Savoring Fall Flavors: A Fashionable Man’s Guide to Hard Cider
If you’re ready to celebrate the cooler fall weather, and you can’t stand the thought of one more “pumpkin spice” whatever, then we have the alternative for you!
Cider has been a highlight of the fall season since long before mankind thought to pour it into glasses—no really! In the bad old days, animals used to hang out by the fruit trees, and scarf down half-fermented apples to get a bit of that jolly fall buzz. (Like this moose, who got loopy eating fallen apples….and then got extra-friendly with the apple tree.)
The primitive humans must have thought that this looked like fun, because they got in on the action early. Ancient apples were very bitter—almost inedible, really. But when you press the juice and leave it to ferment…that’s a much more cheerful story. (Well, as cheery as it gets in an age of constant war and conquest.) When the Romans made it as far as the British Isles in 55 B.C., the soldiers built Roman baths (and walls) in England, but shipped the cider back to the Mediterranean.
Cider never edged out wine in Rome, but it remains a staple in northern Europe, especially in places where it’s considerably harder to keep grape vines alive during the winter. And advances in technology made cider even easier to produce on a mass scale. First, the horse-drawn cider press:
And then the Industrial Revolution made it possible to produce cider commercially on an unprecedented scale: screw presses, improved barreling techniques, improved agricultural strains of apples…life was looking good for the British cider-makers. And they’ve been taking it seriously ever since.
Back in America:
But the Americans like to make everything more complicated. At first, they inherited both apple seeds and cider-making traditions straight from the British, and many orchards were planted in New England.
Early American statesmen endorsed the cider, and President John Adams swore that he had to have a tankard of cider with breakfast every day.
It is indeed bad to eat apples, it’s better to turn them all into cider.—Ben Franklin
Roughly fifty years later, cider was still a drink of choice, and William Henry Harrison won his Presidential election on the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign. Through the 1920s, many individual families made a little cider on the side, and commercial cider making was still in regular production (though it was being edged out by beer, since hops are easier and faster to grow than apples). But Prohibition put the cider makers out of business, and by the time the ban was lifted, the orchards had all been repurposed for other commercial enterprises, and hard cider (like small craft beers) largely disappeared from the American market until the end of the 20th century.
But since then…we’ve decided not to let the moose have all the fun.
Modern Cider Week:
Every fall, different states and regions host a “Cider Week” festival, running sometime between late September and early November. It’s a brilliant date option, and a fun way to get out into the fall weather. As a bonus, cider festivals tend to have a much higher ratio of female attendees than the average beer festival.
The dress patterns at these festivals tends toward casual comfort clothing. However, probably because of the more pronounced female influence, Cider Festivals (unlike Beer Festivals) don’t encourage food-based accessories or lederhosen—a definite plus for the fashionable man who prefers to wear shirts without the decorative sausage and cheese stains.
Still, if you want to show off your apple-based genius: here’s everything (else) that you need to know about cider…
What is cider?
Technically, a true cider should be an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of cider apples. Cider apples aren’t good for snacking, because they tend to be relatively bitter and dry, due to the high tannin and malic acid levels, but they are actually also very high in sugars, which is important because the sugar facilitates fermentation and raises the alcohol levels in the finished product, while the tannins and malic acid give it a striking depth of flavor.
Cider apples have even been an official science since the early 1900s, when the British Professor B.T.P. Barker, then director of the Long Ashton Research Station, established an analytical classification system for cider, determining relative thresholds for malic acid and tannins, and defining four families of cider apples:
- Sweet (low malic acid, low tannin)
- Sharp (high malic acid, low tannin)
- Bittersweet (low malic acid, high tannin)
- Bittersharp (high malic acid, high tannin)
If you want to sound especially educated about your ciders, you should also know that the tannin levels determine whether a cider tastes “full,” “mild,” or “light” (strong to minimal tannin flavor), or whether it tastes “hard” (bitter tannin) or “soft” (astringent tannin). But the reality is that many cidermakers blend different kinds of apples to achieve a finished product with layers and nuances of flavor. So, if you don’t feel especially pretentious in your tannin analysis, you can just say something intelligent like: “This is lovely!” or “What lunatic devised this swill!?”
Modern & Specialty Ciders:
A lot of the up-and-coming cidermakers (especially in the U.S.) have switched over from the traditional bitter cider apples and started to make cider from culinary apples like McIntosh, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. The resulting flavors are brighter, with a less aggressive tannin profile. So, if you consider yourself more “sprightly avant garde” than “stoic diehard traditionalist,” these cider options might be worth investigation…
And because there’s an increasing range of competition in the cidermaking world, those whacky U.S. cidermakers (as represented by the United States Association of Cider Makers—USACM) list six new acknowledged variations on the traditional favorite:
- Fruit: While “fruit” would seem to be implicit in the definition of “cider,” a proper “fruit” variation has a non-apple fruit juice added either before or after fermentation (blueberry, cherry, apricot, etc.).
- Hopped: This category straddles the fine line between “fruity beer” and “hoppy cider,” since hops are involved in the fermentation process.
- Spiced: These ciders open up the possibility of pumpkin spice in a previously sacrosanct category. (Sorry!) Cinnamon and ginger are the most common spice additives, but the nutmeg is clearly going to be a thing sooner or later…
- Wood-aged: A handful of cider makers borrowed a leaf from the vintners’ book of wine refining and decided to see what would happen if cider were aged in a variety of wooden barrels. The resulting flavors are earthier and more intense.
- Sour: A sour cider is fermented with non-Saccharomyces yeast and bacteria, which results in an intensely-flavored cider that will probably make you squint and yell “Wooo!” It’s not dignified, but it’s remarkably tasty.
- Iced: Officially, a true iced cider must come from frozen apples that have been harvested after a strong frost. The freezing process concentrates the sugar and separates out the water for a distinctive, very powerful flavor.
Bonus Factoid: The alcoholic drink made entirely from pears is properly called “perry.” A “pear cider” is an apple cider “fruit” variation with added pear juice.
Home Brewed Cider:
The cider making process is much like the winemaking process, and significantly trickier than beer (if you don’t want to accidentally poison the neighbors). But, in fairness, people have been making it at home basically forever, so if you’re careful, it’s a manageable DYI adventure, even without the horse and cider mill.
And for the Teetotalers, the Lazy, and Miscellaneous Dinner Party Hosts:
The absolute easiest (and family-friendly) fall cider option is definitely something that you can do at home in a matter of minutes. Just grab some decent apple juice and 2-3 cinnamon sticks; if you have a Crock Pot, you can stick them in there; if not, a pot on the stovetop will work just as well. Set it on high until the juice boils, and then turn it down to low and let it sit (the longer it simmers, the more the cinnamon flavor will come through). You can serve it as a hot nonalcoholic drink, or just let it make your house smell amazing.
If you’re feeling fancy, you can make the hot cider with whole cloves stuck in orange slices, whole nutmeg, or other spices; but try the straight cinnamon first. It’s simple, it hits all of your fall flavor cravings, and you have to work really hard to screw it up. …Unless, of course, you have an hour to kill, a penknife, and a really evil sense of humor, because who doesn’t appreciate finding a carved-apple shrunken head in their party drink?
And that concludes our tasty to tasteless survey of cider!
Raise a glass to fall, and step into the new season with fashion and fun.
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