If you’ve been paying attention at all you will have recently noticed cider being declared The Next Big Thing. Media outlets large and small have been publishing pieces talking about soaring sales or reviews of a handful of the hundreds of ciders now available in the US, and every piece seems to start out by reminding us that cider was once a seriously popular beverage. Still for those of us born after the passage of the Volstead Act put professional cider makers out of business, knowing what we’re going to get when we open a bottle labeled cider (or more likely “hard” cider) is still a bit of a mystery.
There are many cider traditions in the world, each with it’s own history and flavor. The ciders of western England (from Herefordshire or Somerset, for example) are generally still, dry to semi-dry, and rich with tannin, while in the east they are generally still and a bit more tart. The ciders of France, chiefly from Normandy and Brittany, are bubbly, tannic, lower in alcohol, and sweeter, the natural result of a unique fermentation process used by the French. The ciders of Germany and northern Spain, although different from each other, are still and bright, with higher acid than you will find in ciders from other parts of Europe. The Spanish even have a unique cider pouring technique that gives their “sidra” an ephemeral fizz and subtle change in flavor.
Each of these cider making areas has been at it for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the idea of cider is deeply ingrained in the local consciousness. Not so in the United States. What ever cider traditions were developed during the period of first colonization by Europeans, when cider was an essential every day drink, were swept away with Prohibition. This is both good and bad. Good because the absence of the constraints imposed by years of tradition is allowing American cider makers to experiment and innovate, creating a whole range of exciting new things to drink. Bad because if we pick one at random and find it’s not quite our cup of tea we might think that’s all cider is and just give up on the whole category all together.
And that would be a shame, because the truth is that there’s a cider out there for every taste and every occasion, from a Sunday watching sports to a night out at a fine restaurant.
Essentially cider is an alchemical combination of apple variety (including where it’s grown), yeast strain, and the point of view of the cider maker. Each element is important, but it is remarkable how much the cider maker influences the final product. Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising since it is certainly true in the world of fine wine and craft beer. The raw materials are important, but in one set of hands they can become something drinkable and in another something astonishing.
My own interest in cider started some years ago with an excess of apples, a cider-making book or two, and a simple press. And I made something more or less drinkable. Soon if other business took me to a part of the world where cider was made, I’d tack on a few extra days so I could meet other cider makers and try other ciders. Eventually cider became the whole point of my travels. England, Wales, France, Spain, Germany, Canada, and much of the US – I’ve met exceptional people making fascinating ciders. What follows are some of their stories.