Hard Cider: A New Frontier

So, there I was one fine day after announcing I would be reviewing Virginia wines. In my mailbox was a request to review hard cider. Really? Fruit wines, sort of? I can't add those to the database as wines. I demurred, but Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, kept talking. What was more important was that what she was saying made automatic sense to a wine person. She sounded just like a wine geek. Only she was using apples and we don't consider apple wine to be real wine, do we? Yet....suddenly, I was intrigued.

I know precious little about hard cider. (I'm certainly not going to be scoring any.) It was an interesting exercise worth relating, though. Follow along with my baby steps. I found something new to investigate. You might, too. I was willing to learn more when Flynt said things like this to me: "Cider is like wine in that most of the volume is produced from mass-market producers...who make very beer-like ciders....Foggy Ridge is on the 'fine cider' end of the spectrum; we make our cider like winemakers make fine wines." She said that her operation was the first South of Massachusetts "to focus full time on growing true cider apples...our cider is made from apple varieties chosen for the tannin, acid and complex flavors they bring to a carefully fermented beverage. Back in 1997 our vision was to grow high quality cider fruit in our 3000 foot elevation orchards...We grow over 30 cider apples and look to express not only varietal differences, but also the unique terroir of our mountain orchards."

Is this sounding familiar yet, just like wine talk? Some of those familiar ciders I pointed her to on local shelves? "Sadly, these are almost all mass market ciders, the Yellow Tail of the cider world. Just like wine, the cider segment is not "one thing." There is a range of cider and most consumers and even most beverage professionals know only the well-marketed mass market brands. Here is the most understandable breakdown: Mass market is made with apple juice concentrate, flavored and produced to specification just like mass market wines....[Others are] made mostly with concentrate from Europe. These ciders are to fine cider as a wine cooler is to fine wine. Regional mass market ciders can look like craft or artisan cider, but they are often smaller versions of mass market brands. They are almost always chaptalized to create a higher alcohol cider, then diluted back to 5% or 6% ABV and flavored, which is why they are so cheap...mostly water....At best, a regional mass market will be made with actual apples, though with the cider equivalent of a Niagara grape versus a Cabernet grape. Local dessert fruit (which means good for eating, not necessarily good for cider) is cheap and can, of course, be pressed and fermented. Again, this cider is often diluted with water. Fine cider is made just like fine wine, from estate grown fruit and from specific varieties chosen for flavor and for compatibility with specific sites. Foggy Ridge, Farnum Hill, Eve's Cider, West County, etc. Ingredients are 100% CIDER apples, not just whatever apple is grown locally and is cheap. This cider is more expensive, on average $15 to $20 per bottle, and expresses variety, terroir and cidermaking skill."

Speaking of apple types, take a look at the way the apple percentages are listed in this photo of the back label of Eve's Albee Hill cider (I didn't know there were that many apple types!):

Apple blends on back of the 2013 Eve's Cidery Albee Hill (dry and still)

Another point familiar to wine people will be the question of aging. That is an interesting issue for the producers as well. Flynt said to me that "fine cider (made like wine as opposed to mass market or "beer-style" ciders made with concentrate or chaptalized juice, flavored, etc.) is made with tannic, acidic apples. Many fine ciders do change in the bottle and benefit from aging. At the very least, in my view, well made cider requires some tank aging to integrate flavors. At Foggy Ridge we keep our ciders on stainless for several months before bottling, and then don't release the newly bottled cider for several more (the number of months varies by apple variety and blend).... Regarding "how long is cider good," if kept as one would keep a good white wine, cider should maintain its qualities for several years. We keep a library of Foggy Ridge Ciders are the ciders back to 2010 are still drinking well."

Well, with a rousing build up like that and some serious plaudits in food and wine circles; with Diane sounding very much like the passionate, boutique winemakers we love, and talking the talk we talk on a regular basis, who could resist?

Here was the lineup:

Diane's products are all blends. She noted that "most would agree that there are few cider apples that are appropriate for a single varietal cider." They are all a bit fizzy (and the only one in the whole lineup that is not is the Albee Hill). Overall, I found lots of great wine analogies to make. These are nothing like monolithic ciders I've had in the past. After all the buildup, I was afraid of a letdown. Not so.

a) Foggy Ridge "Serious Cider" ($16) 750ml

This particular cider was from 2013 - but the TTB, said Flynt, does not allow vintage dating. They indicate harvests on the back label by lot numbers. It is a blend of 20% each of Grimes Golden, Dabinett, Jonathan, Newtown Pippin and Gold Rush. It comes in at 7.5% alcohol and 1 grams per liter of residual sugar. That is, it is very dry. They produce about 1,500 cases annually. Cidermaker Jocelyn Kuzelka says this cider is characterized by "apple and citrus," with "focused acidity" and "dusty tannin...."

Acidity is very much what this is about, making it rather different than a lot of the commercial ciders I've had. Fresh, a bit fizzy and tart on the end, this is a cider that reminded me of some high acid Vinhos Verdes. The apple touch is light; almost a curiosity on the finish as the acidity lifts the fruit and changes it into something bone dry and very crisp. It is more sour apple than applesauce. This could easily be a fantastic summer refresher, substituting without missing a beat for some of the dry, teeth-cleaning Vinhos Verdes I tend to like in warm weather. The Serious Cider is just the type of wine (oops!) drink I like in the summer. As it warmed closer to room temperature, it showed the ability to improve, actually, integrating its parts better. It seemed full-bodied and, well, very serious. It could easily be used as a food match, just like a lot of crisp, white wines.

b) Foggy Ridge Cider "First Fruit" ($16) 750ml

The First Fruit is a blend of: 30% of a field blend (sounds like Douro!), which field blend included Hewe's Crab, Harrison and Parmar; 40% Arkansas Black; 20% Newtown Pippin and 10% Pink Lady. It is also from the 2013 harvest, per the lot number on the back. This, says Kuzelka, is "crisp and fruity," sourced from "early season apples." Hewe's Crab, you might note, was Thomas Jefferson's favorite, adding "lively acidity to this blend." Thus, it appears that the cider makers can even appropriate Thomas Jefferson talk. If it worked for Bordeaux, perhaps it will work for them, too. It comes in at 7.8% alcohol and 10 grams per liter of residual sugar.

Back Label of First Fruit

The First Fruit, unlike the Serious Cider, is a bit off-dry, more like an off-dry Mosel Kabinett than one of the acidic teeth cleaners. The first impression is its up-front, fruit flavor. The apple flavors are still very focused here, nicely balancing the acidity (and being balanced by it). More approachable than the somewhat austere "Serious Cider," which I think would benefit from a food matchup, this still features rather fine acidity and doesn't come close to being sappy sweet. Beautifully constructed, it is always refreshing with its light fizz and sunny demeanor. It also has grip on the finish. This is the one that you use as a sipper for sitting on the porch. It will go with food, but it will be perfect on its own, too. It will always be lively and balanced.

c) Foggy Ridge Cider "Handmade" ($11) 500ml

As with the others, this particular cider, the "Handmade," was from 2013, per lot numbers on the back. This is a blend of 80% Newtown Pippin, and 10% each of Arkansas blanc and Jonathan. It comes in at 7.7% alcohol and 10 grams per liter of residual sugar. Most of this (the Newtown Pippin) is estate fruit; the rest from an orchard with 50 year old trees. The Newtown Pippin, says Flynt, was the only apple that was a tax-free import by Queen Victoria's England, because it was so popular at her Court. Cidermaker Jocelyn Kuzelka says this cider is characterized by "apple and soft tropical fruit aromas."

This is the sexiest of the trio from Foggy Ridge. It is still much along the same lines. It has fine acidity that lifts the fruit, but it feels the fullest in the mouth with the most caressing texture. Like the First Fruit, it is beautifully balanced, with the acidity easily matching the modest sugar. The apple notes are clear as a bell here, but once again, with this style of cider (thinking of someone I know who assures me that Cider is awful because it all tastes like apple juice), it is more a part of the vinification process. It sure doesn't leave you feeling that you're slurping applesauce or drinking apple juice. Far more nuanced, it is very fine, with a certain sensuality to the texture. It is another that will be just fine on its own.

Which to pick? They are all super. The real answer might be what you're eating, if anything. The Serious Cider would make the best match for foods that require high acidity drinks. It really cries out for food. The First Fruit and the Handmade are more along the same lines, with just a bit of a different emphasis. The Handmade seems to be a bit lusher and denser; the First Fruit is fruit forward, but a bit livelier. Personally, I preferred the Handmade, but that is only if forced to pick.

AUTUMN STOSCHECK'S "EVE'S CIDERY," at the intersection of the Southern Finger Lakes and the Northern Appalachian Plateau, is our second producer. In the unlikely event that Diane Flynt didn't convince you that something different is going on here, let's let Autumn have a try

Their soils, at two different sites 9 miles apart are variously deep gravel (Howard's Gravely Loam); and shale, "overlain by shallow silt (Lordstown Silt Loam), which is a native soil. We are having lots of fun learning about how varieties grow and taste different at each of these two sites," Autumn said to me. "Our blends are not a formula, but more of an abstract vision for the cider. We grow our apples for the sole purpose of making cider...so we don't have cold storage or a packing house. Instead, we press them as they ripen throughout the fall. We make crude blends at the press, based on pH and harvest date. Many of the great bittersweet varieties have very little acidity and high pH. Since we practice low sulfite cider making, we like to bring the pH of the juice down by blending with acid varieties. So for example: a tank of Ellis Bitter will have 30% Cox Orange or a tank of Bulmers Norman will be blended with Bramley's Seedling. Another element of our blends is that true cider apple varieties tend to be very biannual, meaning they have an on year and an off year. Conventional orchards can compensate for this somewhat by spraying synthetic hormones on the trees, but since we use organic practices in our orchards, we are kind of stuck with what nature gives us. Thankfully, we grow many varieties and some varieties have similar qualities, or are even sisters (genetically). At the end of the year we have some 30 odd tanks of simple blends. After a period of maturation we sit down, taste through the ciders and try to find synergy in blending. So the Darling Creek for example is a cider that we envision to have plenty of acidity and lots of ripe and dried apple aromas. And the Darling Creek almost always will have warm spice characteristics. But apple wise, it depends on the year what's in it....We are not certified organic (and our cider is not organic because we do use some sulfites) but our growing practices adhere to organic standards...Apples are pretty expensive to produce this way: our yields are lower and we spend an enormous amount of time on the ground in the orchard, doing things by hand. We believe apples grown this way are better for cider though...our apples consistently have higher brix and more concentrated flavors than conventional growers. I know this because we do purchase apples on occasion from local growers we respect."

In terms of aging, by the way, Autumn said to me that there is unexplored potential: "Our ciders are bottled with pretty low sulfite levels and they definitely change over time in the bottle. My preference is for the ciders that are at least 2 years old but in truth we'll sell most of the cider in the first year (from release). Some good things happen and some things are diminished with age. The truth is we haven't put much thought towards aging cider. We've only been making cider for 13 years and only really had the foresight to start saving bottlers about 5 years ago."

Time for a vertical, I suppose. In the meanwhile, here are two selections from Eve's Cidery. Autumn said that "our distributor will be picking up the 2014 Albee Hill in a couple of weeks, so it should be on the shelves in June. The sparkling ciders won't be out until July."

d) Eve's Cidery "Darling Creek Naturally Sparkling Semi-Dry" ($18) 750ml

This is from the 2013 harvest. (As noted above, the new 2014s will be out in July.) "This is a more complicated blend of apples," Autumn said to me, "so we don't tend to track them....The apples were harvested in 2013; disgorgement in June, 2014. It has residual sugar of 15 grams per liter and 8% alcohol. This is made, says the Cidery, "using the Champagne Method....After the primary fermentation in the fall, the ciders are racked and left to mature in stainless steel over the winter. In the early spring, we blend....The cider is then bottled with a liqueur de tirage, yeast and sugar, to initiate a secondary fermentation. In the cool cider barn, the secondary fermentation proceeds slowly, taking nearly 4 months to complete. The slow secondary fermentation is what creates tiny, persistent bubbles.... After a period of rest we disgorge, eject the yeast, every bottle by hand and top it up with a dosage of cider." There were 455 cases produced.

Back of Darling Creek, Eve's Cidery

Beautifully constructed, this has an intense hit of dry apple up front, an elegant presentation and the acidity to lift the fruit. The sugar makes it a bit less dry than some, but make no mistake about that: this is hardly sweet, just more on the fruity side. The acidity holds its own rather well. Up to this point (this being the 4th of 5 selections), this has the strongest apple flavors, with a nod to green apple. It is a very invigorating sparkler, not even a little bit cloying.

e) Eve's Cidery "Albee Hill Still & Dry" ($15) 750ml

This is from the 2014 harvest. (The back label earlier pictured is not the same blend. That 2013 is sold out; this 2014 will be released in June. It was just bottled in March, 2015). It is a blend of 51% Golden Russet, 22% Yarlington Mill, 10% Goldrush, 10% Esophus Spitzenburg, 4% Northern Spy and 3% Bedan. It comes in at 3 grams per liter of residual sugar (not much with this acidity) and 8.5% alcohol. There were just 106 cases produced. Says, the winery: "This still, dry cider is made entirely from apples...from our CL1 block on our Albee Hill orchard where shallow, shale-based soils and organic management practices concentrate tannins and polyphenolics..."

Served last in my line-up, that did not do this a service. After all of the others, which have at least some fizz, this seemed flat and dull by comparison. It required some palate adjustment. Once that was accomplished, this excelled. The apple tones blend elegantly into the whole in the same way grapes do in wine. There is an exotic burst of flavor that tells you something is different here, plus the apples on the nose, of course. Other than that, it is pretty much like drinking a white wine. Food and wine pairing enthusiasts will be interested in new possibilities. This is an excellent food matchup choice. Laced with acidity that makes it quite lively, this is perfectly balanced. The smooth texture is pleasing. There is also some grip and tension on the finish. I had to keep reminding myself that this was cider. The acidity coupled with the still, dry demeanor made it very wine-like and absolutely nothing like stereotypical cider. This is both different in our lineup and rather intriguing.

An Apple a Day

The most interesting thing in this exercise is not the quality of the hard ciders. That was obvious as you can tell from my comments, but not the only important thing. These are also beverages that can have a regular place in the same way that many wines have a regular place. That is, they aren't just an occasional, somewhat eccentric tipple; most also will match well with various foods. They hold your interest. They attain a certain level that is just different. You may have to try some to see what I mean. Particularly in warm weather, though, this might become a staple for many. They all project good acidity. Flynt called it "the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry." It will be interesting to see where this goes in coming years.

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