Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cider Tales

The apple tree is considered by some as the oldest cultivated tree in the world, but with its exact origins both unknown and hotly debated we can really only go so far back before what we know about how apples were grown and used gets pretty sketchy.  The flipside is that the hot debate confirms that apples were grown all over the Old World and migrated to New World locations with explorers and settlers. I led off with this because I wanted to the following statement to be as believable as possible. Where there are apples there is hard cider.

I will let the reader discover the numerous perspectives on the history of cider, some of which can be explored via the links below.
With the identification of the mysterious process of fermentation some eight to ten thousand years ago (Pasteur only documented the science in the mid 19th century), anything that had sugar in it was fair game to have been used to make drink. This includes fruits, honey, cereals (grains, rice) and other sources of sugar like cane. And apples weren't excluded. We don't have to travel forward in history too far to find the evidence that where there were apples there was cider.  SO, what else do you need to know?

There is a lot to know about cider both old and new. "But Jason what's the most important information to know about cider?" Well, that really depends on two things. First of, because cider is made all over the world, it is going to take time to experience enough of it firsthand to really worry about all the particulars. Second, and to me most important, is figuring out what you like. When seeking out and sampling ciders it pays to have a sense of how they work on your palate. And that is where the different style elements or characteristics come in to play.

Cider Characteristics 
  • Carbonation - Ciders come in sparkling AND still styles. The range of carbonation can be from Champagne-like to soda that is going flat.  Still cider will rarely present any carbonation at all, but some versions maybe pettilent, much like some bottlings of mead.
  • Aroma/Flavor - Traditional ciders, those made with heirloom or cider-making apples, are much more likely to have tart apple driving both the nose and palate, and may often be sour. Ciders made with dessert or sweet apples will be much more juicy and sweet smelling/tasting. The choice can be born of tradition or cider-maker choice, and every cider house may make different choices based on the types and quality of apples available each new season.
  • Texture/Body - Cider can be bone dry and very light, but it can also be sweet and viscous with just enough acidity to manage a reasonable level of tartness. Some cider-makers filter their ciders and other do not. Some bottle conditioned ciders may pour hazy from the bottle re-fermentation, while most high-volume commercial ciders are crystal clear and are force-carbonated during the bottling process.
  • Additional Ingredients - Cider-makers can be very creative and most often when they are, we all benefit. Added fruits (cherries, pears, etc), spices, maple syrup, honey, unique yeasts and barrel aging all influence the finished cider differently.
Regional cider traditions can be broadly classified in terms of the different characteristics , and here are some of the most common regional variations:
  • English (West) – Traditionally are farmhouse style ciders that are most often cloudy and made from tart cider apples.
  • English (East) – More often made dessert apples, filtered for clarity with an overall light & dry profile.
  • France (Normandy/Brittany) – Most of the cider produced in France is made in the northwest regions where cider-making has been ongoing for hundreds of years. A range of ciders, dry to sweet and most often sparkling are produced.
  • Canada (Quebec) – several styles of cider are produced in Quebec, but most notably is the Cidre de Glace, or ice cider. The production of these ciders is much like ice wine, frozen fruit is pressed to extract concentrated sugars. These ciders are exquisite and are well worth seeking out.
  • Canada (Outside Quebec) – Traditional dry, sparkling ciders are produced in several Canadian provinces. I recall enjoying some BC-made cider in a pub on Victoria Island, but sadly I enjoyed that night so much that I forgot to find out who the producer was.
  • United States (New England) – along with the Mid-Atlantic states New England is where ciders were first produced in what would later become the United States. Styles vary and the availability of both traditional cider AND dessert apples means that versions resembling old English styles as well as modern styles can be found readily. Several large and many small producers exist in the region.  Ice cider, having migrated over the northern border with Quebec is notable in Vermont.
  • United States (New York & Mid-Atlantic) – Has a similar cider making history to New England. Several small to medium sized producers making both traditional and modern styles of cider.
  • United States (Upper Midwest) – Michigan and Minnesota are home to a number of cider producers making a range of styles.
  • United States (West Coast) – Cider is made by a growing list of producers from Washington to California. I’ll be seeking out more West Coast cider on several upcoming trips.
  • Germany – Called Apfelwien this is a variation I have yet to try. Research suggests it is tart and sour, but that variations do exist.
  • Ireland – Typically medium dry, filtered and force carbonated.
  • Spain – Several styles exist both in the regions of Asturia and Basque Country. Traditional versions are tart and sour. I don’t have much experience with these but have read about the long cider-making tradition and included the reference to peek curiosity for those travelling to Spain or looking for Spanish food & drink.
Cider is produced and consumed in quite a few other countries, but at smaller volumes than the countries/ regions listed above. We have to remember that where there are apples there is cider, but sometimes just not that much.

Production Process

Cider at its simplest is the juice of crushed and pressed apples that is fermented with either ambient or cultured yeasts.

Apples must be prepared before they can be fermented and this involves crushing them, often called scratting, and then pressing the pomace to release the juice. The pressed juice is then transferred into barrels or tanks for primary fermentation. (The photo on the below on the right is from a brew club purchase of cider from 2011. I made a couple of nice ciders from the 20 gallons I purchased!)

The primary fermentation proceeds until almost all the sugars are consumed by the yeast. At this point the nearly complete cider is racked (transferred) to clean vessels for the completion of the fermentation and aging. Typically ciders will complete fermentation in about 8-12 weeks and are ready to consume in the un-finished form shortly thereafter.

What happens next is very much a cider house choice. Some ciders are aged in old barrels for years, while some ciders are bottled and released young. As mentioned above some ciders have added flavors which may require additional fermentation and aging time as well filtration depending the type and texture of the added ingredients.

Bottling takes one of two paths, a Champagne-like secondary fermentation in the bottle (sometimes called charging or bottle conditioning) or the forced carbonation of sterile filtered ciders. Enclosures range from corks & cages (again like Champagne) to traditional crown caps used for beer. Bottle size ranges from 12 oz to 22oz or 750ml containers.

Ciders You Might Find at the Store

Cider is produced all over the United States and is also imported from other countries. Many of the domestic producers are small in scale and have limited distribution so unless they are local to you it is unlikely you will easily find their products. Cider is inherently a local beverage, and the best ones are made close to the apple source, making them hyper-local. There are several major domestic and imported brands that you should be familiar with. This brings me to a rule that I use to guide my beverage explorations. As a producer’s volume increases the number of human hours per ounce of beverage drops and if you experience this growth curve first-hand you will notice a point when the quality and character of their flagship products plateaus or even drops off. If you experience these products later in the producers’ evolution you may be underwhelmed. Looking back to their history might help contextualize these experiences for what they are. This isn’t a hard and fast rule and the threshold for different beverages and producers isn’t the same. For producers who have a diverse lineup of products, those that remain in small production might not suffer this fate.

How does the guidance above apply to cider? Well, the big brands have volume and distribute their product as far as they can to support that volume as well as future growth. Their products are worth trying and will help you understand the breadth of options available. That said, it is an absolute surety that well-made versions from local producers will be more interesting, more creative and elicit a much more joyful response from people who experience them. The major brands are viewed as a benchmark for the cider industry broadly, but only because much of the remaining production is made “under the radar” of the public at-large. Traditionally products may not bear any resemblance to the "big" commercial products, and we have to take care not to overlook them.

Major Brands You Should Know
  • Magners (Ireland) – available in bottles and on draft in many locations. This is bottled under the Bulmer’s name in Ireland where cider is quite popular.
  • Strongbow (England) – available in bottles and on draft in pubs with a more English profile to the drink selection.
  • Woodchuck (US, VT) – available in bottles nationwide, and on draft in some locations
  • Angry Orchard (US, OH) – available in bottles nationwide. I have yet to run into it on draft, but I don’t know that it isn’t available that way.
Regional/Imported Brands You Might Find Nationwide
  • Devil's Bit (Ireland) – a delicious import that is available here and there.
  • Crispin (US, MN) - Although Crispin is now owned by MillerCoors, the products continue to be to made to the brand standards and are very enjoyable. Their standard offerings are delicious but some of their specialty versions include adjunct sweeteners (maple, honey) and are fermented with beer yeasts. The added character is well worth seeking out.
  • Farnum Hill (US, NH) – a gold standard for cider in my opinion. Both dry and sweeter styles are made, including varietal versions from heirloom or cider apples like Kingston Black.
  • Samuel Smith (England) – another import worth seeking out. Should be found more easily, especially in craft beer shops.
Local Brands You Should Seek Out
  • Foggy Ridge Cider (US, VA)
  • Albermarle CiderWorks (US, VA)
  • Bellwether (Finger Lakes, NY)
  • Peconic Bay (Long Island, NY)
  • Eden Cider (US, VT - Iced Cider & Aperitif styles)
  • Silver Mountain Ciders (US, NH)
  • Champlain Orchards (US, VT)
  • Bantam Ciders (US, MA)
I have enjoyed ciders from all of the "local" producers immediately above and would highly recommend them. Finding them will most likely require a trip to the region of origin, but that is changing slowly.

Phew, that's a lot of information on cider. But I'm really just getting started. Tomorrow I will share information on three more topics including reviews from recent tastings, cider & food pairing and my experiences making cider at home.



1 comment:

VA Wine Diva said...

Thanks for the great cider primer, Jason. This is a great resource to send folks to when they've got some questions about exploring craft cider.