On this week’s show, our reviewers checked out Eris Brewery and Cider House, which gives us the perfect excuse to look at the popularity of cider. Cider production in the United States goes back nearly 400 years, but we’re seeing a strong resurgence lately, as cideries like Eris are opening all over the country.
Cider was once the most important drink in the United States, more popular even than beer. European settlers’ desire for cider helped fuel the widespread planting of apple orchards in this country. But as a result of Prohibition and an influx of immigrants from other countries who had a stronger preference for beer, cider production and consumption in the United States declined.
Almost 80 years after Prohibition was repealed, cider is once again popular in the U.S., as the craft beer revolution has reignited our taste for this historic beverage. You may have noticed a huge proliferation in apple ciders available at your supermarket – but what exactly is hard cider?
Cider is made from the juice of various types of apples and fermented with added yeast. In this way, cider is comparable to wine, but it is carbonated like a beer. Cider also has an alcohol level that is similar to a lager’s usual 5-8%, but that is where the comparison stops. For those who don’t like the hoppy and bitter flavor of beer, cider works as a logical fruity alternative. The sweetness level can vary depending on the style, with many of the world’s most highly-regarded ciders ranging somewhere between medium-dry to dry. Each orchard can choose any type of apple they like, but “cider apples” (which have higher levels of acid, tannin, or sugar) are desirable. Ciders of different apple blends will taste quite different to one another. Some are more acid-forward, some are bold, rich and tannic, and others are full and fruity. The interplay between acidity, tannin, and sweetness is what makes a great cider.
Ciders will also vary from region-to-region, as the terroir of apple production can affect the taste of the final product. The three major regions of cider production include France, England, and Spain. In general, European ciders are dry and earthy in flavor, while American ciders are often a bit sweeter.
In the UK, cider must contain at least 35% apple juice (fresh or from concentrate.) Traditional English ciders are made with bittersweet apples and aged in older wood barrels. Britain produces more cider than any other nation on the planet, using 57 percent of all apples grown in the U.K. The West of England has its own unique form of cider called “scrumpy.” Traditionally, the dialect term "scrumpy" was used to refer to what was otherwise called "rough," a harsh cider made from unselected apples.
In France, cider must be made solely from apples. The French have been making cidre for centuries, particularly in Normandy and Brittany. They use an artisan method called keeving for making naturally sweetened ciders. French cider tends to be lower in acidity but well-balanced between full-bodied sweetness and a large tannin profile (astringency). Some other French ciders are extreme examples of what you might call “barnyard” or “farmhouse” funkiness.
In Spain, the northern Basque and Asturias regions have been the center for traditional cider production for some 800 years. Traditional Spanish ciders, or Sidra, are made using high-acid apples that are naturally fermented and then bottled, unfined, and unfiltered, resulting in ciders that tend to be a little bit cloudy, funky, and tangy. Asturian Sidra is usually made perfectly still, but is traditionally poured from high above in a "long pour" that aerates and carbonates the cider, injecting it with effervescence.
In the United States, the term “hard cider” differentiates alcoholic drinks from non-alcoholic ciders made from unfermented apple juice. A hard cider must have 50% minimum apple juice, while the addition of sugar, molasses, honey, and other flavorings is permitted. The style can vary depending on the producer.