Whether it's the savory sour sidra quickly quaffed between pintxos in the Basque region of Spain, or the crisp, dry sparklers in company of Brittany, France's many galette (savory crêpe) preparations, hard apple cider has been a friend to food as far back as 40 B.C. when the drink was first mentioned in Roman texts.
The truth of the matter is, farmers have been fermenting apples forever. And while certain countries (France, Spain, England) long ago adopted alcoholic apple cider as a cultural standby, the U.S. is only now catching up. In actuality, cider production in America was a huge industry pre-1860. But consumption dwindled as populations spread into cities and beer became the easily accessible beverage of choice. Then once prohibition kicked in, cideries were almost totally eradicated.
But in the last few years, new cider businesses have sprouted across the country, and restaurants are beginning to embrace a new category of alcoholic beverage outside the routine beer and wine. New York City's first entirely cider-dedicated restaurant and bar Wassail debuted in March, pushing a beverage list (cider plus cider cocktails) organized by apple expert Dan Pucci. According to Pucci, cider is a hot topic for a myriad of reasons. It's a profitable business and "there are plenty of cheap fermentable apples that large companies can source fairly easily." On a more micro level, "At least in NY, the state has been very supportive in terms of lower taxes and streamlining licenses."
With so much new dry American cider hitting the market, Eater decided to taste through 63 artisanal, small-batch, bottles (and cans) produced using a variety of methods from barrel-aging to Méthode Champenoise, spanning New York to Washington. We stuck with ciders made strictly from apples (save for one desserty bottle we loved that mixed in pear and quince), though note there's a ton of fun fruit mashups out there, in addition to pear-based ciders known as "perry."
Contrary to popular belief, cider apple and eating apples fall into two distinct camps. As compared to palate-friendly Granny Smiths or Galas, which are generally not used to make booze, cider apples taste bitter and astringent. Though flavor varies, some cider apples varietals display more tannins, while others contain higher levels of sugar. And this variation in flavor is exactly why most (though not all) domestically-produced ciders are made from a blend of apples.
Since apple trees generally thrive in cool temperatures, most American cider is produced in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Ciders range in alcohol content from three percent ABV to over 11 percent. As a point of reference, beer ranges in alcohol from about four to 11 percent ABV, whereas wine usually falls between 9 and 15 percent ABV on average. Some cider drinkers liken the beverage more to wine, while others feel as though it falls more in the company of beer.
"I like to think that cider is where wine might have been about 120 years ago. Clones, varieties, locations, site and styles are still being established." -Dan Pucci, Wassail
Like Beaujolais Nouveau or Japanese sake, most ciders are meant to be consumed fresh and young. But that's not to say that some cideries don't age in barrel or stainless steel. Since American artisanal cider is still relatively new, cideries are still experimenting with different ways to treat the alcohol, be it barrel-aging, bottle-conditioning (adding some type of sugar back into the finished bottle to carbonate it naturally), using Méthode Champenoise (also known as the traditional method), force-carbonation (adding carbon dioxide to cider in a closed tank), or creating pét-nat styles (bottling the cider before the primary fermentation is complete, thus fermentation takes place in the bottle and produces natural bubbles). Per Pucci, America "[c]ider still has a long road to go. Techniques both in farming and processing are still in their infancy. I like to think that cider is where wine might have been about 120 years ago. Clones, varieties, locations, site and styles are still being established. I think that in time cider will come into it's own ..."
Below, out of 63 bottles sampled, our favorite (mostly dry) American hard apple ciders:
Snowdrift Cider Co., Orchard Select ($14/750ml)
Wenatchee Valley, WA
Snowdrift's Orchard Select is made from a blend of Winesap, Jonagold and Ribston Pippin apples aged for six months to a year in stainless steel. Expect a light and bright, food-friendly cider.
Farnum Hill, Extra Dry ($13/750ml)
Lebanon, New Hampshire
Perhaps one of the most famous and pioneering American producers, Farnum Hill churns out a slew of ciders both with and without bubbles. This bone dry sparkler tastes of the earth with a touch of funk and a slightly sour edge.
Bellwether Hard Cider, King Baldwin ($16/750ml)
This crisp, clean cider is made from a blend of old American apple varietals: Tompkins King (from Massachusetts) and Baldwin (local). It's almost totally dry with a tart apple flavor.
AeppelTreow, Appely Brut ($18/750ml)
Appely Brut was the first cider produced by AeppelTreow and, unlike most ciders which are made from a blend of cider apples, this bottle holds a mixed batch of late harvest eating apples treated in the Méthode Champenoise. Bottles are fermented, riddled and disgorged, with zero dosage added. The end product is a light-bodied, totally dry cider with a touch of subtle earthiness.
Foggy Ridge Cider, First Fruit ($16/750ml)
Another top producer of artisanal American cider, Foggy Ridge's First Fruit blends heirloom American apples for a beautifully balanced, crisp cider. Note the bottle's clean, pure apple flavor.
Virtue Cider, Lapinette ($11/750ml)
There's an elegant barnyardiness to this dry, roughly-filtered French-inspired cidre that rests in oak wine barrels. It's a sophisticated bottle with a medium body and both floral and vegetal notes.
Argus Cidery, 2013 Perennial ($21/750/ml)
A touch sweeter than Lapinette, Argus Cidery's Perennial was one of our favorite funky sour sparklers of the bunch. It channels an almost olive-esque flavor and is made from a blend of Blaze, Gala, Mutsu, Jonathan and Cameo apples barrel-aged in a mix of French and American oak.
Redbyrd Orchard, Starblossom ($20/750ml)
This English-style cider is made from a mixed vintage blend of (mostly) English bittersweet apples aged in previously used oak wine barrels. It's a great example of a lighter, slightly sour cider.
E.Z. Orchards, Cidre Dry ($16/750ml)
Cidre Dry is a French-style cidre made from a blend of vintage French apples. The bottle captures clean apple flavors paired alongside an even-tempered funkiness.
Austin Eastciders, Gold Top ($15/500ml)
All of the more unusual, barnyardy ciders we tried were mostly devoid of perceivable sweetness except this one bottle. Gold Top was the sweetest of the bunch and stood out for its unexpected pairing of sugar and funk.
After fermentation, a mixed blend of bittersweet apples spends four months in oak barrels to produce a lighter cider channeling modest earthy funk, along with minerality and tart apple notes.
Eden, Sparkling Cider, Dry ($10/375ml)
Displaying an uncommon watermelon flavor, Eden's dry sparkling cider proved to be a favorite. Upon first sip this cider tastes sweet, with an underlying elegant, slightly funky, totally dry finish. An all around winner.
2Towns Ciderhouse, Cider Master Reserve, Barrel Select Blend ($15/750ml)
In our office-wide taste test, this traditional English-style cider provide to be one of the top crowd-pleasers, thanks to its easy drinkability. Some described this bottle's quaffability as "candy-ish," though note this is a dry sparkler made from a blend of heirloom cider apples aged in a variety of rum, bourbon, Bordeaux and brandy barrels. Cider Master Reserve then spends two months in bottle before it's released.
Doc’s Draft, Original Hard Apple Cider ($5/22oz)
This semi-dry sparkler tastes of green apples with a floral, almost spiced honey quality to it. Balanced acidity and not overly sweet.
Bantam, Wunderkind ($13/650ml)
Bantam makes three great totally unique ciders (don't miss the sour cherry). Wunderkind is fermented with a sparkling wine yeast then finished with orange blossom honey. Thusly, this cider displays a beautiful, elegant floral flavor while the cider itself isn't overly sweet.
Traditions Ciderworks, Riverwood ($20/750ml)
A nicely balanced, dry, apple-forward cider made predominantly from Jonagold apples plus some heirloom varieties, too.
Eve’s Cidery, Darling Creek ($15/750ml*)
Van Etten, NY
This is a beautifully balanced semi-dry cider made from a blend of English, French and American apples in the Méthode Champenoise. It shows a clean apple flavor plus subtle sweetness followed by a dry finish.
*Two bottle purchase minimum.
Bonny Doon, Querry ($16/750ml)
Santa Cruz, CA
This Central Coast winery lauded for its unconventional wines makes a blended cider composed of pear, apple and quince. Think hot apple apple pie in drink form, with a warm, almost vanilla-Earl Grey-esque flavor. Pair this bottle with spicy Asian food, or serve it to close out a meal.
For The Beer Lover
Reverend Nat's, Revival Hard Apple ($5/500ml)
Out of the 63 ciders we sampled, Revival was our number one pick across the board. Imagine what the offspring of a beer plus cider mashup would taste like, and this here is it. Revival is made from a blend of Washington apples to which Reverend Nat adds piloncillo, an unrefined Mexican brown sugar and two strains of yeast, one of which is used to make Saison-style beers. The result is a floral yet savory cider with a bit of sweetness balanced by acidity, overall highly reminiscent of a Saison beer.
Wölffer Estate, 139 Dry Rosé Cider ($4/355ml)
Long Island, NY
Long Island's popular and long-established winery Wölffer Estate bottles two ciders, a dry rosé and a dry white. The rosé is a touch sweeter and channels an apple juice-esque taste.