saxon protestants that settled the original colonies, but its popularity diminished in the mid-1800's, following the arrival of millions of German and Eastern European immigrants whose preferred drink was beer. Cider lost out again to non-alcoholic soft drinks that were introduced to the American populace at the turn-of-the-century. So here we are on the brink of yet another trend in fashionable libations, with nary a clue of its pedigree or placement (what's an anxious young dilettante to do?).
Hard cider, for the uninitiated, is a fermented beverage made from the juice of apples (regular or "soft" cider is unfermented, and therefore, contains no alcohol). It is considered primarily a British drink, though its traditions in the U.S. run deep. Its production may include optional ingredients such as white and brown sugars and various other fruits and spices- depending on the producer and the style. Cider is produced in four main styles: Still cider is uncarbonated; Sparkling cider is lightly carbonated; New England cider may be still or sparkling, but contains elevated levels of alcohol (usually over 8% by volume); and Specialty cider is made with the various ingredients mentioned above. Ciders of any style may also range from "sweet" to "dry", depending on the types of apples that were used in the making of the cider as well as the yeast strain used to ferment the juice. Furthermore, cider may be served draft style, which is pasteurized and filtered, or in the more natural "farmhouse" style which is usually served unfiltered from a cask.
Comparing apples to apples
There are a wide variety of apples that are used in the cider-making industry. At their most basic, apples fall roughly into two categories: bittersweet and culinary. Most of us are vaguely familiar with the culinary varieties such as Granny Smith, Jonathan, McIntosh and Golden Delicious, but few of us know of the wide variety of bittersweet apples that go by monikers like Northern Spy, Kingston Black, Golden Russet and Newton Pippen. The culinary varieties are the ones that are used in apple pies, apple sauce or are just eaten plain. The bittersweet apple varieties tend to have thicker skins and elevated tannin levels (tannin contributes bitterness) and contain higher acid contents that make them less desirable for common consumption.
Most brand name ciders are blends of the juices of different apple varieties which create a wider spectrum of flavors. This also allows the cider-producer to exercise more control over the cider flavor- especially if one or more apple crop experiences a bad growing season. And blending also results in a greater consistency in the finished product. The largest cider-maker in the world, Bulmer, in England, uses fifteen varieties of apple to produce the various brands marketed by that company.
How is cider made?
The apples for cider-making are usually harvested between September and December. They are shaken from the trees and scooped from the ground by specialized equipment. The fruit is then stored until it is time for processing. During processing, twigs, leaves and other unwanted material is separated from the apples and the fruit is then cut into smaller pieces; often reduced to a pulp. Hydraulic or mechanical presses squeeze the juice out of the pulp and the juices are blended immediately (some of the juice is stored in concentrated form so the cider-maker can continue the cider-making process throughout the year). Some cider-makers even blend in a small percentage of pear juice that is less acidic; thus reducing some of the cidery "bite" (a cider made from more than 50% pear juice is properly called a "perry").
The blended juice is transferred to large fermenters and yeast is added. Most modern producers use stainless-steel vessels, but a few traditionalists still use oak barrels. Sulphur dioxide is often added to the apple juice prior to fermentation as a form of a bacterial inhibitor. There is such a thing as cider yeast but many cideries prefer to use Champagne yeasts which are capable of converting more of the natural fruit sugars to alcohol. The fermenting action stops naturally when acid and alcohol levels build up in the juice, eventually arresting the fermentation process. The primary fermentation may last up to two months, at which time the cider is then transferred to another vessel and left to mature for a while longer before it is heat pasteurized and filtered prior to packaging. Because of its acid and alcohol content, cider also has a shelf-life that far exceeds that of beer.
Old World vs. New World
England still leads the world in cider production and consumption, but the United States is gaining ground. While the U.K. reports approximately 60 cider-makers, there are about half that many on U.S. soil. About two-thirds of these produce draft ciders and the remaining third are "farmhouse" cideries. The "Anglo" style, widely produced in Britain, is generally more tannic and ale-like due to the cider-makers' use of ale yeasts and bittersweet apples (the greater use of bittersweet apples is what sets the English ciders apart from North American ciders). The Anglo style is also more costly due to longer fermentations. The "Continental" style, popular in the United States, is generally sweeter and more Champagne-like.
While cider is produced in much the same way as wine, it is marketed and consumed more like beer, and it is estimated that up to 5% percent of the domestic beer market may be dominated by cider within the next decade. The three largest selling brands in the U.S. are Woodchuck (made in Vermont), Seven Sisters Wild Horse (Idaho) and Cider Jack (Massachusetts), with two lesser-known brands, Ace and Hornsby's, both produced in California. The leading imported brands include Woodpecker and Strongbow (Bulmer's, UK) and Blackthorn (Taunton, UK)
CIDER TASTING NOTES:
Here are some brief sampling notes from some of the better-known ciders available in the United States. All alcohol contents are expressed in alcohol by volume.
Ace - (6%) Very pale; straw colored. Fruity and winelike nose. Lots of ripe apple flavor and sweetness throughout. Tangy acidic edge. Aftertaste is long and ultimately dry; reminiscent of a fine sparkling wine. Super-fine carbonation; almost non-existent.
Woodchuck Dark 'n' Dry - (5%) Copper-colored. Fragrant honeyed nose. A tad crisp. Spicy ripe apple flavor has subtle tannic mouthfeel. Honey flavor reappears towards finish. Like a liquid caramel apple.
Woodchuck Draft Amber - (5%) Light golden. Apple-Champagne aroma. Honey apple flavor is rich and sweet. Mild carbonation helps to clear the palate. Acidic tanginess is a welcome counterpoint to sweetness. Finish is long and flavorful.
Blackthorn Dry - (5.8%) Pale yellow. Winey nose, similar to a Riesling. Very fine bead leaves a small ring of bubbles on the glass. Plenty of ripe red apple flavor with pleasant citric balance. Buttery notes in background add depth and mouthfeel. Dry but flavorful finish.
Seven Sisters Wild Horse Raspberry - (4.5%) Slightly deeper in hue than a blush wine. Inviting "true" raspberry fruit aroma (as opposed to a fruit extract) dominates the nose. Fresh and tart raspberry flavor obscures the cider base -not to be construed as a negative. Very clean and tasty; an enjoyable departure from the usual.
There are also a variety of interesting cider mixed drinks one can experiment with including:
Snakebite - a mix of ale and cider
Blackbird - a mix of stout and cider
Hillbilly cider - a mix of whiskey and cider
faux Lambic - a mix of barleywine and cider
cider spritzer - a mix of orange juice and cider
© 1997 Marty Nachel