Just about every article published about cider starts by telling the reader how popular cider was in the British-American colonies, about John Adams and his daily breakfast tankard and Ben Franklin’s suggestion that it was a waste to eat apples when they could be cider instead. The French colonists to the north were cider drinkers, too, bringing it along during their early explorations of New France at the turn of the 17th century. By the mid-1600s orchards were in place, cider presses had been imported, and production was in full swing. Still, cider was never quite as popular as wine, though, despite many attempts, French wine grapes didn’t much care for the local climate so wine had to be imported and was consequently more expensive. Matters were’t improved a century later when France ceded it’s control of the area to Great Britain as the new British overlords were much more interested in promoting their own imported products.
By the early 20th century and Quebec’s brief flirt with Prohibition, the commercial production of cider seems to have been tiny at best, for when Quebec passed the Alcoholic Beverages Act of 1921 creating the legal framework for government-controlled sales of wine and spirits, cider was left off the list, an oversight that wasn’t corrected for almost 50 years. Not that cider wasn’t being made, exactly. By this time the antedeluvial soils of the broad St. Lawrence Valley that stretches north from the Great Lakes were full of apple orchards, and some orcharding families, like the Jodoins of Rougemont, were making a bit of cider on the Q.T. Even after cider was added to the list of legal beverages, though, growers were still not allowed to make it from their own fruit. The first ciders were chiefly made by large processors using apples that weren’t sellable in any other market. Though produced from 100% juice (by law) the quality left much to be desired. Finally, in 1988, the first cidriculture permit was issued to oenologist Robert Demoy, founder of Ciderie Minot, with the second issued three months later to Michel Jodoin. And Quebecois cider was on its way.
Well, almost. Cider had been absent from the market for so long that it was a bit of a hard sell. It took the invention of a completely new thing – ice cider – to get things off the ground again.
Ice cider. Rich and sweet with smooth flavors of carmelly apple that are nicely balanced by an underlying acid bite that prompts another sip, and another, and another. The category was developed independently in the 1990s at opposite ends of Quebec’s cider region – by forester and orchardist Pierre LaFond at Ciderie St-Nicolas near Quebec City and by Christian Barthomeuf, first while at Domaine Côtes d’Ardoise, then in conjunction with François Pouliot at La Face Cachée de la Pomme and Charles Crawford at Domaine Pinnacle. By now, there are several dozen cideries large and small making ice cider, which has developed an international presence and spawned both a cider-based tourist industry and an annual cider-celebrating event.
As ice cider’s reputation has spread and become almost synonymous with Quebec (although there are quite wonderful ice ciders being made elsewhere) the rest of the Quebecois cider industry, while continuing to grow, has been a bit overshadowed, at least outside of Quebec. Almost every cidery that produces an ice cider produces a range of still and/or sparkling traditional-style ciders as well, chiefly from the widely grown McIntosh, Empire, and Spartan apples. They are bright and clean, more likely to be semi-dry than dry, some strikingly fruity and others tasting more like a crisp white wine.
Interestingly, the drive to innovate that produced ice cider continues to thrive leading a number of successful cider makers to pursue some new and exciting offshoots. Chief among these are the rosé ciders. Most are made from the Geneva crabapple, a seedling discovered at an Ottowan agricultural research station by noted crabapple breeder Isabella Preston in the 1930s. François Pouliot’s Bulle Rosé, made using the méthode champenoise and spending 18 months on the lees, is as dry and sparkling as a classic rosé champagne with undernotes of berries and spice. The Rosé of Les Vergers de la Colline, made from a blend of Cortland and Honeycrisp apples and Dolgo crabapples, is allowed to rest for an extended time after the apples are crushed to extract extra flavor and color from the crabapples. It is a still, semi-dry cider that opens with a brisk tartness and finishes with the flavor of ripe strawberries.
Michel Jodoin has perhaps most fully embraced the rosé ciders for he is currently making five distinct varieties plus a pommeau (a mixture of eau-de-vie and rosé apple juice). All are based on the Geneva crabapple, which contributes tannin as well as color, though some are blended with either McIntosh or Cortland apples. The single varietals made from the Geneva crab are a fascinating study in just how much production methods influence flavor. The still cider Rosalie, for example, is big for a cider, more of an apple wine at 12% ABV. Fruit forward and well structured from the tannins in the crabapple, it starts with the floral berry flavors common in rosé ciders before finishing with a clean tartness. The sparkling Cidre Rosé Mousseux, made using the méthode champenoise, is spicy with an abundance of clove in the midst of the berries and reads a little drier. The ice cider, Cidre de Glace Rosé, explodes with raspberries both in the nose and on the palette with but a little of the spice of the Cidre Rosé Mousseux and none of the floral character of Rosalie.
As interest in cider increases in the U.S. so will the likelihood of finding some of these unique ciders. Recently, François Pouliot conducted an ice cider tasting seminar for attendees at the U.S. Association of Cider Makers convention, and both Pouliot and Les Vergers de la Colline presented ciders at the 2015 Chicago Cider Summit. One can even find Pouliot’s Neige ice cider at BevMo’s online store, although it is mysteriously listed under ice wines. But a better bet is to make the trek to Quebec yourself and spend a glorious late summer day driving through the lush orchards full of fruit and the promise of ciders yet to come.