Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Now Hear This - Music with Soul

This is the inaugural column of Now Hear This, a weekly music-themed article that will showcase the strange interplay between music and beverages which may only exist in my own mind. Maybe it will make sense, maybe it won't. Maybe you will be inspired to check out new-to-you music and beverages as a result of reading it, or maybe you will dismiss me as crazy. Fine by me! Either way each week I get to share something of the inspiration that propels me onwards with only the hope that I might entertain you.

This week's topic is music that have soul. What does this mean exactly? When I was mulling this new column over I remembered a piece by Steve Heimoff in 2012 that touched on the topic of soul in wine and used a music analogy, hearing Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" as a kid, to set the tone. Heimoff was riffing on the thoughts of another writer (Lisa Airy for the Baltimore Sun) after having read their treatment of the question "What does it take to be great?" in the context of wine. There are two points from the original author that Heimoff specifically crafted his piece around that to me answer the question I asked above. They are “A …wine [that] is a very real combination of scent, flavor and texture that is seamless, multi-faceted, and unending from first sip to swallow, from first sip to last sip.” and “The experience [of a soulful wine] should be such a sensorial onslaught as to capture your complete and undivided attention.” Whether it is wine or music those two statements sum up the concept of soul I am hinting at, multi-faceted, intensely textured, sensorially captivating; demanding complete and undivided attention.

I'm late jumping on the Ben Harper train. He's already been underground and indie, has already gone big and  won awards, been the "it" musician and best I can tell has now settled into his unique stride entertaining loyal fans with performances worldwide, producing for others and giving time & resources to the many global causes he is outspoken about and supports. Ben Harper's music has a vibrant soul, and based on what I've read about him personally, so does he.

I recently caught "I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone: The Making of Get Up!"on Palladia. The show is part making of and part studio performance for the new Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite collaboration, "Get Up!" At the time I first watched it I knew next to nothing about Harper and absolutely nothing about Musselwhite, and technically I still don't. But the music commanded my attention. Harper on slide guitar (his signature style which of course I would learn more about after downloading more of his music) and Musselwhite on harmonica is a real sensorial onslaught. "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" is my favorite track from the "Get Up!" disc.

The video above is a the performance of "I Don't Believe a Word You Say"  from the Get Up! special. Turn it up loud and listen to the different layers from the musicians. It may be stripped down musically, but is isn't simple and has plenty of soul.

During the special on the making of Get Up! Both Musselwhite and Harper talked about how they met (at a session with John Lee Hooker no less) and that they were “following a feeling” and “letting the music lead them” which brought them to where they were right then. Talk about tuned in, switched on and paying attention!

After the special was over I headed to the cloud. I have been 13 year member of Emusic.com and once I found the Ben Harper page I bounced around the artist bio and album pages to get a feel for what was available and downloaded a cross section of studio and live tunes that I could chew on. Amongst the songs I downloaded there is one I keep coming back to, "The Will To Live". I specifically like the live version of it from the "The Will To Live: Live EP" originally recorded during the 1997 world tour. With lyrics like those below I don't think it is very hard to expect the song to have a bit of soul.

"I met a girl whose heart was on the right hand side
And upon the left an angel did reside
They told her mother that she never would survive
But she kept the rhythm and is still alive, she's still alive
And we must all have the will to live
Oh, you got to have the will to live
Oh, the will, oh, the will
The will to live

I couldn't find that particular version online but this one is similar and should provide context. After listening to the song I immediately stopped to think about what it really means to have the will to live and why don't more people live life to the fullest without having to have experienced calamity for perspective? I've been lucky enough to gain perspective after personal health problems, but I don't think that is required to be able to grasp the soul of this song.

The slide guitar on this track (the live one I specifically like) initially comes across as just behind the bass in the texture stack, then it jumps forward and for the rest of the track they trade places with the guitar also bouncing from right to left and back. It takes focus to absorb it all. Another stylistic facet for Harper is a soulful whisper in his vocals, which is clearly evident on this track. At about four and half minutes (or so depending on version) into the track a group of vocalists, Harper included, create a lullaby type medley that Harper stretches out to nearly the close of the track. There is something so human and soulful there. I'm profoundly touched by it. Examples of this soul exist throughout Ben Harper's collection. If you aren't familiar with Harper and dig an eclectic mix of blues, folk, soul, rock and plenty of energetic guitar playing find this music and stick it in your brain!

So what about the beverages? I am going to go with a pairing rather than deconstruct the soul of a particular drink this week. The music on the Get Up! record offers a lot to take in with its mix of both mellow and up-tempo blues. It immediately made me think of Bourbon, a great example of the harmony of mellow and lively elements in a glass. I watched the special a second time with a glass of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in hand and it was a fine pairing indeed. The Bourbon is complex in its own right, with a nice balance of sweet and smoky elements which played off the music very well. It occurred to me that a cigar might have been a nice addition, but I’ll save that for another day.

Sane or crazy, you decide. Hopefully it was entertaining!



Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Half Full Glass - April 25th, 2013

White Birch Ol' Catty Flemish Sour

Hanging out at the Cask & Vine bar can be dangerous. Four beer flights help you experience what's been newly tapped and then a full glass of something that catches your fancy can make for a dangerous night!
Last weekend the Ol' Catty Sour from White Birch (a soured version of their Ol' Cattywhompus Barleywine) was on tap. I will say that I am developing a taste for sour beers and with the experience I do have I know what I like and don't in this style. Beers that are sour for sour's sake and don't have a lot of character in their own right just don't do it for me.

The White Birch Ol' Catty Sour is NOT one of those beers. It's actually sweet, and sour! Brown in color with a wonderfully rich & malty full body and earthy hops you'd be good enough there. The sour, but not too sour, tangent adds depth to this drink. Because it is also sweet the sour profile doesn't taste forced or out of balance. My Facebook message on this beer finished with "damn, I love this beer!" I guess I was having a good time.

Meinklang Burgenland White 2012

Last night (April 24, 2013) the topics of bio-dynamics and Austrian wine were showcased on #winechat. I received the sample kit and popped the bottles open earlier in the day to do my tasting and note taking. The first wine I tasted was the Meinklang Burgenland White 2012 a blend of Welschriesling, Gruener Veltliner and Muskat Ottonel. I'm a sucker for fresh & fruity white blends and this one definitely drew me in. Bottled with some of its own carbonation the wine is a bit prickly which adds a surprising but very workable dimension all of its own. This wine makes a perfect summer sipper. It does need to be chilled to be best.

Aromas of white flowers, crushed herbs and tart, white fleshed fruits (tart apples, pears) blend together nicely in the nose and mouth. The finish is crisp and prickly but does have just a little sweetness left before it exits. There was plenty of conversation about this wine during #winechat and having enjoyed it on the first really warm Spring day we've had in New Hampshire made it easy to consider how this wine might pair well with the inevitable backyard parties of Summer.

Thank you to Austrian Wine USA for hosting #winechat and for the producers who participated. Not having a lot of Gruner experience I was taking in a lot of the feedback from others to help put these wines in context. I purposely decided to make an Asian-inspired salad for dinner tonight so that I can return to the Sepp Moser and Nikolaihof Gruners to experience more of what they offer!



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Half Full Glass - April 16th, 2013

Cider Rules

Last Wednesday night I had the honor of talking about cider as a guest for #winechat. Prior to the event I tasted through several styles to remind myself of the incredible diversity in cider-making traditions around the world.  I also wrote two posts (Cider Tales and More From The Orchard) on the topic of cider to help those unfamiliar with it learn more about a beverage that I both make and frequently enjoy.

One bottle I had on hand that didn't open was the Newtown Pippin from Original Sin. The Newtown Pippin apple has a great American story, originating in Long Island, NY and spreading to many locations including Virginia where both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew it. In modern times it is considered an heirloom apple variety and is largely used in cider-making, although it can be found at farm stands in the Eastern part of the United States. I've never actually eaten one, but have had it in cider form several times.

The Original Sin Newtown Pippin is a dry, sparkling cider that pours a light gold color. The aromas are tart apple, crab apple and apple blossom to me. In the mouth it is dry, but not bone dry, with very straightforward tart apple flavors. What I like about this cider is the balance. Dry, tart ciders can often create a sour sensation pretty quickly. This one is more gentle, not creating a big mouth pucker until late in the finish.

Aged Homemade Wine

I've only been making wine for nine years and for the first several of those years I made small enough quantities that most of it was consumed within the first year of its life. More recently I've made wine in higher volumes as well as have branched off into other beverages (cider and mead) so more of my wine has been able to age.

I recently uncorked a bottle of a Cabernet blend (Cab Sauv & Ruby Cab) made in the Spring of 2008 from buckets of juice. The wine drank well early on and I had hoped it would age. It has aged and well enough to be drinkable, but it has not really improved at all with age; not that I expected it to. When I made this wine I still had minimal experience with the process, and the ingredients I used were good, but not the best out there.

The wine is drinkable on its own, but comes off a little sweet and a bit candy-ish. The candy / bubblegum nose is a dead give-away for methyl sorbate in homemade wine, a chemical byproduct from the use of Potassium Sorbate as a stabilizer, and potentially in a larger than necessary amount. Lesson learned. I've rarely come across this attribute in my wines so for this to be found in wines I made nearly 5 years ago shouldn't be a surprise. So what to do with the wine?

Cut it with Coca-Cola, add some ice and enjoy a wine cocktail!



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More From The Orchard

( Apple blossoms right down the street from me in the Spring. )

Yesterday I offered up a bit of a primer on cider. A little bit of historical context, characteristics & regional variations, how it's made and producers you should know. It was a lot of information but I hadn't covered all the topics that I wanted to. Today I'm back with reviews of recent tastings, some tips on pairing cider with food and a little bit about my own experience making cider at home.

Cider Reviews

I try new ciders whenever and wherever I find them. I developed a taste for cider growing up in New England. Occasionally the fresh pressed cider from a local farm had gone a little hard and while I don't think I knew about the potential alcohol in it, I did like the tartness and minor carbonation. I never got to drink much of it, it was usually spirited away upon detection that it had gone "hard", but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When I did begin to drink alcohol, legally of course, I consumed cider frequently. For me it was a much better alternative to light beer when I had the funds to buy just for myself.

Samuel Smith Organic Hard Cider

Samuel Smith Organic Hard Cider is medium dry with plenty of sweet & tart apple to go around this is a very enjoyable cider. There is a floral element to this that you will also see mentioned in quite a number of other reviews. Knowing what apple blossoms smell like, I have orchards on my street, I do agree that is what the aroma is most like. At 5% ABV this cider won't do a lot of damage in moderation. To me this is a classic commercial version of English cider.

Angry Orchard Ciders

The ciders from Angry Orchard are relatively new and until recently I hadn't tried all the varieties available in 12oz bottles.  I haven't yet tried Ice Man or Straw Man from the Cider House Collection. Both the Crisp and Traditional ciders are straightforward with the Traditional being the drier, sharper and more tart of the two. The Crisp tasted too juicy and fruity to me, but it isn't a bad cider to sit back and enjoy. The Ginger version is more interesting still, but I found the ginger flavor to be somewhat hidden by the apple aromas and sweetness. I found the Elderflower to have a skunky nose and it just wasn't a combination that I enjoyed well enough to want to drink it again.

Sarasola Basque Cider

Pours hazy and with an orange tint. The aromas are tart and sour which follows through in the mouth. The cider is funky, earthy, acetic, sour and much more interesting that I expected. The apple aromas and flavors are there but are very much masked by the Brett and sour elements. This reminds me of some of the sour Belgian ales and lambics I have had. The reviews at several of the craft beer sites for this cider were decidedly not positive. It left me wondering if the reviewers didn't know that Basque cider isn't like American cider.

Woodchuck Ginger

I've been drinking Woodchuck ciders for as long as I can remember them being available (1991) but I had never had the ginger which has only been out less than a year. This is the best ginger flavor I have had in a cider, and something I hope to replicate in a cider of my own in the next season. The cider itself is dry so the ginger stands out with a potent spicy character and apples as the backdrop.

Bantam Wunderkind

Bantam Cider Wunderkind is the best new cider I have had in some time. It pours pale straw in color and crystal clear. The tart apple and floral notes in the nose drew me in. Flavor wise this cider offers a spectrum and tart and sweet apple flavors and hints of ginger.  I would highly recommend this to anyone who can find it in or around Massachusetts where it is made.

Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie 2009

Ciders made in Normandy, like Etienne Dupont, are a real treat. In the traditional style there are unfiltered, barrel aged (fermented in part with native yeasts and sometimes Brett) and massively carbonated. This one was no slouch on any of those points. It poured and orange gold color and threw up apples, yeast funk and barnyard right away. In the mouth the cider apples reign and hints of spices come and go. There is some residual sweetness but it is kept in check by the acidity and carbonation. I bought a small bottle of this particular producer and now I know to buy the big one the next time.

Links to Older Reviews

Crispin Cider (Review #1, Review #2, Review #3)

Pairing Cider with Food

Food & beverage pairing has become somewhat of a sport in the United State media, and I’m not sure that has been entirely beneficial. Matching food & beverages has an immense amount of subjective quality to it, and while most of the basic rules are valid, the focus on “perfect pairings” is driving people nuts.

Cider is an old beverage, a rustic beverage, and thus consumers of it anywhere there is a healthy cider-making tradition have tried it with absolutely every food-stuff available. This means there should be lots of experience pairing cider but it also serves to stoke the fires of subjective judgments of which regional foods & ciders go together best. We've lost a lot of the cider tradition in the US so our experience with it on the table isn't as tangible as it could be. It's coming back though. Let’s take a look at some of the basic rules in terms of cider & food pairing. No matter whether you are new to cider or not some of these suggestions will open up exciting possibilities for you to try.

( Up close with some apple blossoms. The smell is so wonderful! )

Dry, highly carbonated ciders can be paired much like Champagne and sparkling wine. The most significant difference is that the aromas and flavors are more focused around apples, but in versions that have balanced flavors it shouldn't cause pairing problems. So this means pairings with lots of different appetizers, especially fried ones, tapas, oysters and shellfish.

Cheese is the ultimate pairing tool for me, but I am a sucker for cheese! Cheddar, especially aged types, pairs well with cider. Dubliner, an Irish import, is particularly nice with both dry and medium dry ciders. Goat cheese pairs nicely as well, and even better with added fruit or a chutney. Funky cheeses can pair well with cider, and if you match some funk with funk (French & Spanish ciders) you might make magic! Blue cheese is a good match for sweeter ciders.

Poultry and cider can be paired very well, and I've often found cider to be the best match for something like Thanksgiving dinner and the convergence of all those textures and flavors. Roasted chicken with herbs and a medium dry to dry cider is a combination that I've enjoyed many times.

Desserts and any sweet treats containing apple can be paired with cider, and the basic rule of matching sweet with sweet does apply. Fresh baked apple pie with a glass of ice cider is a combination sure to please!

Making Cider At Home

Making cider at home is a straightforward act. I recently wrote a post about "scrumpy" and I presented a countertop version of it that only takes a couple weeks to ferment and is consumed before the fermentation is complete and without any fining or filtering. Check out Adventures in Fermentation - Scrumpy to see how it's done.

Cider-making at home can be much more elaborate, and if you ask my wife she'll tell you I've gone there and will likely go even bigger the next time. I made my first hard cider in 2005. I have access to fresh pressed cider from several local farms so getting the ingredients has never been a problem.  I've made hard cider from varietal juice, Mutsu in particular, as well as the "house blends" from five area farms. The only consideration about the starting product that I have made up to this point is that it can only be UV treated, but NOT pasteurized. Living sweet cider makes the best hard cider. The results have spanned a broad range, from really tart, sour & dry to gently sweet with a beautiful nose of apples and apple blossoms. Duplicating the best outcomes has been hard because each new season of apples is different.

In 2009 I embarked on a big cider project. I was interested in making several different styles of cider from the same source. I started with 35 gallons of fresh cider. I used different yeasts and finished some of the ciders with homemade fruit syrups. All of the cider I made for this project was still. I had lost a fair bit of cider in 2007 to overcharged bottles and I was loathe to see that happen again.

( The seven carboys around the outer ring are from the 2009 project. )

The outcome was very educational. The unflavored cider made with the traditional cider yeast was good, but the least interesting. The ciders made with a Sweet Mead yeast were naturally a bit sweeter and had a more complex nose. The ciders made with cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit syrups ranged in sweetness with the raspberry one tasting like raspberry/apple candy. The best outcome was the unflavored cider fermented with Rudesheimer yeast which is actually a yeast used to make German Riesling wines. The complexity of the cider was beyond all of my wildest imagination. I named it "Rudy" and coveted each bottle that I pulled from the cellar to enjoy. That cider went on to win a first place at a regional homebrew competition and the feedback from everyone who tried it was overwhelming. If there is ever a cider I would like to recreate, it would be this one.

( Open apple blossoms. They are nice, but boy do they create a lot of pollen in the neighborhood! )

With the exception of pressing the fruit myself everything else about cider-making at home has been the same as it would be for a commercial producer, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2013 I do plan to make a larger volume than I have made in the past. I plan to blend ciders from multiple sources, use several different yeasts and even barrel age some. I've also considered using cryo-extraction to create the base for an ice cider, but that has to wait until winter comes again in New Hampshire, something I am not thinking about at all right now! I will likely get the chance to crush and press my own apples this year too. One of my brew club friends has access to lots of fruit from a family orchard and with a little bit of elbow grease I hope to bring home my hand pressed cider and make something delicious with it.

Onward to #ciderchat!

Once again there is a lot of information here. To me cider is really exciting and sharing all of this information was an exciting task. I look forward to answering questions and sharing experiences during #winechat tonight.

So what I am going to be drinking tonight during the cider conversation #winechat? I have some homemade scrumpy that I will start off with then I am going to open a bottle from the Dooryard series made by Farnum Hill and maybe a bottle of Newtown Pippin from Original Sin Ciders.



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.



Friday, April 5, 2013

My Half Full Glass - April 4th, 2013

Chateau Le Bonnat 2010 Graves Blanc

I can't say that I am a fan of White Bordeaux because I've have never really had that many. But when I have had them I have typically enjoyed the experience which begs the question of why I don't seek more of them out. Who knows, life is just like that I guess!

I came by this particular selection, Chateau Le Bonnat 2010 Graves Blanc, in a Bordeaux combo pack from Lot 18 and if I recall the price per bottle was just shy of $17, which is about the current average price for the label according to sites that track price trends.

I opened the bottle for no particular reason or occasion and I don't even remember now what I had for dinner with it. Clearly getting off track with the blogging has created some undesirable outcomes!

The wine is a blend of 66 percent Sémillon and 34 percent Sauvignon Blanc, with 6 months of oak aging. I found conflicting information on whether just the Sémillon was aged or the blend. I am guessing just the Sémillon. I was met with white flowers (or maybe citrus blossoms), herbs and a bit of stone in the nose. There was also a touch of nuttiness as well. The flavors were predominantly unripe peach with a dose of tart citrus that picks up in the middle through the finish. The wine has a creamy texture with a bit of body on the palate, but does remain crisp with a clean finish and a touch of acid in the exit.

I would recommend this wine as a worthy example of Graves Blanc  and a decent value. If you are looking for a versatile white and can find it for under $17, go for it!

Smuttynose Gravitation

I had the most recent release of this beer on tap over dinner with my wife at Cask & Vine (a place I will share more about soon) in Derry, NH.

Gravitation is part of the Big Beer series from Smuttynose Brewing located in New Hampshire. At 12% ABV the word big is apt. Categorically this beer is designated as a Belgian Quad and this particular beer is made with a range of specialty malts and raisin syrup to create its unique character.

The beer is a light brown color and smells/tastes of dried fruits (raisins, prunes), unrefined/raw sugars and malts.  The alcohol is not entirely balanced and easily perceptible. The beer goes down smoothly enough making it insanely dangerous. It is sweet, but there is a crispness or sharp edge to it that keeps it from coming across as cloying.

As I was researching this beer I reviewed the comments on it at Beer Advocate. Clearly the reviews are mixed and not having much experience with the style I can't really confirm or refute any of it on a technical basis. I did enjoy it, and so did Margot, so when consumed socially rather than with my reviewer hat on, I humbly suggest that this beer is hugely enjoyable.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Home-brewing Is Messy & Noisy But Is So Worth It!

I've been home-brewing nearly ten years now and several things have been constant during my experience. The mess and the noise. I am going to cast these ideas specifically in terms of making beer,  something I am doing a lot of in 2013, but my experiences with making mead, cider and wine are very much the same.

Home-brewing is messy. I make more of a mess and spend more time cleaning up than I do actually brewing. I brew with extract, although I have switched to a partial mash technique and dry, versus liquid, extract in the last year or so. Dry malt extract is a funny substance. It is a fine powder so it kicks up dust pretty easily which means I usually end up with a small coating of it near my scale and vessel I am measuring into. Even a small amount of moisture, steam for example, turns the dry malt extract sticky, and if you don't get any excess wiped up quickly it dries and is oh so fun to clean up!

Wort, unfermented beer, is another messy character. Having blended water, malt & hops together this should be no surprise. Spilling wort in the wrong place can create a nice mess and having a boil over during the initial brewing can be a real pain to clean up. I watch my brewpot like a hawk and I haven't had a boil over in almost 3 years now. That last time I did have a boil over I had to wait until it dried so I could de-clog my burner. That was a huge buzz-kill on that brewday! I've never taken any pictures of these types of messes so I can't share the visual. If you've ever experienced it firsthand you know what I'm talking about!

Cleaning in general is the part of home-brewing that will always consume a huge amount of time. Equipment is cleaned & sanitized before you use it (the pic above is a table full of cleaned equipment) and then again afterwards before is it put away for the next brew session. That means lots of time at the sink, the application of several kinds of cleansers and sanitizers and a fair bit of both hot and cold water. My cleaning work always takes a toll on my hands and until the day is done I can't put anything on them because it would transfer to the equipment that I am trying to get or keep clean.

None of this is really a burden and I am not complaining about any of it, but a bit of honesty in pursuit of homemade beer can at least ensure folks new to the craft know what to expect. With experience you can mitigate the effects of the mess and manage the cleaning so that you can enjoy standing around the brewpot in the sun with a tasty homebrew.

Less of a labor-inducing issue but still constant is the cacophony of sounds released by home-brewing. Propane burners, boiling wort, air locks & blow-off tubes are just some of the sounds. For folks that use pumps and more sophisticated brewing rigs I bet there are other sounds I am not accustomed to from my low tech approach.

The last several high gravity (more sugar) beers I have made required a blow-off tube that was terminated in a pitcher of water. And boy did they make a racket! One of them is still going along albeit at a reduced pace from 10 days ago when it was brewed. I went down to the basement at one point and didn't initially know what the gentle pounding on the ceiling was. It was the CO2 being expelled into the pitcher from the fermenting beer on the floor above!

I took a short video of that recent brew on the second day of fermentation. If you watch closely you can see the bubbles being expelled into the pitcher, but with the sound on and the volume up you can also hear the noise it makes. Luckily you can really on hear it in the adjoining rooms on the same floor and as I mentioned from below in the basement.

Now that I've carried on a bit about some of the joyous challenges of home-brewing you might be wondering what I have been making and what is on the future brew schedule.

So far in 2013 I have made the following brews:
  • English Barleywine
  • Double IPA
  • Belgian Style Braggot
  • Moylan's Kilt Lifter Clone (a Scotch Ale)
  • Stout Braggot (currently in a used whiskey barrel)
  • Maple Wheat Wine
  • Belgian Dubbel
The Belgian Style Braggot and the last three above are still fermenting and/or aging.

Over the winter I also created three mini-batches of braggots (mead/ale hybrids) that also contained fruit or cider. All three have been bottled and two of the three have sampled well. My primary takeaway was that a light ale based braggot with fruit, like raspberries, is a nice beer; but the honey might not be best used in this way. The cider-based versions have a sour tinge to them, something that might not find a happy home in a broad audience. Interesting experiments nonetheless.

We are switching over to brewing lighter beers for Spring over the next month or so, which includes:
  • Orange Wit
  • Lime Ale
  • Double Pilsen Ale
We are also going to need to fill our two new barrels again soon so we have a Russian Imperial Stout (our first ever) and a Smoky Chocolate Ale on the schedule for that purpose.

( One of our one-used whiskey barrels from Balcone's Distillery in Texas. )

As you can see we are quite busy with the home-brewing right now!

All of the work is worth it, especially when you get to share your homebrew with friends. I usually forget all the hard work in between brewing sessions so I don't grow anxious about my next one.