“It’s my turn,” said Badger, taking the jar and tilting his head well back. The cider gurgled and bubbled down his throat. “It’s … it’s like melted gold!” he gasped. “Oh, Foxy, it’s … like drinking sunbeams and rainbows!” — from The Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
Badger ain’t wrong. Hard cider may be trendy now, but it’s been delicious for centuries.
Though cider has been more popular in Europe than the US, it’s as American as Johnny Appleseed. Who, it turns out, spread appleseeds from New York to Ohio so people could make cider, not eat apples.
I’ve been a cider evangelist since I spent a few months in London back in the early ’90s. So I’m really pleased to see how the industry has taken off in the last decade or so — it may have a long way to go to catch up to beer, but they’re already running out of apples to make it from.
“Hard cider” and just plain “cider” — what’s the difference?
In a word: Alcohol.
More detail: In most English-speaking countries, “cider” refers to a fermented, alcoholic beverage made from apples. In the US and parts of Canada, though, “cider” means unfiltered, unsweetened apple juice. (Other countries call that “soft cider” or “sweet cider.”)
So “hard cider” is a term used in English-speaking North America to refer to the alcoholic beverage and avoid confusion with the juice. Depending on context, though, people might use “cider” to refer to the alcoholic version.
Alcohol levels vary, of course — consult your local bottle — but I’ve found that 5.5% to 8.9% is the most common range.
What goes into cider?
Genuine cider is pretty much apples + yeast. Some cideries use sulfites to kill bacteria or wild yeast, and some add sugar for further fermentation.
Because cider is made from apples, rather than the grains that make beer, it’s naturally gluten-free. That’s likely one of the reasons for cider’s recent surge in popularity.
Dry or sweet? Or maybe sour?
I got into cider because I had never cared for beer, but almost every London pub carried cider. I was delighted to find a common drink that didn’t taste like fermented rusty nail juice.
Most pubs offered two choices: dry or sweet. While I liked them both, I tended to prefer dry. That remains true today — there are ciders too sweet for me to finish, but they’re rare.
The great middle ground: look for ciders labeled semi-sweet. Keep in mind, though, that there’s not a national standard for definitions — one cidery’s semi-sweet might be another cidery’s dry, or your own “too sweet for comfort.”
That said, even dry cider is sweeter than beer or most wine. It’s a drink made from apples, after all, and though good cider doesn’t taste like apple juice, you can tell they’re related.
In my experience, the biggest brands of cider tend to be the sweetest. You’ll want to dig a little more if you’d prefer less sweetness.
The flavor spectrum includes more than sweet vs. not sweet, though. Many ciders have bitter notes to them, and a few go further than that and make bitter the predominant flavor.
Sour is also a common flavor element. Traditional ciders made in Spain and the Basque region tend to focus on sourness, and some local producers in the US play with those notes as well. One thing to keep in mind: You may find cider made with sour apples (such as Granny Smiths or crabapples), but that won’t necessarily be a sour cider. Fermentation and sugar might make that quite sweet.
What about other flavors?
Many cidermakers add different flavors to their cider. Ginger is maybe the most common, but you can easily find a variety of fruits: cherry, apricot, raspberry, blackberry, pumpkin, rhubarb, even grapefruit.
Relatively common non-fruit flavors are peppers (yes, the hot kind) and hops.
I’m a fan of straight-up apple cider, myself, but if a particular flavor appeals to you, you should try it, especially if it’s made by a cidery you already like. Add-on flavors are more successful if they taste like real fruit, rather than fruit-flavored syrup. I’ve had a six-pepper cider where you could taste the fresh-sliced produce quality behind it, and I’ve had a sriracha cider that tasted like it was made purely to be drunk on a dare. The former is much better.
You might also hear about “pear cider,” another name for a fermented drink also known as “perry.” Perry is just like hard cider, but made with pears instead of apples. It’s not as widely available as cider (a niche of a niche), but it’s out there.
Isn’t cider a “girly drink”?
Oh, please. Don’t listen to Esquire. There’s no such thing as a girly drink. It’s 2014. Leave the retro values to Mad Men and be bold enough to enjoy what you enjoy.
What kind of glass?
The key word there: glass. Cider tastes better out of a glass than plastic.
If you’re more interested in the shape, cider is similar to a pilsner in appearance and body, so you can go for a pilsner glass.
What kind of food to pair with?
Every cider tasting I’ve gone to has had cheese available, as well. Cider pairs well with fancy cheese, so that’s an easy recommendation.
But like beer, cider makes a crisp companion to hearty food. Whether you’re having a burger or charcuterie, cider offers a great, refreshing balance to the meatiness.
Where can I get some?
As hard cider has gotten more popular, it’s become available in more places. In Seattle these days, the majority of bars and pubs offer at least one bottled cider, sometimes two, and sometimes one or two on tap and another couple in bottles. We’ve even got a bar devoted entirely to cider, as does Portland.
In the last year or so, I’ve seen bottles of the biggest cider brands (such as Angry Orchard, Hornsby’s, or Crispin) in big supermarket chains, and even at Costco. Higher-end groceries like Whole Foods have had a wider selection for a longer time. And specialty beer and wine shops can go even deeper on selection, featuring more imports, smaller producers, and limited batches.
So, depending on where you are, your best bet might be Google (your location + “hard cider”), or this excellent Cider Guide map.
The bottom line
- Seek out something local.
- Figure out what flavor profile you like.
- Don’t settle for what’s on tap.
- Look for the sunbeams and rainbows.
Enough of my thoughts: What ciders do you like? If you haven’t tried any, why not?
Coming later this week: Results from our office cider tasting.