Hard cider was once the drink of choice in many parts of the United States. Before Prohibition, most apples grown here were intended for cider making. These weren't the sweet, dessert apples that we eat today. Cultivated for their tannins and acidity, cider apples produced complex quaffs with flavors that rivaled fine wine, quite unlike the sweetened, alco-pop or non-alcoholic juice-in-a-jug that passes for cider today.
A new breed of artisanal cider makers across North America are working to revive the ciders of old, turning to heirloom apple varieties to create drinks of extraordinary depth. They are riding the same tide of interest in crafty beverages that has driven the microbrew boom, and finding fans among the same set of drinkers -- young craft-beer enthusiasts.
Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse in Saanichton, British Columbia, grows more than 60 varieties of certified-organic heritage apples in its orchard, apples with whimsical names like Winter Banana, Pink Lady and Brown Snout. The resulting ciders range from light, ultra-dry refreshers to sweet, full-bodied sippers.
Pippins is a perky refresher. It's tart and spritzy with just a bit of sweetness balancing the brightly acidic, green-apple center. An aromatic cascade of fruit -- pears, pineapples and lemons -- adds to the experience. Subtle herbal flavors keep it tethered to the earth. Don't let the light body fool you; Pippins packs a punch at 9 percent alcohol.
Rum-barrel aging gives Prohibition sonorous notes of brown sugar and spices. The taste of sweet, red apple skins is offset by light acidity and soothing alcohol warmth. A touch of oak and earth round it out. This is one for slow sipping around a back-yard fire pit.
As a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Co. (makers of Sam Adams beer), Angry Orchard Cider Co. at first glance might not jibe with anyone's mental image of artisanal cidermaking. But with the small-batch Cider House Collection, the Cincinnati-based company is making ciders with as much flavor and complexity as any I have tried.
The oak-aged Iceman is based on the traditional ice ciders of Quebec, made with apple juice that has been concentrated by freezing. It presents a mingling of cooked and fresh apples enveloped in honey, toffee, butter and vanilla. It's on the sweet side, but a bit of puckering acidity keeps it from being cloying.
Strawman has a rougher, more rustic edge to it. Notes of earth, straw and bready yeast lend it a farmhouse flavor that complements the tart and tannic apples. There is some brown sugar sweetness to keep it balanced, but it goes out with a super-dry finish.
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 michael@ aperfectpint.net.