A Taste of Fall: Hard Cider Serves Up Autumn in a Glass

Farm-to-market craft ciders are an exciting new trend.

Fall's Rich Bounty

Fall's Rich Bounty

A bumper crop of freshly harvested apples will soon be pressed and juiced in the first phase of cider making.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Noble Cider

Image courtesy of Noble Cider

A bumper crop of freshly harvested apples will soon be pressed and juiced in the first phase of cider making.

In the United States, the term cider has always referred to apple juice but in England and other European countries cider means an adult beverage made from fermented apples. We know it as hard cider and it's been an American tradition since Colonial days. Now hard cider is back in vogue and has tripled in sales since the trend emerged in 2007.

Why the recent surge in popularity? One reason is because hard cider is a light and refreshing alternative for drinkers who want something other than beer or wine that has a similar or lower alcohol content. It is also a natural gluten free beverage for the wheat intolerant.

Like beer and wine, there are so many varieties available in the hard cider world that it's not hard to find the ideal choice—sweet, dry, sharp or bittersweet—to suit your taste. The whole farm to market movement has helped accelerate this trend with apple orchards, especially in the major apple producing states of Washington, New York and Michigan, partnering with cider makers to create flagship brews with local apples. Add to this the renewed interest of chefs and bartenders who are creating new dishes and cocktails with hard ciders and you have the makings of a culinary phenomenon. 

For many years, only a few major brands like Strongbow, Crispin and Woodchuck ruled the hard cider market but they are starting to face serious competition from such innovative start-ups as Jack's Hard Cider in Pennsylvania, Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden, Virginia and Noble Cider in Asheville, North Carolina. Most of these smaller cider operations are dedicated to only using local apples from their state and are creating complex and distinctively flavored ciders. 

What sort of apples make the best cider? According to Shane Doughty of Jack's Hard Cider, "Your very tart, very acidic apples, such as crabapples, make good cider. And those aren't particularly great to eat. But industry wide, that's a difference of opinion with some people." Trevor Baker, for instance, with Noble Cider, has had great success using a variety of eating apples for their brews such as the Mutsu, the Crispin, Stayman-Winesaps, Courtlands and Jonagolds. His cider, which began its operation in 2012, also has plans to grow more than 30 apple varieties for future ciders such as "the older Colonial apples like Thomas Jefferson was growing—Newton Pippins and Roxbury Russet—as well as some British cider fruits and those from the Normandy area."

The alcohol level of most hard ciders is around 7.5 percent but there are more potent varieties available. "GoldRush, which we just started releasing, is ten percent," said Chuck Shelton of Albemarle Ciderworks. "There are state laws of what you can call cider. In Virginia, we've had to change it to allow for 10 percent alcohol. And that's determined by the amount of sugar in the apple in fermenting. We're not adding sugar to raise this at all. That was just a really high sugared apple that produced that." 

In general, hard ciders are produced within a sixty day period which allows sufficient time for the pressed apple juice to properly ferment and be ready to drink from the keg. If bottled, they are best enjoyed within the first two years of storage. Most ciders are carbonated though there are a few still varieties on the market such as Farnum Hill Extra Dry Still Cider from Lebanon, New Hamphire. Shane Doughty of Jack's Hard Cider said, "I would always recommend that people drink cider on the colder side, not room temperature. I think most ciders drink similar to a white wine where you'd want a little chill to them." 

Although apples have traditionally been the main ingredient for hard cider, some brewers are experimenting with other fruits and creating adventurous new blends. Noble Cider is planning on releasing a limited edition for the holiday season made from apples, spiced figs and raisins with the flavor profile of a Christmas pudding and Jack's Hard Cider has created both a peach cider and pear cider in addition to their signature brands. Jupiter's Legacy from Albemarle Cider is a special blend made from Virginia apples and apple juice from several bittersweet apple varieties in New Hampshire.

Top chefs who create food pairings with cider is another way people are learning about this classic beverage and its versatility. Baker suggests serving a dry cider with a charcuterie plate or with spicy meats like Eastern-style barbecue with a vinegar based sauce. Bartenders are also revisiting hard ciders in tried-and-true favorites like the Poor Man's Black Velvet, which is 1/2 pint lager or stout with 1/2 pint dry hard cider. Other mixologists are introducing more exotic concoctions like Waltzing with Vincent Price, a Halloween cocktail consisting of French hard cider with port, cognac and Benedictine which is served at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. 

The best way to begin though is sampling hard cider straight from the tap or bottle. You just might discover it's your favorite new adult beverage of choice. 

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