Gluten free, lighter than most craft beer, and lower in alcohol and calories than wine, hard cider is fast becoming America’s new brew. Not since the young, passionate days of the craft beer industry have we seen such breathlessness to get into the game. Research firm IRI recently reported sales of cider increased more than 65 percent from October 2011 to October 2012, compared with wine sales increasing 5.6 percent and craft beer 13 percent during that time period.
Funny thing is, cider’s not new in the least. Apple cultivation dates to before the Greeks, and Julius Caesar discovered how the Celtic folk of Britain fermented the juice of native crab apples. In Colonial America (Johnny Appleseed’s day), cider making was widespread. Big land companies required settlers to plant an apple orchard within two years of purchasing shares in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to protect against speculators and attract more buyers to those hilly, snake-infested lands. Once the evangelical movement had spread the message of temperance, however, the term cider became confusingly co-opted for unfermented juice.
These days hard ciders range from sweet to crisp to extra dry. Depending on the brand, hard cider hovers between 4 to 7 percent alcohol—any higher than that and they’re taxed like wine. More and more restaurants now offer numerous cider selections to partner with food, for their attractive price and for their unique and local appeal on the menu (some ciders are not available in any stores, only at restaurants).
It’s important to note that national producers are playing a major role in the rising tide of artisan cider making this side of the Atlantic. Louisa Spencer, co-proprietor of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire, says that the nationals and their marketing dollars “have taught people that cider isn’t the brown liquid associated with doughnuts.” The current big boys spreading the word include Vermont Hard Cider (maker of Woodchuck), Boston Beer Company (maker of Angry Orchard ciders), MillerCoors (which purchased Crispin Cider in 2012), and Anheuser-Busch (which introduced Stella Artois Cidre in February 2013).
Luckily, an increasing number of orchardists, wineries, and cideries in New England are committed to making the finest ciders they can, which means we have a terrific selection available nearby. Below are a handful of top craft cider producers with the widest availability in our region.
Farnum Hill Ciders
Poverty Lane Orchards
98 Poverty Lane, Lebanon, N.H.
Poverty Lane Orchards has been selling hard cider since 2000, after a long process of transforming McIntosh orchards to cider apple orchards. “It’s fair to say that the rarest American ciders are the ones made by an orchard where cider fruit is grown,” says Louisa Spencer, who works with partner Stephen Wood to produce Farnum Hill Ciders. “We see this as doing so much for the rural landscape in terms of jobs and putting down a foundation of knowledge.” Spencer and Wood emphasize relatively high acid in their ciders along with a bittersweet character to pair better with food. The ciders are dry and complex.
Other than the single-variety special reserve Kingston Black, Farnum Hill Ciders are balanced blends of different apple categories: bittersweets (providing high tannins and sugars for aromas and flavors), bittersharps (providing high tannins and acids for clean fermentation and stimulating taste), and a small number of heirlooms, mostly “sharps” high in acid that also contribute aromas and taste. Because of their tannic structure, the flavors are at their fullest and most vivid when the ciders are served slightly chilled.
Ciders range from still (Extra Dry Still, Kingston Black) to gently sparkling (Farmhouse, Semi-Dry, Extra Dry, Summer Cider). In addition, there’s Dooryard, in the orchard-termed “unpredictable” category, which is a cider that’s tapped week to week and departs too much from the flavor profiles of the established blends. It’s generally only available at the door or on tap at very local pubs.
West County Cider
P.O. Box 29
Originally from California before moving to the northern Berkshires, the Maloney family employs winemaking techniques to create the ciders they’ve sold in Massachusetts since 1984. Ten varieties range from dry to “most appley” and the majority are single variety (a notable exception is the mid-dry Catamount Hill Orchard, which is a blending of more than 20 apple varieties).
“We like making cider in small batches,” Field Maloney told French Oak TV during a video profile, “because it allows us to be more responsive to the fruit that we have, and each year there’s a great variation. That’s why they talk about ‘a great year for wine or a bad year for wine’—I think the same goes for cider.”
The Maloneys have five planted acres of apple trees on fields they cleared themselves from the 50 acres of forest land they purchased more than three decades ago. The obscure and heritage apples that make up their home orchard are ecologically grown using integrated pest management methods, but the Maloneys also buy specific varieties from orchardists nearby.
West County Cider is found in restaurants and retailers around Massachusetts, as well as in Connecticut and the New York City area through a distributor. The Maloneys don’t offer tours or tastings, but a terrific opportunity to experience their ciders, among many others, is during CiderDays (ciderdays.org), the annual festival the family founded 19 years ago. Now sponsored in early November by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, CiderDays has grown into the region’s foremost cider event, bringing together professional cider makers, novices, and interested tasters alike.
Downeast Cider House
200 Terminal Street
Apple lovers Ross Brockman and Tyler Mosher launched Downeast after graduating from college in Maine and enjoying a wide range of hard ciders during a trip to Europe. “We wanted to bring the essence of sweet cider into hard cider, without the artificial sweeteners and concentrate used by some national brands,” Brockman says. Only two and a half years in business, they’ve relocated the cider house twice because their small, original Maine supplier of apples ran out during the 2012 apple shortage (New England’s worst apple season since 1946, Brockman says).
Currently blended with a variety of apples from a Massachusetts supplier, Downeast is fruity and rustic but not cloyingly sweet. “We went after a flavor that wasn’t out there yet,” Brockman says. “We wanted our cider in the New England style.” The inspiration to use cans rather than bottles reflects their own personal preference. “We’re not really fancy people, not wine connoisseurs,” Brockman admits. “The craft beer market is our guideline of where we want to be.” It’s no wonder, then, that Brockman says he enjoys his Downeast straight from the fridge and ice cold. “Though, maybe in January I’ll add some room-temp whiskey for a little pick-me-up, warm-me-up.”
Downeast Cider, with an alcohol content of around 5 percent, comes in Original Blend and Cranberry Blend, which sports a shiny red can and tart finish.
Photograph by Frank Farinella