Following on the heels of the craft beer explosion, artisanal cider is experiencing its own somewhat quieter rise. This new crop of cider makers is eschewing the sugary table apples and fruit concentrates that provide the juice for most commercial ciders in favor of heritage cider apple varieties from England, France and the United States — apples with quaint names like Ashmead’s Kernel, Hubbardston Nonesuch and Pomme Grise.
Not meant for eating, these old-school cider apples are prized for their extremity. They may be disturbingly sweet or sour. Some have a puckering astringency. But this intensity of flavor delivers ciders of great depth and complexity. Cider makers blend juice from different varieties to achieve just the right balance of tart, sweet, bitter and astringent. Some are using wild fermentation, allowing yeasts that naturally inhabit the apple skins to do the job instead of relying on cultured strains. This gives the ciders subtle earthy, leathery and barnyard notes that complement the fruit.
Ciders from two such orchard-based cider makers —E.Z. Orchard and Farnum Hill — have recently become available in the Twin Cities. They are among the best domestically produced ciders available.
E.Z. Orchards is a small family farm and orchard in Salem, Ore., known locally as much for its produce as it is for cider. But the Zielinski family has been developing their orchard and perfecting their fermentation techniques to make Willamette Valley Cidre — their only brand — for more than 10 years.
Willamette Valley Cidre is produced in the French tradition. The apples are allowed to ripen on the tree and then are kept in cold storage for months to slightly dehydrate them and concentrate the flavors. This results in a reduction in the volume of juice, but it intensifies the character of the cider, says cider maker Kevin W. Zielinski. The pressed juice is then cold-fermented for four to six months with its own naturally occurring yeast before being bottled unfiltered. Nine apple varieties go into the blend.
The 2011 vintage burst with the aromas of ripe, red apples, underscored by subtle notes of flowers, vanilla, cinnamon and barnyard. This cider sparkles like Champagne. It hits the tip of the tongue with a splash of tart acidity that quickly gives way to the deeper flavors of ripe fruit. Low tannins let the fruit really come through, accompanied by tones of earth and bready yeast. A touch of tannic astringency comes finally in the dry finish.
At Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H., makers of Farnum Hill Ciders, what’s old is new again. They call themselves “a 21st-century apple farm with a 19th-century variety mix.” Just like orchards before Prohibition, they grow and sell a mix of culinary apples and inedible cider apples, all of which are heritage and heirloom varieties. Owner and cider-maker Steven Wood says that the short growing season, heavy glacial soils, extreme temperature swings between autumn days and nights, along with October frosts, contribute to intensification of flavors.
For those who like their cider dry, Farnum Hill Extra Dry is just the ticket. Residual sugars are low and tannins are high in this lightly sparkling gem, giving it a tongue-puckering dry and bitter finish that is balanced and complemented by moderately high acidic tartness. Tropical fruit and pineapple dominate the flavor, with ripe apple playing a secondary role. Sharp, wet-slate minerality keeps it grounded. Extra dry is full-bodied and full-flavored enough to stand up to spicy cuisines like Thai, but will be right at home with lighter, more delicate dishes as well.
The Farnum Hill Dooryard series began as specialty blends that were available only to local customers at the farm. Now small amounts of these limited-edition ciders are packaged and made available to a broader market. Each batch is numbered on the label to let consumers see what is in the bottle by going to the orchard’s website (see www.povertylaneorchards.com/dooryard-now).
I sampled Batch 1316, a lightly sparkling, super-fruity cider with high acidity and tannic bitterness. The nose reveals earth, stone and a touch of riesling-like petrol character. Ripe red apple flavor makes an appearance on the palate, but lime and apricot really steal the show. Bitterness is striking from start to finish. It combines with mouthwatering tart acidity for a delightfully refreshing finish. The overall impression is of a light, yet complex summer patio sipper.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.