Features
New-school cider

Bushwhacker's Jeff Smith/photo by Shelby Brakken

 

Cider is quickly becoming the apple of the beer industry’s eye.

By Christopher Staten

Jeff Smith calls his business “the future of cider.” It’s a bold claim for any bar proprietor, especially one specializing in a historically mischaracterized, misunderstood and “miscellany”-categorized drink. But it’s no exaggeration: At Bushwhacker Cider in southeast Portland, Ore., the apple is king, and the future is very much here.

Past Bushwhacker’s garage-door façade is perhaps the most exhaustive collection of ciders in the country: Six taps and roughly 165 bottles pour every kind of cider imaginable and unimaginable. Funky, olivelike Spanish Basque ciders; dry English ciders; spritzy, sweet French ciders; obscure offerings from places like Lithuania; and, most notably, an ever-increasing list of American ciders, including a few taps dedicated to the avant-garde creations Smith crafts behind a chain-link enclosure at the back of the bar (Brett-spiked and gin-barrel-aged versions, to name a few). If the quickly expanding presence of the chronically overlooked drink is being curated anywhere, it’s here. And if you like craft beer, prepare to be swept up in cider’s momentum.

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Roughly 2,000 miles to the east in Chicago, one of craft beer’s biggest names is helping cider build its stride. When Greg Hall stepped down from his position as Goose Island’s longtime brewmaster in 2011, mere whispers of a new beer project would have made geeks giddy. Instead, Hall traded hops for apples and opened Virtue Cider, which launched its first offering, RedStreak, an English-style draft cider, this year. Why cider? “I think it’s staged to explode,” he says without a hint of hyperbole.

Compare the current state of cider to the craft beer industry in the late 1980s and the similarities are there, with one major difference: the Internet. Back then, a generation of now iconic brewers were cutting their teeth, introducing beer-curious drinkers to IPAs and American-made stouts—newfangled stuff at the time. But unless you were within driving distance of a microbrewery or hunted down one of Michael Jackson’s tomes, beer education had its limitations. “Ciders are at the same point right now, but today, you can just Google ‘cider’ and find out if there’s anything local,” says Hall. Not to mention the suddenly well-stocked cider shelves at specialty bottle shops.

For proof that there’s a potential new thirst for cider, just look at who’s getting into the game: Craft beer O.G. Boston Beer first ventured into cider territory in the late 1990s with the launch of its HardCore Cider brand. Last December, the Samuel Adams parent company recharged its market presence, unveiling Angry Orchard Cider. This year, AB-InBev’s Michelob Ultra brand rolled out its Light Cider (“As more people continue to discover cider, we’ve found that many view traditional ciders as either too heavy, too sweet or both,” reasons Ryan Moore, vice president of the company’s premium lights division, in a press release), while MillerCoors purchased Minneapolis-based Crispin Cider. In a market where Vermont Cider Co. (makers of the ubiquitous Woodchuck Cider) has long controlled an impressive 50 percent of the market, it seems bigger beverage companies have decided to claim the remaining share for themselves.

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The truth is, the big brewers getting into the cider business (who ferment from concentrate in order to reach the masses) are just riffing on what some apple innovators have been doing for years. Tucked away in Dugspur, Va., Diane Flynt, of Foggy Ridge Cider, has spent the last 15 years cultivating an orchard of apple varieties native to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountain plateau, then turning them into award-winning traditional ciders. Flynt’s passion for apple cultivation speaks to one of the fundamental reasons why U.S. cider production declined over the last two centuries: We destroyed our apple orchards.

It’s believed that back in the early 1800s, this country laid claim to roughly 1,600 apple varieties in the South alone. Industrialization, crop conversion and a focus on a few popular apple varieties whittled them down, but Flynt’s one of many orchard owners now trying to reclaim our native fruit. Inspired by Lee Calhoun, an apple historian and retired apple revivalist, she started the AppleCorps initiative, which encourages the public to recognize and document rare apples in the wild, then repopulate those varieties by growing plant grafts. The goal: to one day see “different regions known for their apple varieties and styles,” she says.

Back on the West Coast, Paul Thomas is equally enthusiastic about apple varieties. He opened Julian Hard Cider in Julian, Calif., a town historically known for its apples; the fruit took first place at the World’s Fair in 1893, 1904 and 1915. While his tools might be modern (atmosphere-controlled fermentation, nitrogen storage), his recipe is old-school. Using a proprietary blend of sweet and tart apples from his 1.8 million trees, Thomas presses and ferments the juice into his Hard Cider, a recipe based on colonial cider that’s ridden the crazy market growth (at a 40 percent rate, according to Thomas) into an impressive 31 states.

To the north in Port Townsend, Wash., Nancy and Steve Bishop pick the likes of Vilberie, Dabinett and Brown Snout apples from their orchard on the Olympic Peninsula to craft European cider styles: From the English-inspired Pirate’s Plank “Bone Dry” to the traditionally French methode Champenoise Flame Brut—there’s even a classic Orleans-style cider vinegar tossed in for foodies.

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Still, you don’t need your own orchard to make cider; some artisans admit they don’t even have the best cider apples at their disposal. In Texas, Wes Mickel relies on brewing technique to make up for the slim pickings. At his Austin-based Argus Cidery, Mickel can only source super-sweet apples if he wants to keep the fruit Texas-grown, but they taste fairly one-dimensional after primary fermentation. To compensate, he fiddles with the process: For his Bandera Brut, he presses those sweet Texas Hill Country apples and ferments the juice with wild yeast, then cuts the brew with another yeast strain for complexity. For Cameo—developed simply because Cameo was the only apple varietal he could buy at the time—he sends the fresh-pressed juice through a lactic fermentation, then ages it in American oak barrels for a touch of spice.

Chicago doesn’t grow apples either, but that’s not stopping Hall (he notes, “Great apples don’t always make great cider, and good apples don’t exclude you”). At Virtue, he’s crafting a series of semi-traditional ciders, sourcing apples through regional farms and focusing on fermentation, which he points out is more of an afterthought for the cidermakers of old. He went through roughly 180 batches before he finalized the recipe for his flagship RedStreak, a labor of love born from experimentation with apple and beer yeast blends. Lapinette, out this fall, is a bitter, tart version aged entirely in wine barrels, while The Mitten, slated for winter, is aged in bourbon casks. “It’ll be interesting in the next few years, to see how we cope with apples,” Hall wonders. “There are plenty of apples out there; they’re just not all great for making cider.”

Back at Bushwhacker, Smith isn’t so much coping as he is rule-breaking. In his little cidermaking setup, he’s doing pretty cutting-edge stuff: cider with British ESB yeast, Belgian and French saison yeast, Brettanomyces and lactobacillus, and two versions of a gin-barrel-aged cider, one with ginger for an extra kick. He’s even leaned on neighbor Edelweiss Sausage and Delicatessen to smoke some apples for a batch with a peaty essence. And if those don’t spin your head, then maybe the German gose/cider hybrid he did with local Upright Brewing will.

Of the six ciders on tap at his bar, one or two are always his house brands. “If I make something far-out, I know not everyone will like it, which is why we pepper the bar with guest taps,” Smith laughs. And with that joke, cider’s current state is perfectly summarized: While ubersweet cider was once the norm in the United States, the beverage’s spectrum has blown open. After all, if anything showcases cider’s growth and staying power, it isn’t just sales, but variety.

 

THE NEW CIDERS

1. Virtue RedStreak: Greg Hall’s first cider is light and refreshing, shooting over the tongue in snappy fashion and culminating in a quick flash of ripe apples.

2. Woodchuck Private Reserve Ginger: Bubblegum plays up a sweet and spicy aroma, while sugary apple and ginger fuse for a sweet swallow.

3. Leprechaun Golden Cider: This Houston cider’s sparkling and sweet, washing back with apple and tropical fruit while perfumy hints accent the swallow.

4. Argus Bandera Brut: An oaky farmhouse aroma hits first; light sugar plays well against puckeringly tart apples and a barnyardy, lactic twinge on the tongue.

5. Alpenfire Pirate’s Plank Bone Dry: Ripe apples bookend this prickly cider’s swallow, while an insanely enjoyable wave of drying tannins pummels the taste buds.

Published September/October 2012
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