Early this century a fermented beverage made from apples emerged from modern obscurity into the millennial spotlight. Hard cider experienced a boom. Why? Since cider is gluten-free (unlike beer), lower in alcohol than wine, and exceptionally food-friendly, it quickly became popular with consumers once again. But there's no denying the fact that the cider landscape is both exciting and confusing. Here's what you need to know to make sure you understand what you're getting when buying hard cider.
What Is Hard Cider?
The drink remains hard to define. "The laws governing cider have not been touched since prohibition," says Elizabeth Ryan, Hudson Valley fruit farmer and cider maker. "Cider is what you say it is." In the United States, prohibition shut down a centuries-old American cider tradition. The subsequent malaise only lifted in the 1990s, encouraged by the persistence of a handful of thirsty cider makers. It's easier to say what hard cider is not: It is not the perishable, non-alcoholic fresh apple cider that appears in fall. In New York, where there are more cider makers than anywhere else in the U.S., the legal definition of hard cider is evolving. Broadly-speaking hard cider is fermented apple juice, with an alcohol content between three and eight-and-a-half percent. Hard ciders can be carbonated artificially or naturally. Some are still.
A New Golden Age of Cider
The cider renaissance peaked early this decade and resulted in a heady range of choices for imbibers. "This is a moment of wonderful chaos," says Ryan, who pioneered an artisanal path for hard cider makers, starting with her first experimental barrel at Cornell University in 1980. After a life-changing trip to the cider seat that is Somerset, England, she brought back 100 different bottles to Cornell for a tasting. The complex English cider did not go down well. "We had to invent a sensory vocabulary for it," she said, "and we are still working on it."
She sold her first European-style Hudson Valley Farmhouse cider in 1997. Most of the ciders are pressed from heirloom apples from her three farms in the Hudson Valley's historic fruit belt. The cidery produces about 10,000 cases a year. "In the 1990s you could not count the cider makers on two hands," she says. Now there are thousands.
One of those thousands is rogue ciderist Andy Brennan, who began selling his wild cider in 2011. The author of Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living, Brennan's approach is doggedly local and intuitive. His Aaron Burr cider is naturally fermented—wild yeasts do the heavy lifting. Of the 12 ciders he produces, 11 are made from feral Catskills' apples, foraged in the fall from old trees. Each of these ciders contains apples from specific sites, because "when you drink a cider you are drinking a location," he says. "Cider should be a world-class drink, and many Americans can proudly claim to be living in the Bordeaux or Loire Valley of cider…" His 600 or so cases are typically sold out before they have been bottled.
Some of the early 1990s cider revolutionaries turned big and mainstream. From Greg Failing's legendary 1991 start in his two-car Vermont garage, omnipresent Woodchuck cider is now manufactured on an industrial scale, owned by C&C Group, an Irish conglomerate. Over one million cases of Woodchuck were produced in 2007 (the Vermont Cider Company declines to share current production). Woodchuck, for whom consistency is key, is fermented from trucked-in apple juice and concentrate; yeast is added to start fermentation. "Natural fermentation…can lead to some interesting ciders, but it is not easy to reproduce," says brand director Megan Skinner.
In Michigan, apple farmer Jim Koan returned to his family's hard cider Depression roots in 1999 in order to save Almar, the fifth-generation family farm. Apple sales were inconsistent and his transition to organic growing meant an increase in blemished fruit, "uglier but more wholesome," says Koan—and perfect for cidering. Koan's JK's Scrumpy ciders are distinctly off-dry, USDA-certified organic, and naturally fermented; he produces about 200,000 cases a year. In his orchards Berkshire pigs, not pesticides, perform pest control.
For cider drinkers it's a great time to explore this diverse drink but what about cider makers? While there is a collective sense of market saturation and anxiety about climate change, the renegade ciderist welcomes the proliferation of cideries. "When you drink a cider you are drinking a location," says Andy Brennan. "My hope is that every tree is represented."