Fall is the perfect time of year to contemplate a glass of apple cider. When else do we have the irresistible urge to pick, cook, and drink this seasonal fruit? What I mean by cider isn't the sweet, cloudy beverage that we tend to buy only in the autumn at the farmers' market; that's unfiltered apple juice. I'm referring to hard cider, or what the rest of the world knows, simply, as cider.
In the Colonial period and up to the middle of the 19th century, cider just meant fermented apple juice. During that time, it was the most popular and important beverage in America. The tradition came to the New World with English settlers, who also brought the seeds for planting orchards. Safer than water and easier and cheaper to produce than beer or wine, cider was typically the first drink of the day.
For a variety of reasons, cider's popularity faded. Urbanization and industrialization undermined this rural drink, as did a new wave of immigrants with a thirst for beer. On top of that, pests and cold winters destroyed orchards. But the chief issue that brought cider down, almost forever, was Prohibition. After repeal, the cider apple never regained its gleam.
In the past 25 years, however, cider has slowly been making a welcome comeback. For a while, there have been the sugary, commercial ciders that resemble apple wine coolers. Recently, though, traditional production has resumed, which means making cider not from apples used for eating but from cultivars specifically selected for the task. "Some of the best cider apples are so bitter that you'll wish you'd never bitten into them," says Stephen Wood of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire. "But they contribute amazing character to fermented cider."
So let us reconsider cider, and not just for autumn. "Lower in alcohol than wine (ours comes in just under 7 percent), cider is fabulous during the summer because it is crisp and refreshing," recommends Sharon Campbell of Tieton Cider Works in Tieton, Washington. Available in a wide variety of styles, cider goes with an equally wide variety of foods. It's a natural with cheese, but it also stands up to the spice of Indian food and Mexican cooking and the robustness of pub food. Seafood is a great match, too.
By pouring a glass of artisanal cider, crafted locally and sustainably on a small scale, you preserve heirloom apple varieties with enchanting names like 'Esopus Spitzenburg' and 'Hewes Virginia Crab'. When Americans began eating apples instead of drinking them, many varieties were at risk of disappearing. "Cider is a delicious and valuable part of our culinary and cultural heritage," says Charlotte Shelton, of Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Virginia.
If you've had a negative experience with overly sweet cider that tasted more like candy than an adult beverage, expand your tasting menu. As Bruce Nissen of Crispin Cider in Minneapolis says, "You wouldn't try a Chardonnay and then extrapolate that all wines were like that." With a blend of different types of apples (sweets, sharps, bittersweets, bittersharps, and dessert), what you find in a bottle can be bone-dry or sweet and fruity.
Don't forget other areas of the world where there is a historical and thriving production of cider, including England, France, and Spain. Generally speaking, English ciders tend to be dry and crisp, while French ones are sweet and complex. Spanish ciders, almost bordering on vinegar, are something unique, but stand up to full-on rustic food.
Whatever the season, have some cider on hand, for yourself and your guests, just as you have beer, wine, spirits, and soft drinks. And if you are wondering what to serve at Thanksgiving, cider might be your answer. It's American, historic, and delicious.
"If you can find a local, real cider in your area, drink that one," suggests Corrie Wolosin of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire. In that spirit, here is a short list of exceptional regional ciders.