Photo by Tom Swinnen
By Liz Crowe
Have you ever walked through an apple orchard on a fall day, felt the sun on your face, waved away the bees, and sucked in the sharp-slash-rotten aroma of all the apples on the ground? No? Well, you need to add that to your bucket list because you would, in essence, experience the process of cider-making — on an olfactory level anyway.
It’s one of the most ancient fermented beverages still available, with a history dating back to Northern Spain, which was making “sidra” before the birth of Christ, or back to Julius Caesar discovering the Celtic Britons drinking it. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 resulted in the introduction of many apple varieties from France, and cider soon became the most popular drink after ale. Cider has been used as currency in many countries, including the US. As we have learned in several of my highly educational columns, there was a time in the world when it was better for everyone — kids included — to drink some form of alcohol instead of the bacteria- and germ-infested water, and until the 1800s, cider was that go-to beverage.
The Industrial Revolution brought people from the farm to the city to live and work, so many orchards were abandoned, resulting in reduced production. Unfiltered and unpasteurized cider didn’t travel well from farms to the new centers of population. Plus, the increased popularity of beer, especially in cities, took a bite out of cider consumption leading up to 1919 — which, as we all know, was the start of Prohibition, and subsequently the Volstead Act, which gave teeth to the 18th Amendment.
Now, however, cider is seeing the same sort of resurgence that has brought terms like “hops” and “IBUs,” “hazy milkshakes,” and “fruity pebbles” into our everyday discussions about beer. And as you might suspect, there are a slew of fresh takes, new ingredients, crossovers, and general tweaks to the basic concept of taking an apple and letting it rot in the sun a few days to create alcohol (Yes, I know it’s more complex than that, but it’s not really).
This month, I’m sharing a few tasting notes with you to make some recommendations for what ciders you might like, so that you can go forth armed with a full knowledge and Liz’s Mighty Judgements about some of the craft versions vs. one of the leading style standards. Let’s dive right in and throw down a yardstick by which to measure all others before Brick cuts me off for drinking talking too much, shall we?
I decided to set our baseline by having everyone at the table taste what many consider the style standard of ciders — Strongbow, which has been made in the UK since 1960. It truly is delicious, with a sharp dryness that made my fellow tasters compare it to things like “a liquid Honeycrisp apple.” The issue I have personally with ciders is their carbonation. It’s usually either too much or too little. Strongbow hits a near-perfect sweet spot on that front. And if you want something even lighter and more refreshing, try a Strongbow pear cider. It’s kind of like the champagne of ciders, in my humble opinion.
We moved on from establishing our pallets with a classic to something from Right Bee in Chicago — an apple cider with lemon myrtle and cherry blossom. Once we all looked up what, exactly, lemon myrtle was, we agreed that this one was extraordinarily floral on the nose. As in it smelled like a bouquet of flowers, which doesn’t always translate into something good to drink. In this case, the combination of flavors gave us something that tasted a bit like a light kombucha crossed with a super fizzy seltzer. As in, it was highly carbonated but fairly dry on the finish.
Next up was from Fishback and Stephenson in Fairfield, Iowa. The “Pink Crush” was a watermelon cider that both smelled and tasted like a watermelon Jolly Rancher — i.e. super duper sweet and a bit heavy on the “watermelon-y-ness” for most of us.
We decided to tone things down a bit and try a “plain” apple cider from Original Sin in New York, a much-acclaimed outfit that claims to be a “pioneer of the US cider industry.” I wanted to try their Black Widow, which adds blackberries, but I couldn’t find one so we tried their “Original Apple,” figuring it would be an exercise in comparison to the Strongbow. It was, but in a way that proved there are many ways to mash and ferment an apple. This one wasn’t nearly as flavorful or carbonated, or as one of my tasters said: “If Strongbow is liquid Honeycrisp apple, this one is a Golden Delicious, but without as many bubbles.”
From there we moved back into multi-flavor territory with Sweet Lou’s apple, blueberry, and lavender cider from Brick River in St. Louis. Now, I think I’ve gone on record at some point about “lavender” as a flavor. I’m not a fan. To me, it directly conflicts with botanicals when it gets added to something like gin and is too subtle to add much of anything to vodka. But we had full-table agreement that this one smelled amazing, and that it would make a killer cider cocktail mix.
The next one we tried forced me to open up the old booze bucket list and add a stop. Stem Ciders in Denver (one of my favorite cities to visit anyway, so I need no real excuse to go there) makes a rosé cider that uses red wine in combination with apple cider. The result? A fully quaffable, light, bubbly, not-too-sweet, not-too-dry option (or as we say in Champagne, if you recall that lesson, “extra dry” — and points to you, dear reader, if you actually did recall that).
We ended our tasting session with Blake’s, a Michigan cidery that offers some of the most consistently delicious options out there. You can hardly ever (I mean ever) go wrong with their Flannel Mouth classic, and the Grizzly Pear version approaches Strongbow levels of perfection. We tried a new one to me, the Triple Jam, which has strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry mixed in the apple base. It’s incredible, and reminded us all that ciders can be a fun, delicious, complex option when you’re in a fermented beverage drinking mood.
I can’t end our cider discussion without mentioning a destination restaurant if you’re interested in or already love ciders. It’s in Toronto, which I hope by the time you read this is re-opened for travel so I can visit my middle kid. But that aside, when we moved her into her apartment two years ago, we found a place called Her Father’s Cider Bar + Kitchen, handily within walking distance of said apartment. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. Options included craft ciders on tap, but those were augmented by an entire wall (and I am talking floor-to-ceiling) of imported bottles, also available for drinking. The food was the perfect complement to pretty much everything we tried. From the fresh cheese board to the buttermilk fried chicken and lamb sliders, our knowledgeable server set us up with perfect matches every time.
There are plenty of “big cider” options like Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and so on, and I’m not here to call them bad. They’re not. But by the way the craft cider world is following beer, there’s no reason not to try something cool and interesting the next time you’re in the mood for something made with apples.
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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