The best apples for making hard cider are not the ones you eat. The juice of culinary apples is mostly sugar. The cider they produce can be overly sweet, or if fermented to dryness, one-dimensional in flavor and lacking in structure.
Traditional cider apple varieties are sometimes called “spitters” because of their overly bitter or sour taste. They bring a mix of sugar, acid and bitter tannin that produces ciders with deep complexity and that burst with crisp apple flavor.
Hard cider enjoyed great popularity in the United States from early colonial days until Prohibition. Cider apple orchards existed wherever apples were grown. But when production of alcoholic beverages was outlawed in 1919, the cider industry collapsed. Lacking a market for their produce, farmers pulled up the old apple trees and replaced them with eating apples.
Until very recently, if you wanted to make cider from traditional apples grown in Minnesota, you were out of luck. None were grown here. Cider makers like Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis turned to beer ingredients, like grains and hops, to provide the structural elements that available apples were lacking.
But in the past couple of years, several Minnesota apple growers have begun adding acres of heirloom apples to their orchards. This newfound availability has spawned a revival of traditional cider making in the state. And the results are sometimes quite spectacular.
Of this new crop of cider makers, Milk and Honey Ciders in Cold Spring, Minn., is surely one of the best. Milk and Honey sources most of its apples — including varieties like Newtown Pippin, Winesap, Chestnut Crab, Dabinett, Northern Spy and Wickson — from growers in Minnesota, Michigan and California. But it has recently begun incorporating apples grown in its own orchard.
The 2015 Heirloom Harvest cider delivers the orchard in all of its aspects — fruit, earth and yeast. This complex cider is made from a blend of several heirloom apples, including Golden Russet, Esposus Spitzenburg, Knobbed Russet and Calville Blanc d’Hiver. Its rich fruitiness encompasses both bright green-apple acidity and the sweetness of overripe apples and pears. Complementary shades of earth and grass lead into a very dry finish with a low bitter bite.
Their 2015 Kingston Cuvee is made with Kingston Black, Dabinett and Wickson apples. The flavor of this cider brought to mind crisp, fresh slices of green apple. They call it “off-dry,” but any residual sweetness is more than balanced by gripping bitter tannins and spritzy carbonation. Subtle notes of herbs and black pepper add depth and sophistication to this super-complex cider.
There is a lot going on in Alchemy, too — Milk and Honey’s 11.5 percent alcohol ice cider. This one is made from the concentrated juice of frozen Chestnut Crab apples. It’s mellowed in bourbon barrels after fermentation. The flavor is sweet and fruity, bursting with red apple, bruised apple, raisinated grapes, and low orange-citrus notes. Barrel aging adds depth without taking over, imparting background notes of vanilla and caramel. Full and warming, it’s still light enough to enjoy on a cooler summer night.
Number 12 Cider House is located in Buffalo, Minn. It uses more than 10 varieties of apples in its production, many of which are cultivated on its Deer Lake Orchard. Number 12 makes cider for those who like them dry. Even their semi-dry is fermented to almost complete dryness.
Sparkling Dry would be right at home in a Champagne flute. Flavors of red and green apple skins and low sweetness are more than balanced by tart acidity and high notes of lemon and lime. Lemon pit-like bitterness gives it some structure. It finishes dry, dry, dry with a lingering touch of apples and lemons.
Chestnut Semi Dry is a bit sweeter, but only a bit. A base of ripe red-apple pulp is balanced by a light acidity. Some doughy yeast character adds fullness, while herbal and peppery notes spice things up. It goes out dry, making it a refreshing quaff, despite the additional sugar.
Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minn., planted its orchard of heirloom and culinary apples in 2014. It currently supplements its own juice with that from other regional orchards until its trees reach full production. At least one Keepsake cider is made with honey from the nearby Homestead Apiary. Wood aging and wild fermentation are part of Keepsake’s cider making repertoire.
The 2016 Heartwood leads with fruity green-apple pulp and pears. Fresh lemon adds an acidic highlight. Low barnyard notes bring the orchard to your glass. It finishes very dry with lingering green apple.
The bright and summery Wild is fermented with wild yeast from the air and apples. Lemony tartness leads the way with the rustic taste of crabapples and pears following on. Low notes of earth and fresh-cut grass fill in the background. It goes out dry, leaving behind an impression of freshness.
Sapsucker Farms in Mora, Minn., sells its cider under the Yellow Belly Label. The farm is certified organic and also produces maple syrup and a variety of vegetables that it offers mostly through its community-supported agriculture program.
Yellow Belly Semi Sweet will satisfy those who like a sweeter cider, but it’s not so sweet as to turn off those who prefer it dry. It’s very fruity with flavors of green and red apple skin, lemon and pear, bolstered by a touch of honey. Light mineral and floral tones offer a nice balance to the sweetness.
Yellow Belly Ginger incorporates fresh ginger grown on the farm. The prominent ginger adds a zippy spiciness that enhances the full fruit without coving it up. Orange zest makes an appearance alongside the apple, pear and honey. The spice lingers into the finish, giving an added impression of dryness in this semisweet cider.
Locals aren’t the only cider makers embracing the older apples. Walden Hollow, a new year-round cider from Angry Orchard, is made with heirloom apple varieties from the company’s own orchard in Walden, N.Y. Walden Hollow is not as complex as some of the local ciders and could use a bit more carbonation, but it is still an enjoyable drink. It tastes like fresh red and green apple slices, complete with the skins. High herbal notes add some interest. It’s medium sweet on the tongue and finishes off-dry.
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.