An Apple By Any Other Name
Adventures in Cider
Have you ever walked through an apple orchard on a fall day, felt the sun on your face, waved away the bees, and sucked in the sharp-slash-rotten aroma of all the apples on the ground? No? Well, you need to add that to your bucket list because you would be, in essence, experiencing the process of cider-making, on an olfactory level anyway.
It’s one of the most ancient fermented beverages still available, with a history dating back to Northern Spain, which was making “sidra” before the birth of Christ, or back to Julius Caesar discovering the Celtic Britons drinking it. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 resulted in the introduction of many apple varieties from France and cider soon became the most popular drink after ale. Cider has been used as currency in many countries including the U.S. As we will learn from my highly educational substack posts, there was a time in the world when it was better for everyone—kids included—to drink some form of alcohol instead of the bacteria and germ infested water, and until the 1800s, cider was that go-to beverage.
The Industrial Revolution brought people from the farm to the city to live and work, so many orchards were abandoned, resulting in reduced production. Unfiltered and unpasteurized cider didn’t travel well from farms to the new centers of population. Plus, the increased popularity of beer, especially in cities, took a bite out of cider consumption in the years. Leading up to 1919 which as we all know was what? (pay attention there may be a quiz) Prohibition, and subsequently the Volstead Act which gave teeth to the 18th Amendment.
Now, however, cider is seeing the same sort of resurgence that has brought terms like “hops” and “IBUs, “hazy milkshakes” and “fruity pebbles” into our everyday discussions about beer. And as you might suspect, there are a slew of fresh takes, new ingredients, cross-overs, and general tweaks to the basic concept of taking an apple and letting it rot in the sun a few days to create alcohol. (yes I know it’s more complex than that, but it’s not…really).
This week, I’m sharing a few tasting notes with you to make some recommendations about what ciders you might like, so that you can go armed with full knowledge and Liz’s Mighty Judgements about some of the craft versions vs. one of the leading style standards. Let’s dive right in and throw down a yardstick by which to measure all others before Substack cuts me off for
drinking talking too much, shall we?
I decided to set our baseline by having everyone at my table taste what many consider the style standard of ciders—Strongbow, which has been made in the UK since 1960. It truly is delicious, with a sharp dryness that made my fellow tasters say things like “liquid honey crisp apple.” The issue I have personally with ciders is the carbonation. It’s usually either too much or too little. Strongbow hits a near-perfect sweet spot on that front. And if you want something even lighter and more refreshing, try a Strongbow pear cider. It’s like the champagne of ciders in my humble opinion, were were allowed to say the c-word relative to anything not from Champagne.
We moved on from establishing our pallets with a classic to something from Right Bee in Chicago—an apple cider with lemon myrtle and cherry blossom. Once we all looked up what, exactly, lemon myrtle was, we agreed that this one was extraordinarily floral on the nose. As in it smelled like a bouquet of flowers, which doesn’t always translate into something good to drink. In this case, the combination of flavors gave us something that tasted a bit like a light kombucha crossed with a super fizzy seltzer. As in, it was highly carbonated but fairly dry on the finish.
Next up was from Fishback and Stephenson, in Fairfield, Iowa. The “Pink Crush” was a watermelon cider that both smelled and tasted like a watermelon Jolly Rancher—i.e. super duper sweet and a bit heavy on the “watermelon-y-ness” for most of us.
We decided to tame things down a bit and try a plain apple cider from Original Sin in New York, a much touted outfit that claims to be a “Pioneer of the U.S. cider industry.” I wanted to try their Black Widow, which adds blackberries but I couldn’t find one so we tried their “Original Apple,” figuring it would be an exercise in comparison to the Strongbow. It was, but in a way that proved there are many ways to mash and ferment an apple. This one wasn’t nearly as flavorful or carbonated, or as one of my tasters said “If Strongbow is liquid honey crisp apple, this one is a golden delicious, but without as many bubbles.”
From there we moved back into multi-flavor territory with Sweet Lou’s apple, blueberry and lavender cider from Brick River in St. Louis. Now, I think I’ve gone on record at some point about “lavender” as a flavor. I’m not a fan. To me, it directly conflicts with botanicals when it gets added to something like gin and is too subtle to add much of anything to vodka. But we had full table agreement that this one smelled amazing, and that it would make a killer cider cocktail mix.
The next one we tried forced me to open up the old booze bucket list and add a stop. Stem Ciders in Denver (one of my favorite cities to visit anyway so I need no real excuse to go there) makes a rosé cider that uses red wine in combination with apple cider. The result? A fully quaffable, light, bubbly, not-too-sweet, not-to-dry option (or as we say In Champagne if you recall that lesson: “extra dry” and points to you, dear reader, if you actually did recall that).
We ended our tasting session with Blake’s, a Michigan cider producer that offers some of the most consistently delicious options out there. You can hardly ever (I mean ever) go wrong with their Flannel Mouth classic, and the Grizzly Pear version approaches Strongbow levels of perfection. We tried a new one to me, the Triple Jam which has strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry mixed in the apple base. It’s incredible, and reminded us all that ciders can be a fun, delicious, complex option when you’re in a fermented beverage drinking mood.
I can’t end our cider discussion without mentioning a destination restaurant if you’re interested in or already love ciders. It’s in Toronto, which I had the privilege of visiting twice when my middle kid was there for her Master’s degree. When we moved her into her apartment a few years ago we found a place called Her Father’s Cider Bar + Kitchen, handily within walking distance of said apartment. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. Options included craft ciders on tap but those were augmented by an entire wall (and I am talking floor to ceiling) of imported bottles, also available for drinking. The food was the perfect complement to pretty much everything we tried. From the fresh cheese board to the buttermilk fried chicken and lamb sliders, our knowledgeable server set us up with perfect matches every time.
I’m happy to report that said middle child has finished her degree and is back state-side. We had a fantastic visit with her and her SO this past weekend, where my entire family proceeded to break every single dang rule I laid out for y’all last week about “avoiding hangovers.”
As part of our over-indulgence, we tried a bunch of South Carolina beers, including one that’s in a new-ish category near and dear to me. Once upon a time I co-owned and managed sales, marketing, events, the tap room, cleaning floors and toilets you name it for a lager-centric brewery. Things did not work out for me there for reasons that remain a bit of a mystery to me. But I was introduced to the glory that is lager brewing as part of this near 10-year learning-about-who-not-to trust experience.
I also (heart emoji) hoppy beers and so any time I see “hoppy lager” on something I’m down to try it. I’ll go out on my personal opinion limb here to state that using a lager yeast to ferment something in a more traditional German style allows hops to shine in a way that doesn’t happen with ales. Lager yeasts finish clean and leave little to nothing in the way of flavor behind – at least they shouldn’t if you’re doing it right. So it stands to reason that it makes the hops bite even stronger and more robust.
13 Stripes Brewery is in Taylors, South Carolina, not far from Greenville, my new fair city. I tried the canned version of Broken Crown, their take on a hoppy lager. I’m happy to say that it delivers the exact experience I expect in this style with an added bonus. The balance between the malt and hops is spot-on, which creates an amazing first, second, and third tasting experience with one sip. First you get the hops, which are a blend of Grungeist and Centennial. Grungeist (no I did not misspell “grungiest”) is a noble hop with bite but also has a fun/funky tropical edge that gives this beer its unique flavor. The reason for this “whoa… dang how about those hops!” first impression is the method used when adding the hops. It’s “dry hopped” which means the hops are not added to the wort, but later in the process so it’s got both aroma and a stronger punch of flavor. Second, you get the sweeter malt backbone that comes through because of the third experience: the clean finish that’s key to the lager drinking experience.
I give this beer top marks for creativity (the grungeist! Who knew?!) and for execution. I may bore you to tears with my whole “lagers are harder to perfect that ales” but we all know it’s the truth. PLUS this brewery has regular 80’s night dance parties and Yours Truly is a child of that decade so I’ll be checking it out soon!