Growing up in Washington State, I was surrounded by apples. Near our house there was a just-abandoned-enough orchard of Gravensteins, an old-fashioned apple whose best use is to be eaten out of hand or in the making of applesauce or cider. The neighbors just happened to have a cider press.
Through some miracle I have yet to fathom, not a drop of this cider was ever allowed to ferment, so it wasn’t until I briefly moved to France that I discovered that cider had a higher calling. Back in the U.S., cider, the first refuge of colonists seeking some relief from harsh New England winters, had long been elbowed out of the way by beer. Until recently.
“Make no mistake, an American cider renaissance is well underway,” claims The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, whose wine panel tasted a passel of them. The takeaway from this and other recent articles is that there’s a huge variety of styles out there made from an even bigger variety of apples.
Sourcing them locally, however, is another matter; of 30 or so recommended, I could only find a handful in SA, suggesting that cider is still very much a regional product—with the exception of labels such as Crispin, recently purchased by MillerCoors.
Do not bother with Crispin (5 percent). In its “brut refined extra-dry” format, it’s the Miller Lite of ciders showing simple, sweet flavors with modest effervescence, little depth and less complexity. There’s a little more flavor in the 4.5 percent Cidre produced by Belgian brewer Stella Artois (now owned by Anheuser-Busch), but its head dissipates almost immediately, presaging a decline in flavor and aroma. I had higher hopes for Magners Original Irish Cider, maybe because of the claim that it’s made from over 17 varieties of apples that are allowed to drop from the tree … to no avail: Magners (4.5 percent) was flat in both texture and taste.
For my palate, apparently, the alcohol content needs to get closer to 7 percent. Made in California of apples from many sources, Julian Hard Cider Harvest Apple (6.99 percent) first seemed austere, but, with its Champagne-like yeastiness and dryness, came to represent the ideal. For those who prefer to get a little closer to the apple, Oregon’s Leprechaun Dry Cider (6.9 percent) is a good compromise. IPA lovers could consider Woodchuck Hard Cider (6.5 percent) from Vermont in its dry-hopped version. If this were a touch less sweet it would kill; the floral hops meld beautifully with the apple aromas.
Some of these bottles approach $10 or more in a 22-ounce format, but experimentation is possible at two local bars. Liberty Bar has long offered a cider; theirs is Taunton’s Blackthorn from England. Bar du Mon Ami currently taps Oregon’s Original Sin cider—“tart, crisp and fresh with clean, pretty fruit flavors,” according to the pundits at the NYT. Ask the ’tender to make you a Snakebite with cider and chocolate stout while you’re there.