A hard lesson: Cider 101

Breaking Down Pork Shoulder

 

H

ard cider isn’t new to American bars and restaurants. In fact, according to the Northwest Cider Association, cider was one of the most popular beverages of Colonial times when it was often substituted for water because of its low alcohol content and poor sanitation issues at the time.

By the time Prohibition hit, though, the consumption of cider rapidly decreased and many orchards were destroyed to make room for culinary apples.

Today, despite that cider has remained popular in Europe, the bubbly brew is regaining its popularity in the U.S. as consumers become more interested in craft and locally-produced food and drink.

According to the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM), the total supply of cider in the U.S. market skyrocketed from 13 million gallons in 2010 to 75 million gallons in 2015, but it still only accounts for a very small percentage of alcoholic beverages consumed.

Cider is often lumped into the wine or beer category (much to do with government tax regulations), but it truly is its own beverage because of its flavor and the way it’s made.

As consumers become more aware of the origins of their food and drink, many are turning to local and regional cider houses for their cider of choice, the USACM has reported. For those new to the beverage, here are the basics of cider in the U.S.

 

All About the Apples

Culinary apples, the ones we buy to eat, don’t always make the best cider. “Honeycrisps may make the best eating apples because of their amazing sugar profile, but when you ferment them, all of that sugar goes away and you are left with no taste,” says Sam Fitz, co-founder of Anxo Cider in Washington, D.C.

True cider apples tend to be higher in tannins, which makes them ideal for making cider because tannins are used to balance out the sweetness from the sugar of the apples, says Fitz. Unfortunately, most cider apple trees were destroyed during Prohibition.

Some forward-thinking farmers have started to replant cider apple trees in states like Washington and Vermont. “More farmers have started to plant them, but apple trees take five to seven years to mature,” Fitz says. “Expect to see many more cider apples in the year 2022.”

Some cider houses choose to use local, heirloom varieties, such as York and Baldwin, that are grown in their states. Others have partnered with farmers to grow their own apples, and some source from around the world, including England and Spain, to get the apples they need. Albemarle Ciderworks in Virginia has its own orchard of cider apple varieties, including Goldrush, Kingston Black and Northern Spy.

 

Making the Cider

The process for making cider begins with the pressing of the apples. Some cider makers do that in the cider house, while others press at the orchard. Because of the shortage of apples, many cider makers must source the juice from other places, which is less costly, according to the USACM.

Some cideries, like Urban Tree Cidery in Atlanta, ferment the juice from each type of apple separately. “It gives us so much more control over the fermentation process,” says Tim Resuta, co-owner.

Others combine all of the juice from various apples and then add yeast for fermentation. Depending on the desired outcome, some cider makers use yeast that’s commonly used for making Sauvignon Blanc and other types of wine and champagne. Other cider makers experiment with beer yeasts.

At Anxo, Fitz makes a wild yeast cider in which he allows the apples to ferment on their own without the assistance of commercialized yeast. The resulting taste is pretty funky, but delicious and clean at the same time, as the only ingredient in that cider is cider.

Juices from other fruits can also be added, as well. Blue Bee Cider has a Mill Race Bramble version that’s infused with blackberries and raspberries.
Barrel aging is also a popular experiment and a way to introduce more complex flavors and depth. Urban Tree Cidery uses Nicaraguan Rum barrels to age some of its cider.

 

Cider and Food

Most cider houses argue there is no beverage in the world that pairs with food more universally than cider. Fitz, who often organizes dinners at Anxo, recommends pairing highly acidic ciders with really salty foods like anchovies. He pairs mineral-driven ciders with oysters and seafood.

Urban Tree Cidery cider makers suggest pairing pork and cheddar with their dry, European-style variety and strong cheeses and grilled meats with their oak-barrel aged cider.

At the Northman, Chicago’s first cider bar, cider is not only served by the glass, it’s also an essential part of the cooking. The fish and chips has cider in the batter, the mussels come in a cider-dijon broth, and the pork pasty is full of cider-braised pork. You’ll even find cider-glazed doughnuts on the menu.

Although cider has been around for centuries, there is still a lot to learn — from how to grow and source heirloom apple varieties to understanding changing consumer preferences. Today’s cider makers continue to redefine American cider for the next century and beyond — it’s an exciting time for the beverage.

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