Cider Side Up!

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What’s as American as apple pie? Since apples and apple cider have gone hand in hand since the 17th century, enjoying apple cider could be one of the best pastimes of a late summer afternoon.

Craft beers with fun names are now adjacent to fine wines in many markets, and we find tantalizing prose for craft beer and a not-so-new item on the horizon: cider, a welcome invader to the wine tasting experience. Consumer interest in locally crafted beverages continues to increase, partly thanks to cider, a refreshing way to enjoy summer outdoor events and activities with a lot less alcohol.

It’s not the mass-produced apple cider from grade school lunch or the cheerful holiday offering with a splash of brandy. Cider production is catching on; the number of specialty styles is expanding and so are the flavor profiles, limited only by the imagination of the cider brewer. Fermenting fruits such as apples, pears, cranberries, blueberries, cherries and mangos and adding hops, like beer, creates distinct styles of cider, including modern, heritage, fruit, hopped, spiced, wood-aged, sour and iced ciders. The U.S. Association of Cider Makers categorizes cider as standard or specialty using nuances of aroma, flavor and appearance to guide the discerning palate.

Does it sound oddly familiar? Wine fans already appreciate the complexities of their favorite varietals. Similarly, hard cider has found an audience among fans of small-production handcrafted beverages. Consumer preferences have elevated the market for hard cider, increasing market share and sales. We now see craft ciders on the retail shelves in the cold box right alongside age-old beverage brands we grew up with and recognize.

Historians believe hard cider has been around globally as long as apples! Cider is and has been highly popular in the United Kingdom and commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The popularity of ciders continues throughout Europe, including Austria, Ireland, Portugal, France, northern Italy and Spain. Today’s ciders are very different from the traditional hard ciders known only as bitter or overly sweet.

Flavorful surprises await you with pear ciders, or “perries.” Perry cider is considered to be classic and old-world, produced for centuries in England and France from orchards specifically managed to produce pears for perry ciders. Perry pear trees can take ten years before meaningful harvest and can be productive for over 250 years, staying in the family for many generations. That’s where the term “perry heirs” comes from. Perries today are reflective of the new pioneers staking out their place in the beverage marketplace alongside other fermented beverages.

Apples ripen on the trees before they’re harvested for cider, whereas pears are picked before they are fully ripe and housed indoors before processing. When it’s time to press the pears into liquid form, the challenge continues due to the fibrous nature of pears; apples press into liquid form more easily. Made from fermented pear juice, today’s perries can be enjoyed in a dry style or as a sparkling cider, similar to sparkling wine. Ciders have minerality, complexity and varying amounts of sugars, alcohol, acidity and tannins, making them highly enjoyable with food pairings.

Cider’s alcohol content is low to moderate, 3.5 to 8.5 percent average, which appeals to the health conscious and those relying on medications with severe warnings for alcohol use. Served by the bottle, can or tap, cider is often available at your favorite beer café or bistro. Seasonality also brings a bit of fun to cider enjoyment. Similar to your favorite craft brew beers, you’ll see seasonal cider offerings highlighting winter, summer and spring blends to enjoy for picnics, camping and backyard enjoyment.

Cider enjoyment is up worldwide and catching on. The price point is also appealing, usually seven to ten dollars for a four-pack with the ability to create a variety package. Today’s enthusiast also appreciates the buy local philosophy that includes supporting farmers and small producers of hard ciders from orchards they can visit if they so choose.

If you want to experiment, there are many home brewery avenues you can pursue that share both advice and fruit for your own cider brew. Whether you make your own or visit a cidery, look for cider festivals in your area and see what’s happening around your region in the exciting market of cider. You may be surprised to taste many cider varieties from around the world using fruits you never thought of, let alone those that could be used for cider. Hard ciders today are not all the sweet, sugary, mass-produced beverages they used to be.

From small organic farms to large production orchards, there are refined, dry delights just waiting for you to explore. Try them out; you’re sure to find something worth talking about and sipping! ■

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