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Whatever you do, don’t say the apple cider tastes like apples! This will get you kicked out of a cider tasting pretty much immediately (and when I say cider, I mean the centuries old fermented drink).
I will admit the Cider Salon at the Astor Center was the first time I have had a true cider since college, when I was picked on for drinking Mike’s Hard, instead of beer like everyone else. Well my friends, cider has come a long way and I have been missing out for many years.
Thanks to Sara Grady of Glynwood for creating this amazing tasting event to expose the general public to this historic beverage and to promote these great farmers and millers to preserve this tradition.
As in any underworld of neglected, unappreciated craftspeople or specialists, there is a chip on the shoulder. And for the cider millers it is one that only wine-like status could fill in. They have reserves, they have oak-aged, they have fruity, jammy, even banana-esque ciders with structure, acid and tannins. There are many apple varietals that are specifically for cider and like wine grapes, do not taste good to eat.
In the colonial days, cider was the preferred beverage of every American household. People even drank it with breakfast as the fermentation of the apples made it safe to drink their otherwise tainted well-water. Apples flourished in the North east and then latter in the middle of America thanks to efforts by Johnny Appleseed. Then Prohibition took a chokehold on cider as alcoholic beverages became outlawed and people stopped growing cider apples and only grew eating and cooking apples.
Today the American apple cider scene is growing with more farms planting and brewing cider. Their audience is slowly growing but has many hurdles. The language of cider has been lost. We know the word to mean a raw apple juice that has not undergone a filtration process to remove coarse particles of pulp and sediment. Traditionally and throughout the world, cider is known as a fermented beverage with alcohol content. Also, taste is a hurdle. Most people have only had sweet, hard cider that tastes like candy and some refer to as “girly” drinks.
After attending the Cider Salon at the Astor Center I see that there is nothing ‘girly’ or inferior about this beverage. First, they start with a wide variety of apples to choose from to create their blend. You need to blend apples to create a balance in flavor otherwise it will not taste as good. Some of these include: Foxwhelp, Dabinett, Somerset Redstreak, False Yarlington and the Kingston Black to name a few. Cider starts with apples scratted (ground down) into pomace. The pomace is fermented with yeast at cool temperatures to draw out the process and preserve delicate aromas.
The ciders I tasted varied from the subtle, light, dry ciders of Aaron Burr Cider, (more reminiscent of table ciders of the colonial period) to the delicate dry ciders produced by West County Cider in Colrain, MA. They use yeast strands and process similar to champagne. Of course there was the spicy, nutmeg, clove flavors erupting from Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur, VA and finally, one of my favorites, the iced cider or Eden Ice Cider in West Charlston, VT.
Iced cider happens when they freeze the apple juice before fermentation and then allow it to melt. As it melts the top ten percent of the liquid is concentrated with higher levels of sugar. This allows them to ferment the juice to create higher alcohol content, thicker more viscous mouth feel and a cider that holds up to aging. The iced cider from Eden was aged in French oak and had an amazing pungent odor of wood, earthy cheese and deep fruit.
The best over all collection came from Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, NH with a great collection of craft ciders. Rich ciders with blend and processing variety that kept their whole catalogue looking fresh. Some are sharper, some sweet, some dry, each showing a skill for the particular focus being achieved.
In the end, the cider-folk are warm, unpretentious people who are passionate about what they do and like so many of us trying to reconnect with a time in history when life was a little more simple and easier to understand. I find it amazing that the choice of beverage can be the equivalent of making a choice about the world we live in.
It is the existential crisis that man is lost in time and disconnected with his roots in nature. Perhaps in some way, drinking a cider as our forefathers did, feeling connected to the orchard where it was made and the apples it was made with allows our souls to rest for a moment and feel a little closer to home. I tip my steel-pot hat to you Johnny Appleseed and to the orcharder, the cider master, the keepers of the flame.