A few weeks ago, we were reading an article online about hard cider, the “true” drink of early Americans. In those days, water wasn’t safe to drink, and wine and beer weren’t very common yet. You’ve heard of Johnny Appleseed, right? Those weren’t eating apples he was planting.
Cider is everywhere these days. It’s much more than an option for the gluten haters or people who say they don't like beer. Still, most people don’t think about ordering cider when they’re having dinner. Good old fermented apple juice can be as complex (and expensive) as any craft beer or fine wine. The best of it, “heritage cider,” made with specific heirloom apple varieties and produced with traditional winemaking techniques, is distinct, with plenty of regional differences and unique flavors. Unfortunately, relatively few people have yet made this discovery because they’ve been turned off by the overly sweet drinks masquerading as "hard" cider for years.
But why bother with cider when there’s so much delicious wine out there to drink? Cider's low alcohol content (usually around 8% ABV) makes it much easier to pair than wine, but it still has all the great acidity and tannin. Cider matches well with many different cuisines and ingredients that usually pose problems for wine, like asparagus or Thai food.
If you’re a home winemaker, the craftsmanship and artisinal qualities of small-batch, heritage cider will appeal to you. Heritage cider takes great deal of care and a long time to make, so there’s a lot of technique to get excited about. The apples aren’t easy to grow. It can take 5 years for a new tree to bear fruit, so you’re supporting makers who believe in sustainable farming.
That sounds great, right? But, we’re a wine society, and, as with wine, complexity can translate into confusion. Even if you’re already aware of cider, the many regions, producers, and flavors might be a little bit overwhelming at first. So, let your friends at the Pittsburgh Chapter of the AWS walk you through the steps to better understanding, and ordering, cider.
Find a good retailer
Shopping for cider can be challenging, since many stores and bars have limited selections. Cider labels can be useful, but often don’t give you a full picture. Your first step is to find a cider source that you can trust to stock a great selection of ciders. Most local craft beer bottle shops carry artisinal cider, too, and are staffed by knowledgeable salespeople who can offer recommendations. But if this isn’t an option for you, try purchasing on line.
Choose still or sparkling
Once you’ve got a reliable cider retailer in mind, decide if you want bubbles. Most heritage cider is sparkling (or at least slightly effervescent), but there are stand-out still ciders.
Choose a level of sweetness
Next, be honest with yourself about how dry you’d like your cider. Some drinkers, especially those used to commercial cider, think they want “dry” (less than 0.5% residual sugar, with no discernible sweetness) when they’re actually looking for “off-dry” (1% to 2% residual sugar, with a little more body and richer flavor).
Others confuse fruit flavors with sweetness and are perplexed when their bone-dry cider still tastes like apples. Fortunately, many producers indicate relative sweetness on their labels. Of course, if you're looking for something super sweet, there's also plenty of "hard cider" in cans and 12 oz bottles. You don't need to go to a bottle shop for those.
Understand flavor profiles
Cider’s range is nearly as broad as (but different from) wine, so it helps to understand which flavors you want in the beverage. You can also shop by tasting notes (e.g. the “earthy” category breaks down further into “grassy,” etc.)
Pay attention to apple variety and provenance
Learn what apples are in the cider, and where the cider comes from. Common culinary apples like Red Delicious or Maine Gold have medium acid, low tannin, and plenty of fruity flavor. Meanwhile, cider-specific varieties are bitter, high-tannin apples that lend complexity, texture, and savory qualities to the cider.
As with wine, terroir matters, too. If you love high acid ciders, then you might enjoy cider from New York's Finger Lakes. If you prefer full-bodied and rich cider, then one made from English bitter apples in Eastern Washington might be a better option.