Although this website--and my career--are devoted to wine, it's sometimes fun to explore intriguing beverages made from fruit other than grapes. When I tasted ice wines for a previous WRO column, for example, one of the most delicious versions was made from apples.
In search of a new twist on New Year's Eve bubbly for this year's pre-holiday column, I stumbled across some fascinating sparkling ciders in a local wine shop. These ciders were not the mass-produced type that you find in 12-ounce beer bottles, or on tap at Ye Olde English-Style Pub; these were packaged in stylish 750ml Champagne bottles that sold for up to $19 per bottle. Clearly, these ciders were a different animal.
But before I get into detail about these artisan-made ciders, let's review a quick history of cider's place in American beverage culture. In Colonial times, hard cider was America's most popular drink--particularly for working-class folks. Carrying the tradition over from England, many people made their own cider and even preferred it to water, which wasn't always fit for drinking. But by the time Prohibition rolled around, its popularity had waned considerably. Some say that German immigrants turned the locals from cider to beer; others say that apples became too scarce and expensive for the working man. Either way, the result was the same: cider practically disappeared from American households and taverns, and Prohibition essentially finished it off.
Meanwhile, it continued to flourish in England and France, as well as Spain and other European countries.
In the 1980s cider made something of a comeback in the U.S., with English brands like Woodpecker and Blackthorn appearing in bars and on grocery store shelves. But it has never regained the mass appeal of pre-Prohibition times.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you'll find that a new cider renaissance is taking place--one in which artisan producers aim to elevate cider from the status of 'sweet beer alternative' to a complex beverage akin to wine.
One such producer is Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, based in Salem, Oregon. The cidery uses sustainable and organic farming practices to produce four different ciders, ranging from dry to dessert-style.
I sampled the Wandering Aengus Heirloom Blend Cider, and found it to be golden-hued, lightly effervescent and very tasty. With a sweet apple-juice aroma, the cider had a surprisingly dry apple flavor, good tannin structure and a crisp, tart finish. In other words: It was nothing like the ciders I've tasted in English/Irish pubs in the United States. So what makes ciders like this one so different?
'The most important aspect of our ciders is they are real ciders made primarily from cider apples, not eating apples,' explains James Kohn of Wandering Aengus.
As with winemaking, using the right fruit is crucial in making top-quality cider.
'When you think of artisan ciders, the apples make the difference--just like in fine wines, the grapes make the difference,' Kohn says. 'You don't see any wines made from flame grapes, because flame grapes don't make what are considered good wines; they are grown for eating fresh or to make raisins. Wine grapes are grown for wines, just like cider apples are grown specifically for ciders.'
Most American draft cider--the kind found in pubs--is made with dessert apples, Kohn explains, often blemished 'seconds' that don't make the grade for store shelves. While these apples are fine for making apple sauce and apple juice, they don't always make the best cider.
'The producers of six-pack ciders use these cast-off dessert apples--mainly in the form of fruit juice or concentrates--because they are readily available and relatively cheap. However, dessert fruit lacks the sugars, acidity and tannins to make a quality cider,' Kohn says. 'Dessert apples fermented produce a flat beverage with zero complexity at about 4 to 5% alcohol. This is the main reason (mass-produced) ciders have a list of ingredients including, but not limited to, sugar, malic acid, apple juice concentrate, and citric acid. These are needed to make the cider palatable.' Wandering Aengus ciders are made only with apples.
With just a single ingredient used in their production, it would seem that artisan ciders wouldn't differ much in flavor and character--but that isn't the case.
'Each artisan cider maker has their own perception of what a good cider is and should be,' Kohn says. 'This translates not only to a wide range of cider apples used but also differing preferences in blending.'
As in winemaking, the best cider makers grow their own fruit, or work closely with local growers. The process of making cider actually resembles winemaking much more than it does brewing: Apples are pressed and the resulting juice is fermented with natural or added yeast. Traditionally, no sugar is added.
The apples for artisanal ciders are usually pressed on-site, with producers either blending the apples or keeping the varieties separate to blend after fermentation. (Sound familiar, wine lovers?)
Today, some artisan cideries age their juice in oak barrels, or initiate bottle fermentations, Champagne-style, to add bubbles.
Wandering Aengus ferments its pressed apples for 4-8 weeks in either untoasted Oregon oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. Champagne yeast is used, and the cidery's Dry and Heirloom Blend ciders are fermented to dryness. After fermentation, the ciders are racked and aged. The Heirloom Blend ages in stainless steel for 2-4 months, and the Dry is aged in neutral oak for 4-6 months. After aging, the ciders are filtered, force carbonated, bottled and bath pasteurized to prevent fermentation.
Along with Wandering Aengus, a handful of artisanal cider producers are starting to attract attention in the U.S. These include small producers like New York state's Bellwether Hard Cider company, whose owners Cheryl and Bill Barton were inspired to make cider by their travels in France's 'cider country.' The Bartons use a variety of Upstate New York apples to produce a range of handcrafted ciders, ranging from extremely dry Champagne-style ciders to semi-dry sparkling and still ciders.
French sommelier-by-training Eric Bordelet decided to turn his talents to high-end cider production in 1992. His goal was nothing less than to 'revolutionize the cider industry and bring it into restaurants, high-end retail and export markets.'
Legendary French winemaker Didier Dagueneau encouraged Bordelet to pursue cider-making, and to approach it with a fine-winemaker's care. His orchard includes 20 different varieties of apples and 14 varieties of pears--varying in degrees of sweetness. Like more and more vineyards these days, the orchards are farmed organically and biodynamically. Bordelet bottles his ciders during fermentation with a bit of residual sugar to produce a delicate, Champagne-like mousse.
Even a few wineries--like Michigan's Black Star Farms--are trying their hand at making handcrafted ciders.
One of the incredible things about wine made from grapes is that it can display flavors of such a wide variety of fruits, including cherries, grapefruits, guavas, raspberries, pineapples and even apples. But apple (and even pear) ciders don't taste of grapes, or any other fruit. The finest ciders taste like pure expressions of the fruit from which they're made. Though the artisanal ciders I've tasted can't match wine's complexity, they can provide a lovely, effervescent diversion.