Another Way to Get Your Apple a Day on Thanksgiving: Hard Cider
One food trend I find easy to get behind is hard cider, made from the fermented juice of crushed fruit, mainly apples. Typically gently carbonated and light bodied, with an alcoholic content of 7 percent or so, it’s made in a range of styles, from semisweet to very dry. It’s worth noting that “dry” means different things to different makers, different palates, and even different generations. Hold that thought.
What I like about hard cider is its versatility. It’s good at brunch, with waffles and sausages or a frittata or strata. On a weekend afternoon, it’s delicious with an impromptu platter of cheeses and charcuterie or with grilled pork or other meats. Later this month, it’ll be fabulous on the Thanksgiving table or with a turkey sandwich the day after. Available year-round and often bolstered with seasonal fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, or pumpkin (rarely if ever a good idea, in my opinion), hard cider is especially nice in the crisp fall weather, when you rush through raking and other chores just so you can sit around a fire pit and watch the trees change color.
This year, I didn’t make it to any of the tastings or menu pairings that were featured during Cider Week in the Big Apple, but no worries. There are about 60 cider producers in New York state, and as luck would have it, some of them are in my own backyard, the East End of Long Island. If you’re in the general vicinity, check out Edible Long Island’s helpful roundup of five hard cider day trips. Even if you’re not, all is not lost: You’ll find a guide to cider festivals and other events in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world right here.
Although I don’t think “cider will be the new wine,” as one enthusiast was quoted as saying in The New York Times a couple years ago, its history has long been entwined with that of humans. In the United States—which today has what may be the greatest apple diversity on the planet—the first orchards, which were meant for cider production, were planted in the 1600s from seeds brought from the Old World to the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies.
"In 1726," Ben Watson wrote in the influential, inspirational Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own, “it was reported that a single village near Boston, consisting of about 40 families, put up nearly 10,000 barrels of cider. One historian stated that in the year 1767 a per capita average of 1.14 barrels of cider were consumed in Massachusetts.”
“The intense smell of cider permeated the dirt cellars of farmsteads and the cavernous apple and cider houses of America until the middle of the twentieth century…it was a renewable sale commodity and a universal barter item. For many years the annual production of cider was consumed and the same or greater sales were expected the following year,” explains the great orchardist Tom Burford, whose family has grown apples in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia since 1715, in Apples of North America: 192 Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks.
The late 19th-century wave of German and Eastern European immigrants, experienced in beer-brewing traditions, dealt a blow to the American cider industry. But that was just the beginning: "After the enactment of Prohibition in 1919, the flight from rural America after World War II, and the introduction of other beverages—especially the rapid rise of the soft drink industry—cider production and its culture diminished and all but disappeared,” Burford writes.
A boy at the end of World War II, he remembers cider makers and orchardists lamenting another major reason for the decline of the industry: the shoddy, indiscriminate use of apple varieties for cider without regard for their balance of acid, tannin, and sugar. The main culprit was the (still) ubiquitous Red Delicious, bred for beauty-pageant looks that can stand the rigors of long-distance shipping. More often than not, it’s one-dimensional and insipid in flavor.
Burford is not one to mince words: “The surplus production of vile cider made from Red Delicious apples was responsible for turning the next generation away from this natural fruit drink to a beverage manufactured by the soft drink industry.”
Let’s circle back to the issue of dryness for a minute and how that might be perceived by people who grew up on soda pop and commercial fruity drinks, from Kool-Aid and Hawaiian Punch to peach-flavored iced tea. “The cider world is not the only place where ‘dry’ has been quietly re-defined by some as something less than really sweet,” Cider Journal pointed out in the piece referenced above. “In the wine world, a number of wines presented as ‘dry’ are in fact laden with residual sugar. These wines…are extremely popular with casual drinkers in the United States who want to say they ‘drink dry,’ but really are satisfying a palate trained to like sweet.”
Well, we all like what we like. But at a time when an reinvigorated cider industry is embracing great regional apple varieties, old and new, it would be a real shame not to broaden horizons. You’ll find a number of recommendations online, including a roundup with generous tasting notes from Robert Parker: The Wine Advocate and one from Food Republic that includes excellent choices from Seattle and Austin, as well as Burlington, Vermont, and Spring Lake and Grand Rapids, Michigan.