Taste 5: Cider

What goes around might indeed come around, but in the case of cider, a once quite-traditional drink in America, the renewed interest is crazy – people are drinking the stuff up like it was colonial times. 

Consumers seem to love that it’s not quite a wine (though it’s made similarly, from orchard fruit, usually apples), not quite a beer, but something in between, with lower alcohol than many wines and less heft than what’s oft confronted in craft beer.

Produced for centuries in England and France, cider is typically made by pressing and mashing just-picked apples into juice and then adding yeast to kick off a wine-like slow, cool fermentation. The fermented apple juice is then aged, sometimes in wood barrels, which can add subtle notes of spice and vanilla, just as in wine. 

In the United States, cider was consumed in great quantities all the way up to Prohibition, which drove many cider apple farmers to plant sweeter apples to eat. 

The hold-up in making traditional cider these days has much to do with the scarcity of traditional apple varieties, as well as a nagging perception that cider is bound to be sweet. The best new examples in our view are dry, tannic and complex, with just a subtle jolt of fizz, inspired by the ciders traditionally made in Normandy, as well as England’s West Country, with a New World twist.

Bittersweet apples are high in tannin and sugar but low in acidity, while bittersharps are high in tannin, sugar and acidity. Some favorites types include Muscat de Bernay, a bittersweet from Normandy; Nehou, a tannic bittersweet also from France; and Roxbury Russet, an ancient American cider apple that’s sweet yet complex. Gravensteins, first planted in Sonoma County in 1811, are another lovely choice.

In this Taste 5 we picked two favorites, because two of the five were so different, yet equally compelling.

Our bold, adventurous favorite was William Tell Hard Apple Cider with Pinot Grigio (ciderbrothers.com) made by Cider Brothers in Lodi. We liked that yes, of course, it was cider-esque, but it had an element of surprise, which once revealed, turned out to be Pinot Grigio. This is their signature cider, which they keep light and bright, using five types of apples from the Walla Walla Valley, including Granny Smith and Red Delicious.

Our other favorite was much more classic in style, dry, tawdry and full of crisp apple flavor. Horse & Plow Heirloom Cider ($15, horseandplow.com) comes from Sonoma County, where the producer also makes wine from organically farmed vineyards. For this, they fermented different kinds of heirloom apples separately, then blended and bottled it all together for a traditional and delicious result.

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