Blog Gourmet > Drinks Tip: All About Cider

LoDuca - 3:56 am - 28 September, 2016

Drinks Tip: All About Cider
With autumn upon us, it's cider time. Here's our guide to the drink of the season

Eve_Cidery_Proprietor_Articolo_Cider.jpg Photo by: Kayt Mathers
Autumn Stoscheck, proprietor of Eve's Cidery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, praises cider's food-friendliness and versatility.

Aaron Romano
Posted: September 19, 2016
NOTE: This tip originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator, "The Annual Restaurant Guide."

Restaurant beverage directors often take advantage of the moments before service to offer servers samples of the latest labels. At Wassail, in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood, Dan Pucci opens a selection of ciders for his colleagues.

Everyone sniffs, swirls and tastes, as Pucci notes how the intensely smoky mushroom special for the evening will pair excellently with a rustic French cider. He offers some talking points for servers: how the ciders are made; what types of apples are used; where the orchards are located. The team then breaks to begin service.

"Cider is great for pairing with food," explains Pucci, who spent four years as a sommelier and manager at Eataly and Otto in New York prior to becoming cider director at Wassail. "You start the same way you would with wine, looking to complement or contrast acid and fruit characteristics." In an era in which variety is paramount, cider is finding its place at the table as an exciting and multifaceted beverage. "There's a huge realm of flavors and styles, and the possibilities for pairing are limitless," says Pucci, adding that cider's natural proclivity for fresh acidity and low alcohol makes it an adaptable companion for balancing out food.

"One reason why we make cider is to be an accompaniment to food," says Autumn Stoscheck of Eve's Cidery in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. "To me that's the perfect drink; it has bright acidity and is low in alcohol, and is good for drinking early in the evening or to finish the night."

Cider has a storied yet often overlooked history in the U.S. In Colonial America, many homesteads had an orchard, and cider was the drink of the people. One historian stated that in 1767, 35 gallons of cider were consumed per person annually in Massachusetts. Cider continued to be the country's most popular alcoholic drink through the 19th century until beer surpassed cider in production at the turn of the 20th century. After Prohibition began, many of the orchards were abandoned, and cider never recovered. Today, this forgotten beverage is in the midst of a renaissance, as a business and as a craft. However, its identity can be divided into what might be called commercial and craft versions.

Commercial cider was first introduced as a slightly fizzy and sweet alternative to beer in the 1980s, and today is marketed and sold much like beer. Companies such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Michelob have capitalized on cider's rising popularity, and their bottlings account for the vast majority of cider sales in the U.S. The nearly $400-million-dollar industry saw sales increase from 4.5 million cases sold in 2010 to 23.2 million cases in 2014.

These ciders generally clock in at lower than 7 percent alcohol by volume, and can contain apple concentrate and additives that allow them to be made year-round and sold cheaply. Craft ciders, on the other hand, take their models more from fine wine. In fact, ciders above 7 percent ABV are considered wine: Like wine, they must have a TTB-approved label but are not required to include ingredients listings. Crucially, they must be derived wholly from apples. However, cideries are not permitted to list appellation or vintage on their labels.

American craft cider reflects a diversity of styles, ranging from beerlike versions that are by turns hopped, smoked and infused, to more winelike ciders, either sparkling (some made with traditional Champenoise methods) or still, as single-apple varietals fermented dry and aged in oak barrels. There are more than 500 cider producers in the U.S. today, but many don't have distribution outside their local area. Wassail and other cider-focused restaurants and bars offer a place for these small-production ciders to be showcased. Pucci says that some of his clients integrate cider into their normal drinking habits. "There's still a curiosity, but it's becoming a valid option for dinner."

The process of making craft cider is similar to that for making wine. It starts with tending the trees and harvesting the fruit at optimal ripeness. The apples are washed and then ground and pressed to extract the juice. Fermentation takes place in steel tanks or oak barrels. The fermentations are slow and cool, as with white wine, to retain freshness and aromatics.

"Making cider is not alchemy," says Stoscheck, who makes several sparkling ciders in the méthode style. "Apples are a fruit that's grown on a perennial plant that is harvested once each year," she declares. "Just like wine, cider is an expression of the fruit, and you have to figure out how to allow the cider or orchard to express itself and create a synergy that showcases these elements."

Steve Wood, of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H., is often referred to as the godfather of new American cider. Wood took a chance during the 1980s, grafting over and ripping out his sweet McIntosh and Cortland apple trees in favor of cider varieties such as Kingston Black, Golden Russet and Wickson. Wood was a trailblazer, making dry cider, selling surplus apples to other producers and giving away cuttings to fellow orchardists. Despite blazing the path, Wood still believes he's barely scratched the surface about how good his cider can be. "If our cider is any good, it's because of how much we don't know," he says with a chuckle. "Every year I get better at what I do."

American cider is still in the pioneering stage, with the industry exploring how sugar levels, sun days, temperature swings and water can affect the flavor of an apple. There are thousands of apple types, variously suited to cooking, eating or cider. Raw cider apples often taste bitter or astringent, and you won't find them at the supermarket. Each has a distinct flavor profile that uniquely transforms post-fermentation. And as with wine grapes, the region and climate the apples grow in have important influences on how a cider tastes. The selection of varieties, how they are propagated, and their level of intensity and character all vary depending on geography.

Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Sonoma County are forging the path for the propagation of cider apples on the West Coast. They source the majority of their apples from two orchards near the town of Sebastopol, Calif., an area with a history of growing eating-apple varieties such as Gala, Golden Delicious and Gravenstein.

Cider apples remain hard to find in California. Heath and Cavalli own a 2-acre orchard where they are conducting trials of approximately 100 traditional cider apple varieties, some of which are so rare that the examples at Tilted Shed are likely the only ones in Sonoma. Additionally, Heath and Cavalli farm from a feral orchard that was abandoned nearly 20 years ago but still produces heirloom English, French and American cider apples. Tilted Shed has adopted the local Gravenstein apple and uses it to great effect in its ciders; Cavalli explains that it's one of the few apples suitable for culinary purposes that also makes a great cider.

"Culinary apples aren't able to impart the complexity that cider apples do," she says, referencing cider apples' high tannin content and the presence of other phenolic compounds not present in common dessert and culinary apples. "The use of cider apples is going to create a more vinous style of cider because they offer structure, backbone and viscosity."

Just five years in, Heath and Cavalli in are beginning to understand the challenges of growing apples in Northern California and identifying which varieties perform well. "We don't have the temperature swings overnight that they do back East, or the summer rains," says Cavalli. "Our acids tend to be lower but our tannins higher, in comparison, and the apple expresses itself differently."

Wood, Stoscheck and a few other Northeast apple farmers and cidermakers gather regularly to discuss what they're dubbing orchard-based ciders. Think of it as terroir for cider: Specific apples, grown in a certain place, capture a particular region in a bottle. "We don't know what the definitions [of American cider] are; we just know we have really delicious stuff," says Wood. "The pleasures of orchard-based cider are akin to the pleasures of a good, grower-based wine."

And like wine, these ciders have enough variety of flavor and character to match with a wide range of foods. "Ciders made with bittersweet apples fill the mouth with richness and tannins," says Pucci, noting that these structured ciders offer the backbone and depth to pair with everything from roasted root vegetables and braised pork to soft cow's-milk cheeses.

"Ciders that utilize sharp and bittersharp [varieties] will often be funky and high in acid," Pucci continues." With acid leading the way, cider can be a complex, compelling and refreshing partner for fried and salty foods, and can even stand in for a Cabernet to pair with steak." Pucci believes the market will grow through consumer education and more transparency on the producer side. "We can't just keep saying "˜made from heirloom apples in California.' No one will pay a premium price for generic," he explains.

American cidermakers continue to carve a path forward. "We thought getting press and recognition was all we needed," says Wood, noting that his cider often still gets placed on shelves next to Manischewitz and other fruit wine. "[But] the market hasn't yet fully embraced cider."

The "American style of cider" continues to define itself amid an explosion of creativity. But cidermakers are seizing the opportunity to change the conversation around this historic beverage, and it starts at the table.