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Not your granny's apple cider: Craft varieties make a comeback

Brandon Goodwin / TODAY.com

Hard cider is making a comeback, and it might not be what you remembered. Convinced it's too sweet? Take another taste.

Confession: During college, I fell for Woodchuck’s hard cider. It was syrupy sweet, sublimely fizzy and always available (even when I couldn’t buy it myself). But it was a short-lived love affair. Soon, it was time to move on. It’s not you, it’s me, I said to my green bottle of grown-up apple juice one night.

It wasn’t until a few years later, dining with my parents at a restaurant only they could afford, that I discovered just how wrong I was. One sip of a Dupont apple cider and I knew. What I wanted had been there all along — a subtly sweet, dry-like-my-favorite-white-wine cider with enough complexity to keep me coming back for more. I just hadn't known where to look.

I know I'm not the first to have a "craft" cider epiphany. And there will be many converts at this year's New York Cider Week, a 10-day event started by Sara Grady, the director of special projects at agricultural nonprofit Glynwood. Meant to challenge people's perceptions of the drink and support the Hudson Valley's apple orchards, the event will showcase local ciders in bars, restaurants and shops throughout the city, from October 12 to 21. It follows Washington Cider Week, which was started separately in Seattle three years ago.

“Mainly the only ciders that have been available are of a commercial nature — sweet and fizzy — and don’t really reflect what’s possible to create with hard ciders,” Grady told TODAY.com. “It can be a sophisticated, elegant beverage that’s more on par with wine.”

Only in the last decade has craft cider begun a slow renaissance. Why choose craft over commercial? Some commercial ciders have added sugars or are made from apples grown for eating, making them overly sweet. On the other hand, specialty ciders and varieties from Europe range from bone dry and earthy to refreshingly crisp with a naturally sweet aftertaste.

Some of the more adventurous offerings at this year's Cider Week included apple-based ciders infused with everything from cherries and apricots to hops.

Bars and restaurants, from dive joints to the Michelin-starred, are taking notice of cider's potential. Many point to the slow food movement and trendiness of local products to explain its relatively sudden success.

What's old is new again
“There’s this eagerness to learn more about cider and understand it as a farm-related product,” Grady said. “The local food movement and success of craft beers have set the stage for cider to have a quick rise. People are already primed to look at food and beverage in a new way — it’s an old thing that’s new again.”

And cider is very old. Long before beer became king beverage in the U.S., most Americans looked to hard cider for their alcoholic refreshment. Early colonists in Virginia began drinking cider. John Adams downed the beverage daily — by the tankard, no less. And famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley once mused that a barrel of hard cider could barely last a week in his house (even kids got in on the action back then).

Brandon Goodwin / TODAY.com

A green bottle of Trabanco cider at Tertulia. In Spanish cider houses, the bottle is passed around for everyone to enjoy.

Though cider production endured throughout much of the nation's history, the industry has taken nearly a century to recover from the Prohibition Era, when its popularity was shattered as bathtub brews thrived. While Europe’s cider tradition has continued all along — Brits drink over half the world’s cider supply of about 1.8 billion liters a year, according to Euromonitor — ordering a cider in most American bars would probably have earned you blank stares or curious looks until recently.  

Today, however, Americans continue to forge a new cider legacy in apple-rich regions like the Pacific Northwest (where the majority of cider apples are grown), New England and New York’s Hudson River Valley.

“The rising quality of cider is raising people’s interest,” Steve Wood, owner of Farnum Hill Cider, told TODAY.com. “And apple growers want to plant the fruit because there’s a developing market.”

The trouble with cider's comeback is that regular apples just don’t cut it. A complex hard cider that tastes dry and refined requires apples that have high sugar levels in order to encourage fermentation. Crab or bittersweet varieties that have varying degrees of tannins (yes, ciders have those too) are specially cultivated for the practice.  

“Cider fruit is practically inedible,” Wood said. “If you put it in a kid’s lunchbox, you’re probably going to family court.”

It took Wood at least a decade to gain some mastery of growing apples for cider. Without an established cider culture, Farnum Hill muddled along at first and made only a few thousand gallons a year. Now they sell 17,000 gallons of cider a year.

Growing demand
Although cider may never reclaim the status it once enjoyed among the apple-happy colonists, craft (and commercial) ciders are being brewed more than ever before. Cider sales in U.S. stores are up 56 percent this year, according to The Wall Street Journal, and though the cider market remains small compared to other alcoholic beverages — it makes up less than 0.5 percent of beer volume in the U.S., according to Euromonitor — it’s growing at twice the rate of craft beer, says Advertising Age.

Brandon Goodwin / TODAY.com

Gil Avital, Tertulia's director of service, pours a glass of cider on tap from Eve's Cidery in New York's Finger Lakes region. This cider is more bubbly than Spanish varieties and refreshingly (but not overly) sweet.

“We have more [cider] now than we did [when we opened],” Jon Langley, the beer sommelier of New York restaurant DBGB, told TODAY.com. “Not having one would be a pretty major oversight.”

The Queens Kickshaw, a bar-cafe in Astoria, Queens, that is participating in Cider Week, features 26 ciders from around the world on their menu. Owner Ben Sandler never imagined he would include that many until customers became intrigued — and then hooked — by his cider list. He’s noticed that cider drinkers can be anybody.

“There’s no real assumptions about what kind of a person you are if you drink cider,” Sandler told TODAY.com. “All the culture of wine drinking and culture of beer drinking goes out the window.”

Brandon Goodwin / TODAY.com

Avital performs a long pour, allowing the cider to aerate before it hits the glass.

Going traditional with Spanish ciders
While America's cider culture is still in an experimental phase, one New York restaurant is celebrating Spain's established cider tradition alongside our own. At Tertulia, a restaurant inspired by Spanish cider houses, beverage director Gil Avital uses a dramatic move to pique the interest of customers who might be interested in the alternative beverage. As they do in Spanish cider houses, Gil lifts his pours about a meter away from the glass, so that the cider falls in a thin, elongated stream. In Spain, they call it “throwing the cider.”

But Avital’s pour is more than mere bravado. Spanish ciders are flatter than American ones because they don’t undergo a secondary fermentation process from added yeast inside the bottle. The long pour aerates the cider and gives it a head of foamy bubbles.

Avital uses the Spanish technique only for Trabanco cider, the most traditional label in northern Spain. It’s a funky-tasting variety — words like “barnyard” come to mind (in a good way, of course).

The restaurant also offers a cider made by the same maker of Trabanco called Poma Aurea, which does undergo secondary fermentation, making it a bit more suited to American palates (read: it’s sweeter and fizzier).

While the Spanish stick to tradition, American cider makers are still trying new ways to experiment with flavor. Much of it depends on the apples, the source of all complexity in cider, Farnum Hill’s Steve Wood explained.

“We just want people to drink it and notice that it’s really quite nice, and not wish they had a glass of water right after they’ve swallowed,“ he laughed.

No need for any convincing here.

Cider recommendations from Ben Sandler at The Queens Kickshaw:

Dupont Cider Brut
Made from bittersweet apples, this is Ben’s “go-to” cider. It's very dry with only a hint of fruitiness.

Farnum Hill Dooryard Cider
“It’s a blend of many different ciders from different years, so it’s always a little bit exciting in that respect,” said Ben. While the dooryard variety is one of Farnum’s funkier tasting ciders, a cider newbie might want to try their Farmhouse, Summer, Semi-Dry or Extra Dry labels.

Brandon Goodwin / TODAY.com

A cocktail at Tertulia made from ice cider and apple bitters.

This cocktail recipe calls for ice cider, which is more alcoholic than typical cider and tastes a bit more like dessert wine. The apples that make up ice cider are allowed to freeze, so that their flavors and sugars become concentrated. Ice cider has a richly sweet flavor that also pairs well with cheese. Eve's Cidery makes a delicious one as well.

Cider cocktail
Courtesy of Tertulia

.5 oz rye whiskey
.25 oz fresh lemon juice (dash)
.25 oz thyme simple syrup
1 oz Orleans Ice Cider
Sow the Seeds sparkling cider by Eve's Cidery
Angostura Bitters
Baked Apple bitters

Shake rye, lemon juice, thyme simple syrup, ice cider, and strain into flute. Top with sparkling cider. Float both bitters on top to finish cocktail.

Danika Fears is a TODAY.com intern who was happy to do a great deal of cider drinking "in the name of research" for this story.


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