WHAT IS CIDER?
Cider is fermented apple juice just as wine is fermented grape juice. The best cider, just like the best wine, is carefully crafted from fruit chosen for cider making. That brown stuff you buy in the grocery store juice section is just that, apple juice.
Cider history in the United States
In colonial America, fermented cider was the drink of choice. John Adams attributed his health and long life to a tankard of cider before breakfast. Thomas Jefferson’s champagne-like cider, made with Hewe’s Crabapples, was his “table drink”. Throughout the 19th century, growing apples and crafting cider from cider apples was an integral part of every community. Many factors contributed to the decline of cider in the US—the Industrial Revolution caused a decline in farms; immigration patterns changed and more beer drinkers arrived in the US; Prohibition dealt the last blow and most cider orchards declined or were destroyed. Many Virginia cidermakers aim to revive the cider tradition by growing, or encouraging others to grow cider apples, and by crafting fine cider.
The Beer Comparison
Beer is brewed; cider is fermented. Cidermaking involves no grain, no cooking and no fast route to quality. Quality cider is all about apple juice, pressed from apples chosen for the tannin, acid and sugar needed for fine cider. Great beer can be made in weeks; not so much with cider.
Apple wine is not the same beast as cider. Apple wine is apple juice with sugar added so that the final alcohol content falls into the “wine” category of ABC regulations. Adding sugar to unfermented juice to raise the alcohol level is called chaptalzing, and often results in harsh flavors.
How to Drink Cider
Sophisticated chefs from New York to Mississippi know that cider is a food friendly beverage that dances well with many flavors, and is often a better partner than wine. Dry tannic cider acts like a red wine, pairing well with many meat dishes. Crisp acidic cider contrasts perfectly with rich buttery dishes. Off dry cider loves spice and smoke, excelling with grilled vegetables and sweet fish. Sweet cider does the tango with spicy Thai or vinegary BBQ. And dessert ciders compliment fruit desserts of any kind.
Real Cider Apples
One can make cider from any apple, but just any apple won’t make good cider. Think of a three-legged stool—tannin, acid and sugar (preferably from fruit and not from a bag) balanced in an aromatic beverage full of complex flavors…that’s what we mean by well-crafted cider.
Cider Apple Categories
Many of the best cider apples are not good eating apples—some are too sweet and lack the welcome bite of acidity; some taste sour from high acidity; others are tannic with bitter mouth puckering flavors. Why are these apples so good for cider? Once sugar is fermented away into alcohol, the cidermaker needs tannin for structure and mouth feel, and acid to offset retained sugar and create a crisp palate pleasing drink. Like much in life, it’s all about balance.
There are four groups of cider apples:
- Sweets: grown for high sugars
- Sharps: grown for high acids
- Bittersweets: grown for high tannins plus high sugars
- Bittersharps: grown for high tannins plus high sugars
The best cider apples, like Harrison which is grown by many Virginia cidermakers or Hewe’s Crabapples once grown by Thomas Jefferson, offer more than one of the Magic Three (sugar, tannin and acid), plus offer complex nuanced flavors that carry through to the glass.
In addition to classic dessert apples, many delicious heirloom apples as well as modern apples contribute to good quality cider. Cox’s Orange Pippin is a spicy dessert and cooking apple that contributes ginger notes to cider. Ashmead’s Kernel, a tart apple “not for sissies”, often wins taste tests and is a welcome Acid Bomb for cidermakers. And hard-to-grow Esopus Spitzenberg is a full flavored apple that we all wish we had for cider.
Traditional Cider Apples in Virginia
Jefferson’s cider apple orchard boasted over 18 apples, all chosen for their cidermaking qualities. Hewe’s Crabapple was one of his favorites and Virginia cidermakers have planted more of this variety than any other state. Newtown Pippin, a NY cider apple, was widely grow in Virginia and is valued today for its soft tannins and delicate flavor. And a modern apple, Gold Rush, is a valuable apple for blending. Like wine, cider is an expression of place. Fruit grown at 3000 feet elevation in the Blue Ridge Mountains doesn’t taste the same as apples grown in Nelson County. Each fruit takes character from the local soil and climate, and expresses that desirable quality of terroir. Through cultivation decisions, fermentation approaches and blending techniques Virginia cidermakers create a wide range of cider styles and bring a variety of apples from the orchard to the glass.
Primer on Cider Styles
The beauty of consuming farm beverages rather than factory beverages means you can experience different flavors. Just as wine and beer offer a near infinite range of styles, cider styles run the gamut from dry to sweet, still to sparkling, simple to complex, clean to funky. Many ciders are bubbly, either through bottle or tank fermentation, or by adding carbonation as part of cidermaking. Though bottle fermented cider may have lots of tiny bubbles like French champagne, most cider has a frizzante level of carbonation—for the chemistry geeks out there less than 4 grams per liter dissolved CO2.
For cider drinkers used to six-pack Factory Cider,drycider will be a revelation. High tannin apples provide structure and mouth feel for dry cider, which can have as many complex flavors as dry wines. Expect some astringency and deep rich flavors such as leather, oak and mushrooms. Virginia cidermakers craft a range of balanced dry cider that will delight your palate.
Fruity,craft ciders can be dry, off dry or frankly sweet—look for delicate apple flavors and ginger, pear and tropical fruit notes. If you taste cooked caramel or apple juice, you likely taste something from a drum of juice concentrate, not an orchard.
Like Riesling wine, off dry, cider pairs well with many foods, especially Asian and spicy dishes. Remember, how sweet cider a tastes is a function of acid and tannin levels as well as residual or added sweetness. The best off dry cider is also tart, with the fruit balanced by acidity.
Dessert cider is common in France, primarily as pommeau, a mixture of unfermented apple juice and apple brandy, or Calvados. Apple porta blend of fermented cider and apple brandy, is an ideal accompaniment to light fruit desserts.
Virginia cider also offers various alcohol levels. Alcohol is the by product of yeast consuming sugar in fermentation so, without added sugar, the eventual alcohol level of a fermented beverage is based on the initial sugar level of the apple. Apples ripened in the Shenandoah Valley will have different sugar levels than those grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains. High sugar Dolgo Crabs create a higher alcohol cider than Newtown Pippins. And some cidermakers may manipulate alcohol levels by diluting cider with water to create cider under 7% alcohol.
Experiment and Enjoy
The best way to find out the cider style you most enjoy is to experiment—enjoy Virginia cider; pair with different foods and try out the wide range of cider styles available in the Commonwealth on all your friends.