While attending the first-ever Oregon Cider Week in late October, I sipped the essence of autumn and discovered a newfound appreciation for apples in a glass.
I learned that artisanal hard ciders can be very similar to wine, with a range of flavors and styles, from sparkling or still to subtly sweet or bone dry. Depending on how the cider is crafted, the apple-blossom bouquet can vary from elegant and complex to earthy and ethereal — and can even showcase a little funk. Traditional cider apples are cultivated for their tannins and flavor profile, and carefully crafted hard ciders, just like good wines, display their terroir, reflecting the subtleties of geography, weather, vintage, and varietal.
The Old-World-style artisanal ciders cropping up across the nation lately, from Washington to Vermont, are a labor of love, crafted in small batches and often bottled by the makers themselves. Curious palates have taken note, and a cider renaissance is taking root, with all-cider festivals and pubs celebrating the historic drink.
The Pacific Northwest hosted Cider Summit NW and the inaugural Washington Cider Week in September. On the East Coast, New York City reveled in seven days of hard-cider festivities with its own Cider Week New York.
To get the lowdown on tasting hard cider, I turned to cidermaker and enthusiast Jeff Smith, the owner of Bushwhacker Cider, the first urban cider-only pub in the nation, located in Portland, Oregon. Smith and his wife, Erin, felt compelled to open the pub due to the limited selection of cider available around town.
“If a bar or shop carried cider, it always seemed to be on some bottom shelf somewhere, in a dark corner of a store,” says Smith. “So we decided that we needed to build a pub around cider, and make it the focus.”
With 140 different ciders, the pub is now a local destination, featuring glass pours from seven rotating taps and a bottle selection from Spain, France, England, and the Pacific Northwest.
When tasting a cider, the first thing Smith evaluates is its visual appearance: Has it been filtered? What is the color profile? What did the color come from?
Then, he moves on to the nose.
“I try to warm it up a little with my hands, so it really opens up,” he says. “I always smell it first, and then smell it after giving the cider a bit of a swirl.” As far as taste, he notices the front, the mouth, and the finish — “all things very similar to wine.”
The cider Smith suggests to toast the season is from Oregon: Wandering Aengus Wanderlust. “Made with traditional cider fruit, it just tastes like fall,” he says. This full-bodied cider is a good match for any holiday feast, and one of Smith’s favorite pairings with salmon: “The delicate flavors of the salmon are intensified with the acidity and tannic boom of the Wanderlust.”
As with wine, the allure of apples in a glass appeals to all the senses — and personal favorites often come from those with a story. Luckily, great ciders with good tales can be found from coast to coast, from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the Yakima Valley of Washington. I email-chatted with a few up-and-coming cidermakers to get their autumn picks as well as stories for the harvest table.
The cidermakers: Albert and Eleanor Leger.
Why cider: “For us, it was the fact that ciders were the most prevalent beverage in New England before Prohibition, and apples are still the largest fruit crop in the state of Vermont. We wanted to create a really high-quality artisanal product that speaks of the terroir of Vermont — apples and cold weather! Ice cider was the natural choice. You could believe that the best ice ciders in the world could come from here; that’s what we aspire to.”
Cider surprise: “Consumers are excited to learn that alcoholic ciders traditionally were not made with the varieties of apples that they know from the grocery store. For great quality as beverages, ciders require more tannins and acidity than are found in typical dessert apples. We love talking about great heirloom cider varieties such as Esopus Spitzenberg, Roxbury Russet, and Northern Spy, which have been grown in New England since the 17th and 18th centuries.”
Autumn pick: “Our flagship Calville Blend ice cider has been called ‘apple pie in a bottle.’ It’s the perfect ending to a Thanksgiving celebration with pumpkin pie, apple pie, and a wedge of fine aged Vermont cheddar cheese. Apples: Empire, McIntosh, Roxbury Russett, Calville Blanc, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Hudson’s Gem, Ashmead’s Kernel, Esopus Spitzenberg, Black Oxford, Belle de Boskoop, Reinettes.”
In the orchard: “We love winter pruning time in February and March. We’ll have a good snow pack of two feet, and on a sunny day, the temperature might be in the high 20s or low 30s, and we’ll head out to the orchard in snowshoes (there’s no such thing as cold weather here, just inappropriate clothing).”
The soul of cider: “Pruning is like designing your trees for better, healthier growth. You spend time at each individual tree, thinking about how it’s changed since last year, what kind of a crop it gave, and how it can be improved. You can see all the dormant buds on the branches and get a sense of the potential life just waiting for spring to start bursting. It’s a time of hope and dreaming about the crop to come.”
The cidermakers: Chuck and Diane Flynt.
Why cider: “Cider is on the rise and is beginning to be seen as the nuanced and food-friendly beverage that it is. But the most important part of what I do is grow apples — cider apples, that is. While many ‘industrial ciders’ are made with common grocery-store apples, it’s really impossible to make a fine hard cider without cider fruit. And growing cider fruit has (almost) been a lost art. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to walk through my orchard, knowing that my trees will outlive me, producing good fruit long after I’m gone.”
Cider surprise: “Most people don’t know the difference between an industrial cider and a craft or artisan cider. The ‘six-pack ciders,’ the less-expensive ciders often bottled in beer packaging, are to cider as wine coolers are to wine. Many are highly engineered beverages made from apple-juice concentrate (most of which comes from China) or from chaptalized apple juice from dessert apples, rather than cider apples.
“Even producers that use real apples often add sugar to the apple juice to gain a cider that is 17 or 18 percent alcohol, and then they dilute the cider with water down to 6 or 7 percent alcohol. This halves the fruit and juice cost, and results in a cheap cider, but it also removes a semblance of apple-varietal flavor. This style of cider is often sweetened with concentrate to regain some of the lost apple flavor.
“Contrast this with craft or artisan cider, where the cidermaker grows cider apples, often on his or her own farm, presses the apples, ferments the juice, and bottles the cider. There’s little manipulation and an expression of both apple variety and terroir.”
Autumn pick: “Foggy Ridge Cider's First Fruit is our best-selling cider, and still my pick for Thanksgiving dinner. We use a high percentage of the Hewe’s Crabapple, grown by Thomas Jefferson for cider, and full of crisp acidity and rich apple flavor. We blend this with other early-season apples, including Harrison, Graniwinkle, and Parmar, an old brandy apple. The bright acidity in this apple blend pairs well with many foods, especially the rich dishes on a Thanksgiving table.”
The soul of cider: “I like the ‘long dark’ best — winter is my favorite season in the orchard. I can see the framework of each tree, and can anticipate the harvests in years to come. This season holds less frenetic work and more pondering, and I relish my time walking the bare rows and contemplating next season’s fruit.”
The apple farmer and the food-pairing expert: Craig and Sharon Campbell.
Why cider: “My husband, Craig, lives for apple trees,” says Sharon Campbell. “Our partner and good friend Cindy Richter took a cider-making class at Cornell and then called Craig and said, ‘You have to grow these trees.’ Taking a tree grown in a maritime climate and growing it in the Yakima Valley — well, that piqued his interest. (Craig is a third-generation Yakima Valley farmer. Four years ago he started planting cider apples, and he now cultivates one of the larger acreages of cider apples in the state of Washington.)”
Cider surprise: “No. 1: Yes it is fermented and has alcohol. No. 2: Yes, it is naturally gluten-free. No. 3: Cider is fermented apple juice, not a child’s drink. No. 4: There is a taste made in cider for every palate. No. 5: Yes, when we say dry, it is bone dry. I often joke and say, ‘Line up, America: We are going to go one by one, and I am going to tell you about cider.’”
Autumn pick: “Our first suggestion is always a strong blue cheese to match the tartness of the apricots with the tang of the cheese. I made a chicken stew last week with black cured olives and the last of the yellow summer squash — the Apricot Cider was perfect with it.”
In the orchard: “I just spent the last 10 days walking every day through the trees waiting for the crunch of the fallen leaves. My favorite time of the year is fall — the trees are loaded with fruit and then they are picked, and the tree starts going dormant with a plethora of colors.
“My second-favorite season is winter — the orchard is so still, taking nature’s insistent rest, reminding all of us that winter is the time for internal reflection. My husband loves the spring — the farmer in him feels the enthusiasm for the crop ahead before any frost, hail, cold, heat, whatever Mother Nature throws at him.”
The soul of cider: “I married into the farming business, but it never ceases to amaze me, the cycle of nature that you feel on a farm. Blooms, leaves, 17 hours of daylight, then fruit and a harvest, followed by the silhouette of a frosty gray frame with so little daylight in December and January: amazing.”
The cidermaker: Kevin Zielinski.
Why cider: “I am an orchardist by trade, and curious about the individual characteristics belonging to the many varieties of apples grown,” says Zielinski. “I was offered a scion of cider apple, predominately French varieties, in 2000, and began with a planting of one acre.”
The art of fermentation: “The Bitter/Sweet French apples are intense, offering tannin to the structure balanced with a low amount of acidic fruit to enhance the sensory experience. I am drawn to the creative effect of fermentation.”
Cider surprise: “Vintage cider. I specify the crop year for each bottling. The purpose is to allow an appreciation for the influence each season has upon the cider, pursuing the expression of the fruit.”
Autumn pick: “The 2010 E.Z. Orchards Willamette Valley Cidre pairs well with a Manchego or Gouda or, for a main course, pork risotto with dried cherries. The 2009 E.Z. Orchards Willamette Valley Cidre with savory and gamey notes pairs perfectly with breakfast for dinner: an omelet with morels, fresh chèvre, crushed pepper, chives, and a sprinkle of Italian parsley to garnish.”
The soul of cider: “I find the harvest season most alluring — the colors, the essence of fruit, leaf, and fading summer. Crisp morning vistas and damp scented rain. Also, the desire to find warmth in food, spirit, and the comfort of coming home — all of this despite the accelerated pace of harvest and the shortening of the days.”
Kerry Newberry is a wine and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She believes a good glass of wine is a story of people, place, and time. Join her here as she seeks out the personalities, politics, and poetics that craft a wine from vine to table. Follow her online and on Twitter @KerryNewberry.
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