The woods stretching between the airport and the center of Frankfurt are just beginning to leaf out, clothing their bare limbs in a mist of green. Spring has finally come, and though it is still too soon for local apple blossoms, April is a perfect time to celebrate the previous year’s harvest at the International Cider Fair or Apfelweinmesse. Founded and run by cider maker Andreas Schneider and cider sommolier Michael Stöckl after attending a similar even in Asturias, Spain in 2007, the fair is now in its seventh year of welcoming producers from around the world to share their ciders with a most appreciative audience.
Cider, or apfelwein as it is known locally, has both a long and not so long history in Germany. Certainly it played a role in the country’s historic past since Charlamagne, who built his main castle at what is now the city of Achen, wrote about the making of cider on his various estates in the early 9th century. It doesn’t seem to have held a prominent place on the German table, however, until phylloxera wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards a thousand years later. The pragmatic people of the state of Hesse turned to apples as a substitute. And while apfelwein and it’s culture suffered during the wars of the 20th century, it has survived and in recent years has experienced a bit of a comeback.
The majority of the 80 producers that participated in the 2015 Apfelweinmesse were German, mostly from the area surrounding Frankfurt. Some, like Possmann, focus on apfelweins made in a traditional style and sold in distinctive wide, brown bottles. They are tart and dry and still and are a welcome accompaniment to traditional German staples like rich sausages or a local specialty of cheese dressed in seasoned vinegar and raw onions called Handkäse mit Musik. Many more producers are taking a different path. Starting 10 or 15 years ago, some German cider makers began focusing more on the wine aspect of apfelwein and are now making a whole range of increasingly sophisticated products.
One standout example is Weidmann & Groh. Founded in 1989 to create distilled fruit liquors, the company began producing apfelweins in 2008 under the leadership of the young Norman Groh. He relies on a range of local apple varieties in combination and as single varietals and is willing to experiment with non-traditional techniques. The Boskop Barrel Aged, for example, is a dry single varietal apfelwein aged in used French Chardonay barrels giving it a rich oaky nose and hint of vanilla on top of a tart, citrusy finish. Bonapfel No. 3, a recent release, is fermented with Malden hops which give this semi-dry apfelwein a mild grassy note and slightly more astringency in its clean finish.
Another notable German producer is Apfelwein Kontor. Owners and cider makers Konstantin Kalveram and Michael Rühl started writing about the Hessian apfelwein scene in 2008 before opening a shop in Frankfurt’s historic apfelwein district of Sachsenhausen. Producing their own vintages in limited amounts for the last 4 years or so, they focus on traditional apple varieties and additions such as speierling, the fruit of the service tree (Sorbus domestica). The 2014 Goldpearmäne mit Speierling is good example of their point if view. Semi-dry and still, it is a slightly cloudy rich gold, tart and bright up front flowing into a warm fruity mid-palate, and finishing with the clean mild astringenecy contributed by the speierling.
Of course as this was an international event, there were many producers from other parts of the world, primarily Europe, including Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, and France. Even the most dedicated cider drinker cannot hope to sample ciders from all of them in the coarse of one 7 hour event. Here, however, are a few highlights:
Maley – Situated in the Italian alps in a valley below Mont Blanc, Maley produces a range of sparkling ciders from apples grown at 1500 meters (5000 feet), surely the highest cider orchards in Europe. They range from bone dry to medium dry, bright and lively and reminiscent of champagne and pro secco.
Domaine Bordatto – Bitxinxo Aphaule seems to be a bit of an experimentalist while simlutaneously embracing the traditions of his terrior, producing not only ciders in the traditional French Basque style but a range of more thoughtfult innovative flavors. One of the most interesting, Biholz (Basque for ‘the heart’) is made from freeze-concentrated juice that is barrel-fermented in barrels with a history – wine for 2 -3 three years (Bitxinxo also produces well respected Basque wines), then one of the other Domaine Bordatto ciders (Txalapata) for a season. The result is a lovely subtle nutty sweetness with a touch of vanilla and a slight bitterness in the finish. It takes 12 kilos of apple to make just one 500 ml bottle.
Finnbarra – Ireland’s craft cider makers were represented by Daniel Emerson and his Finnbarra Ciders. The dry and medium ciders are both mildly sparkling and rich with fruit. His latest release is Tawny, a dry hopped cider fortified with distilled apple spirits to create a cider that would work well over ice as an apéritif. The hops add a mild bitterness to the tart fruit, but don’t pass on the herbal character found in some hopped ciders.
As cider enters the consciousness of more Americans, some will become curious about ciders from other traditions. Events such as the Frankfurt Apfelweinmesse teach us that apple juice, yeast, and time can produce a world’s worth of libations, each with their own character and place. Though some will think it heretical to say, there is no one “proper cider” any more than there is one “proper wine” or one “proper beer”. There is, instead, an opportunity to touch both history and the future in a single glass and unite the world in appreciation of what is possible from the humble apple.