American Cider Zeitgeist

There’s been talk lately about an “identity crisis” happening in the cider industry. Having recently spent the better part of a week with some thousand enthusiastic cider makers and drinkers, it isn’t really clear just what the fuss is about, but perhaps the perception of anxiety is related to American cider’s multiple personality complex. Is cider a sessionable pub drink or an elegant beverage destined to accompany a fancy dinner? Put another way, is cider more like beer or more like wine? Can it be both?

Zeitgeist photo

Having lost whatever historic traditions cider had pre-Prohibition to the triploid pressures of increased immigration from non cider-drinking locales, movement from rural to urban communities, and the 18th Amendment, this country’s new cider makers are not constrained in the way that their comrades in Europe might be. European cider traditions stretching back many hundreds of years have left an indelible print on the drinks-consuming public in the UK, France, and Spain. Everybody “knows” what cider is, so that any attempt at innovation – whether it be the co-fermentation of apples with other things or the use of yeast strains more often associated with beer or cider made in another traditional style – can be met with skepticism and huffing that it isn’t “real” cider. (That being said, UK cider drinkers do have other issues to contend with.)

Not so in the US. Here cider is in many senses an unknown, free to be created in whatever image a particular cider maker has. Some see apple juice as just one of many possible constituents the way that a brewer would consider wort. It provides fermentable sugars and some acidity, but the variety of apple involved isn’t particularly important. It’s mostly just a canvas on which a cider maker can paint a flavor picture using other ingredients if need be. Then there is the element that seeks to elevate cider to fine dining status where it can sit along side wine. For this cider maker the apple is the whole point, and coaxing the truest flavor out of one or more varieties and embracing the complexities of vintage is the cider maker’s highest calling.

Some tension exists between these two camps, although politeness still reigns, in part because there are any number of cider makers with feet placed pretty firmly in both. The former sub-category of cider has been dominant so far, in part because the largest players are mega-breweries that are looking for products that can compliment their existing portfolios in a market where beer sales overall have been somewhat flat. These Big Players have been a key force in driving the explosive growth of cider as they’ve used their existing marketing muscle and distribution channels to ramp up cider’s place in the American drinker’s consciousness, not to mention on store shelves.

These Big Players have such an outsized influence on the numbers (% sales growth, for example) that it well may be that they skew an evaluation of American cider as a whole. More than half of the cider producers in the US in 2015 (65% to be exact) don’t have distribution outside their local area (yet) which is not to say that their businesses aren’t robust and growing. So when one hears that cider sales growth in 2015 was only 10 – 12%, instead of the remarkable 60 – 70% of the previous two years, does it mean that cider overall is slowing down (and 10% is still plenty respectable) or that sales for the Big Players are? Bear in mind that these sorts of sales figures come from sales to supermarkets and like, not to restaurants and bars where consumer preferences might be quite different. In a consumer trends survey conducted by Penn State Extension in the final quarter of 2015, researchers found that a significant number of respondents tried cider for the first time because they either make a point of trying locally made products or enjoy wine and thought that cider might be similar. So why insist that the cider only be compared to beer as published statistics so often do?

There is also some talk that American cider makers ought to be focusing on developing an indigenous cider culture rather than seeking to imitate the ciders of other regions. This seems a worthy goal, but frankly experimenting with European cider styles seems like it might be part of a cider maker’s maturation process, rather like an art student playing with the techniques of her predecessors as a means of preparing herself to take off in her own direction having through thoughtful imitation found her own voice.

Then there is the question of apples and the calls in some circles for US growers to plant more specialized varieties used for cider elsewhere. The apple-juice-as-canvas approach suggests that the need for apples having a lot of post-fermentation character in and of themselves may be overblown if not unnecessary. Certainly in skilled hands even a humble dessert apple can shine (think West County Cider’s Macintosh/Golden Delicious or Tilted Shed’s Inclinato). Besides, cider has been growing quite nicely based on the apple varieties already widely available.

This is, perhaps, a might short-sighted for it may be that a true American cider is one that embraces a melting-pot, multicultural approach, whether that be in fruit selection or production method, much in the model of America itself. Using apple varieties that originated on the other side of the pond won’t in and of itself make for a derivative cider, for certainly a wine made in France of pinot noir grapes grown there and one grown and made in northern California will be distinctly their own as the effects of soil and climate and all the other nuances of terroir exert their effects. Then, too, there are any number of cider makers/orchardists who are working to discover a whole new array of uniquely American cider varietals, tramping through the woods in search of character-filled wild seedling apples, people like Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr and Eric Schatt of Redbyrd Orchard. Many of the wildings are as richly flavored and mouth-pukeringly tannic as any apple hailing from Somerset and are as well suited to their environment as any of their wild native neighbors. Mayhaps these will be the apples of America’s true cider future.

Throughout the ages cider has fueled the celebrations of fierce warriors, graced the tables of ambassadors, and made up part of a day’s wages for itinerant farm workers. In the end there is really no need to create some strangling definition of what cider is and isn’t. Let cider just be cider. Because, after all, as one British cider maker quipped recently, cider making isn’t open heart surgery on small children. It’s making a quality drink that brings people pleasure and sparks good times be it poured by the pint in the corner pub or in crystal stemware to accompany foie gras en croute. And if the cider category seems a bit chaotic at the moment perhaps it is best to just embrace it, for it is out of chaos that new worlds are born.

Rudy’s Holiday Cheer

The season of holidays is upon us with dining and drinking and general merriment. I’m always looking for something new and a little festive that I can serve to my rotating crowd of guests, and this year I’m getting some help from Abe Goldman-Armstrong at Portland’s Cider Riot®. Abe is a fascinating combination of serious apple-driven cider guy (in high school he worked for Alan Foster at his much missed White Oak Cidery) and serious craft beer guy. It’s his playful innovative side that has generated this season’s go to beverage – Rudy’s Cranberry Hibiscus Cider.

A spritely combination of cold-pressed cranberry juice, North West apple juice, and organic hibiscus flowers, Rudy’s is bright and lively with a clean fruitiness that just calls out to be put into a holiday cocktail. I pumped up the fruitiness by combining it with sloe gin (I used Spirit Works’) and added a little orange Curaçao, ginger bitters and lime as a nod to the cranberry sauce that graces my Thanksgiving table. The result is a little fizzy and a little boozy, but still restrained enough in the alcohol department that you won’t risk having your guests do a face plant in the mashed potatoes.

Rudy's Jubilee

Rudy’s Holiday Cheer

  • 1 ½ ounce sloe gin
  • ½ ounce orange Curaçao
  • 5 dashes ginger bitters
  • 6 ounces Rudy’s Cranberry Hibiscus Cider
  • 1 wedge of fresh lime

Mix the sloe gin, Curaçao, ginger bitters, and cider in a low ball glass. Squeeze in the lime juice, then add a few ice cubes. Celebrate!

America’s First Cocktail

For someone whose years of formal schooling focused on things like the Krebs cycle and the shape of electron shells, little attention was paid to history. A plunge into the fascinating world of cider and orchards, however, has reveled just how closely intertwined the history of America and the history of American cider truly are. A case in point is the incredibly flexible, wonderfully delicious cocktail, the Stone Fence.

Great Britain’s American colonies had been producing cider practically from the moment the first ships landed in the New World. Cider was tasty, easy to make, and safe to drink, and a well laid out orchard was comforting evidence of man’s ability to create order in a new and sometimes hostile wilderness. Over time, the men and women that had taken a chance on carving out a life so far from their origins began to chafe under the rule of a far away government that so often seemed to impose onerous taxes while giving little back in return. By April of 1775 discontent had come to a head and the first shots of revolution fired in the small Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord (enterprising local Elias Brown sold mugs of cider to soldiers on both sides as well a spectators that had come to find out just what all the fuss was about.) The war for independence had begun.

Several years earlier, King George III had provoked a land dispute when he gave the colonial governor of New York the right to sell land grants to the west of New Hampshire (territory that would later become Vermont), the same land that the governor of New Hampshire was already selling. Those with grants from New Hampshire were understandably incensed that someone else was set to claim lands that they thought of as rightfully theirs. After unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issue in the New York courts, the New Hampshire grant holders turned to the only option open to them, a local militia whose mandate was to keep the New Yorkers out! Thus was born the Green Mountain Boys under the leadership of the brash and argumentative Ethan Allen. Allen and his Boys were pretty successful, eventually ending up with a price on their heads, but in the wake of Lexington and Concord, it became obvious that there were bigger issues at stake.

In early May of 1775 the revolutionary shadow government of nearby Connecticut got word to Allen that they were planning on capturing Fort Ticonderoga, located on Lake Champlain, and asking if he and his Boys would join them. A strategically important fort that had only been lightly garrisoned since the end of the French and Indian Wars, Fort Ticonderoga still had a fine collection of cannon and other armaments that were were sorely needed by the new revolutionary forces and so would be a useful prize. Allen was always up for a good scrap, so he began assembling a force in the small town of Castleton, about 50 miles from the fort. What he didn’t know was that Benedict Arnold, a newly commissioned colonel, was heading north on the same mission. They met in Castleton, probably at the town’s one tavern, the Catamount owned by one Zadock Remington.

Most colonial towns had few if any civic buildings, making taverns de facto sites for every sort of meeting. In this case, meeting at a tavern undoubtably had its benefits, for although Arnold had an official commission and orders to lead the mission most of the assembled company was unwilling to follow anyone but Allen. As the story goes, all sat down for cups of the local tipple – cider mixed with rum, that other New England staple – a compromise was reached, and the fort was easily captured the next day. The confiscated canons were used six months later to drive the British troops from Boston effectively ending major military activity in New England.

At what point the mix of rum and cider became known as a Stone Fence isn’t clear. Over time, though, taverns across the land would serve cider mixed with whatever spirit was made locally – rum in New England, rye in Pennsylvania, bourbon in Kentucky, or applejack in New Jersey. By the time anyone got around to writing the first bar manual, the Stone Fence had been enfeebled by exchanging cider for sweet apple juice. This version of the Stone Fence isn’t awful, but it lacks a certain thrill. A better approach is to follow the lead of Ethan and his Boys. Take a bottle of your favorite local cider and mix it 1:1 with something from your favorite local distillery, preferably something barrel-aged.

The following version was inspired by a recent trip to Washington, home to some very happening distilleries and some amazing ciders. Alpenfire’s Ember, a certified organic cider made by husband and wife team Steve (Bear) and Nancy Bishop in Port Townsend, WA, is a complex semi-dry blend of French and English bittersweets whose pronounced tannins give the cider an appealing astringency that rounds out its rich fruit flavors. Combine it with Peated, a gold medal winning smoky single malt from Seattle’s Westland Distillery, and you’ll have a cocktail that will light any party on fire.

Ember Stone Fence 1

Stone Fence

      • 1 1/2 ounces Peated Westland Whisky
      • 1 1/2 ounce Alpenfire Ember cider
      • a twist of lemon peel as a garnish

Pour the whisky into a low ball glass, add the cider, and some ice (use a big cube if you want to keep the drink cold but not watered down), and a twist of lemon peel.