It’s the hottest selling adult beverage in America. Craft beer? Australian Wine? Bourbon? Specialty Vodka? The growth of these adult beverages doesn’t even come close to the growth in Hard Cider. America’s most traditional and historic drink is on the rise. In 2012 and 2013, sales of hard cider rose by more than 90% each year.
First, what is hard cider? At its most basic, hard cider is simply fermented apple juice. In fact, hard cider is made like wine, not like beer—it’s fermented not brewed. Beyond this, hard cider can be treated in a number of ways from being aged in barrels to having other fruit juices blended into it to give it additional flavor. And, of course, hard cider can be sweet or dry and everything in between.
Hard cider was America’s first drink. Colonists who settled the East Coast of America quickly discovered that wheat, barley, grapes, and sugar cane just didn’t grow well, making the production of beer, wine, and rum impossible. However, apple trees flourished in the cooler New England and Mid-Atlantic climate. There was a time when you simply could not find a farm, large or small, that did not have apple trees growing together in order to provide the fruit for the year’s hard cider supply.
Hard cider fell out of favor with Americans around the end of the 19th century for a number of reasons. German and other beer-drinking immigrants who settled the Midwest and upper plain states found grains for their beers did just fine. The Temperance Movement that eventually led to Prohibition also helped to do in hard cider. By the time Prohibition ended in the mid 1930s, Americans had easy access to beer and hard spirits, which became our drinks of choice.
Hard cider’s comeback today can be linked to a number of different factors, not the least of which is our desire for a diversity of products, our well-developed national sweet tooth, a farm-to-table movement that has attracted cider makers and the millennial generation who is helping to push the food diversity movement. One thing for certain is its recent rise.
What you’ll find on most shelves is generously called “commercial hard cider.” These are ciders that are usually made from apple juice concentrate purchased on the bulk market or in China. It is packaged like beer and marketed under names like Angry Orchard, Smith and Forge and Johnny Appleseed. If you remember the taste of Jolly Rancher Green Apple candy, just imagine that hard sweet stick of green liquefied and put in a bottle. These commercial ciders are meant to satisfy our sweet tooth, to carry about 5% alcohol and go down cold and easy.
However, if you want the read deal, the authentic, complex, flavorful hard cider made by a new crew of artisans, then look for the smaller producers located across the country, but primarily in states like New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California.
These artisan producers are making authentic, handmade hard ciders usually from true cider apples, which you do not want to eat given their generally bitter and acidic character. But, when the right hands press and ferment these apples, magic happens. The best ciders tend to deliver fresh or cooked apple aromas, may be sweet but are often dry like wine and beer, and deliver a lovely mix of secondary flavors including citrus, herbs, earth, and yeastiness.
Among America’s finest hard cider producers are Tilted Shed Ciderworks (California), Finnriver Cider (Washington), EZ Orchard (Oregon), Eve’s Cider (New York), West County Cider (Massachusetts), and Foggy Ridge Cider (Virginia).
If you have a top-notch grocery store near you that tends to carry specialty and organic foods, you have a good chance of finding an artisan cider. Otherwise, do a search on the Internet for “Craft Cider” and the name of your state. Chances are that you’ll find something.
Fine hard cider can be many things: refreshing, complex, perfect with various foods, and a revelation. Give America’s original drink a try. You may never go back.
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