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The cider house rules

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Real cider is transporting. Real cider is a cloudy fall day, leaves underfoot, New England and Normandy and Somerset and Seattle. 

Real cider is rarely sweet, only sometimes sparkling, and definitely alcoholic. It may be hazy, either because it is unfiltered or because it underwent bottle fermentation like Champagne. It pairs genially with food in the same way as a smooth ale. Above all, it doesn't taste like apple juice, any more than a good cabernet tastes like Welch's grape juice.

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It's also rare. The ubiquitous supermarket hard ciders are made from apple-juice concentrate and other flavorings, along with added sugar and preservatives. They are junk. Drew Zimmerman, the owner of Red Barn Cider in Washington state, calls the cheap stuff "alcopop six-pack cider." He was too polite to name names, but I am not; my blacklist includes Woodchuck, Spire, Wyder's, Woodpecker, Hornsby's, and the like.

How do you make hard cider? It's so easy. Pick some sweet, juicy fall apples. Press them with a hand-cranked cider mill. Place the barrel of juice in a cool place until it ferments. Et voilà! Tasteless, insipid cider, suitable for use as an air freshener or silver polish.

Why do crushed sweet apples, left to ferment, turn out so dull? Because dessert apples (Delicious, Gala, Fuji, and the like) don't make good cider — at least, not without some help. (Dessert apples can make excellent nonalcoholic cider; the tastiest is unpasteurized.)

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A glass of Wandering Aengus Ciderworks' semi-dry hard cider."]

"It’s very basic," says Ron Irvine, who makes Irvine's Vintage Cider on Vashon Island near Seattle. "You’re looking for tannin and you’re looking for acid. Those are the two key components." 

Dessert apples may offer a hint of these qualities; the Granny Smith, for example, is an acidic apple. But truly great cider apples, capable of making a single-variety cider, are rare, hard to grow, and expensive. They're called bittersharps, and the prime example is the English variety Kingston Black. 

Irvine makes Kingston Black cider when he can get his hands on enough of the apples. For his current bottling, Irvine's Vintage Blend, he's using a mix of bittersweets (tannic apples with low acid) and sharps (tart apples with low tannin): Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout, Vilberie, and Chisel Jersey. (Have you noticed how any article about apples soon devolves into a list of apple varieties with evocative names?)

The point is this: Unless you start with a mix of tannic and acidic apple juice, you will never end up with good cider. 

"It’s analogous to wine grapes," says Irvine, who also makes wine. "Wine grapes are high in tannin and acid; that’s the key. You can go into the grocery store and you can buy table grapes and make a wine out of table grapes, but it’s not going to have any flavor."

That's not to say that good cider has to be made entirely from eccentric apples; Zimmerman's two top-selling ciders (Jonagold Semi-Dry and Sweetie Pie) are lightly sweet bottlings made with Jonagold and Gravenstein apples. Even those, however, are made with up to 20 percent juice from bittersweet cider apples grown in Zimmerman's orchard.

Furthermore, the most familiar platitude about wine ("Great wine starts in the vineyard") is actually much more true of cider than of wine. I asked Irvine what he does to make a great cider beyond choosing the apples, expecting him to talk about selecting the right strain of yeast and fermentation temperature and other minutiae. But choosing the apples was pretty much it. "You know, for me, I’m not sure that there’s anything else," he says.

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h1. Matthew's faves

I tasted about two dozen ciders, and I highly recommend the following. (The English and French ciders are nationally distributed; the rest are available only in the Pacific Northwest.)

 Irvine's Vintage Blend (best cider I've ever tasted), Vashon Island, Washington
 Wandering Aengus Semi-Dry, Salem, Oregon
 Eric Bordelet Doux, Loire Valley, France (sweet, great for dessert)
 Ford Farms Cyderworks, Portland, Oregon
 Red Barn Fire Barrel, Mount Vernon, Washington
 Westcott Bay Traditional Very Dry, Friday Harbor, Washington
 Aspall Dry, Suffolk, England

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The Pacific Northwest is the hotbed of American artisanal cider, for several reasons. First, we grow, like, all the apples. (How do you like them apples?) Second, we have a lot of winemakers and microbrewers, some of whom get bored with wine and beer and think, "Hmm . . . cider." Third, we have the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center at Mount Vernon. 

The ARC has been experimenting with and promoting cider apples for decades. (Irvine buys his apples from the ARC.) And the college offers an annual course on hard-cider making. This makes me want to give the state of Washington a big hug.

"We've got really energetic palates in the Northwest," says Zimmerman. "If people can embrace that bitter damn coffee from Starbucks, and if they can embrace the full-bodied bitter ales, it's not even a step forward to move over to traditional bittersweet ciders; it's a step sideways."

The Northwest, and the country as a whole, has enjoyed a rise in the number of small cideries, but I worry that the recession is going put many of them out of business. You can do your part to keep them going in two ways. First, use this map to find the cidery closest to where you live, and try the cider. Second, go back and have some more next summer. 

"You didn’t call me in the spring," says Irvine. "Most people don’t. We don’t think of cider in the spring. Apple is autumn. And that’s wonderful, that’s a huge strength, but it also tends to limit it. So in the fall, I sell out of it. But most people don’t care in the spring or summer."

Zimmerman largely agrees. "We sell a heck of a lot of cider starting in September and winding up at Christmas," he says. "It dies off after the holidays, but believe it or not, summers are pretty good."

Finally, drinking cider is not an emulation of frou-frou British and French habits. Cider is America's original beverage, a fixture in farmhouse cellars and dinner tables from the 17th century onward. When John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, traveled the Midwest in the 19th century planting apple trees, the fruits were not Red Delicious. They were cider apples.

Putting real cider on your holiday table — whether that holiday is Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Flag Day — is downright patriotic. It supports small producers and plant biodiversity. Plus, when it's time to shoo your guests out, you can start listing off rare apple varieties. Works every time.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"]* writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


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