America’s love affair with hard apple cider stretches back to the first English settlers. Upon finding only inedible crab-apples, the colonists quickly requested apple seeds from England and began cultivating orchards.
The first known evidence of fermented cider is from around 55 B.C., when Romans marched into Kent, England, and found the locals fermenting the juice of apples into an alcoholic beverage. While the term ‘cider’ might refer to the juice of any pressed fruit, ‘hard cider’ most commonly refers to the fermented juice of pressed apples or pears.
It’s understandable why cider has been so historically popular. In the 17th and 18th century, like beer, cider provided a safe alternative to unsafe drinking water. Unlike beer, cider can be produced without heat, which meant anyone with some apples and time could have cider. However, cider’s popularity began to wane from the American landscape around the 1840s, thanks to the introduction of beer, industrialization and then, Prohibition. The modern craft beer movement has inspired a resurgence in the world of cider. Not all hard apple ciders are the same. European ciders are made from apple orchards with centuries more history, resulting in finer, dryer ciders. American apple production is geared far more toward sweet, bland (for cider) supermarket varieties, which is why certain American ciders lacked the complexity and depth of their European cousins. But the market is catching up, with craft cider production doing everything it can to incorporate tannins, body, and a balanced acidity to American cider.
Historically speaking, there was little in the way of “style” when it came to hard cider. Most orchards made a single cider from their available apples using whatever techniques they’d learned through the generations. Over the decades, however, as production became more sophisticated and local tastes developed, regional ciders styles began to take hold.
The English became known for dry, tannic ciders with higher alcohol levels, while the French created lighter, lower alcohol ciders using sweeter apples and a technique known as keeving.
In America, modern cider makers, like craft beer brewers, experiment with a range of styles. Each producer often makes a variety of ciders with a range of sweetness using a number of different brewing techniques, yeast strains, and apple varietals. This can be exciting for the contemporary cider drinker, but it can also be overwhelming. In an attempt to demystify the process, here are a few key terms to help choose the right cider for your table.
This is the serious cider-drinker’s cider. Dry ciders have less than 0.5% residual sugar. They are often quite tannic, with a pronounced acidity, and slightly thinner body than those with more residual sugar. Many dry ciders are aged in oak barrels to complement their inherent mineral qualities and are excellent both still and carbonated.
Off-dry ciders have slightly more body than their dry counterparts; usually 1 to 2% residual sugar. This additional body makes for more food-friendly ciders while retaining enough character to partner with—rather than outshine—your meal. Off-dry ciders have the same tannic quality and bright astringency as dry ones but usually begin with a smoother mouthfeel and richer flavor.
Semi-Dry & Semi-Sweet Cider
Semi-dry and semi-sweet are catch-all categories for ciders above 2% residual sugar. There is no real distinction between the two aside from the obvious. Semi-dry is a little drier than semi-sweet. Semi-sweet ciders can carry as much as 4% residual sugar with some finishing even higher. Expect firm legs, solid body and hearty, pronounced apple flavors. They also work well mixed into cider cocktails.
In England, farmhouse cider refers to natural or “real” cider made with as little impact from the producer as possible. These ciders are often fermented with wild yeasts and often possess higher ABVs—up to 12%. In America, farmhouse cider is a far looser classification, referring to approachable table cider with a lower astringency and an earthier flavor profile.
A fun bonus is that Cider’s a pairing workhorse. It’s easy to find food that tastes great with it, whether drinking at a midweek dinner or a celebratory feast. Cider’s low alcohol and carbonation help to add a little light to heavy meals and prepare the palate for a new bite. Americans’ current (and growing) taste for hard cider represents the best of two recent trends: the desire for locally grown food and the rising popularity of craft alcohol. More and more cider makers are showing up every year, honing their craft, and helping us rediscover this delicious lost American beverage.
Do you have a favorite cider? You can comment right back here on our blog, on Facebook or in the store. We are excited to hear your opinions! We also deliver locally, to East Hampton, Wainscot, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Montauk.
—Lisa Schock, Staff