I’ve heard an ugly rumor from a knowledgeable source that there’s not much of a cider market in Mobile, which is a shame because cider is delicious (Red, Golden or otherwise). I’m talking about fermented, alcoholic, fizzy cider — what our grandparents called “hard cider” (and legal documents still do) — not to be confused with your kiddies’ apple juice. If you’re not drinking it, you’re really missing out.
I first tried hard cider in the UK, where they grow tons (literally) of apples, have a strong cider industry and, you guessed it, the largest per capita cider consumption of any nation on Earth. You’ll almost always find ciders at British beer festivals — along with perries (made from pears) — as mainstream adult-beverage choices. They embrace a huge spectrum of flavors and styles, from sugary sweet to bitterly dry, so saying you “don’t like cider” just doesn’t fly.
The Germans also love cider, or “apfelwein,” most of which is seriously dry and tart — just slightly weird when you consider Germans like their wine sweet. The Sachsenhausen neighborhood of Frankfurt is packed with cider bars, where you can get simple plates of sausage, cheese and bread to occupy your mouth between slurps. Germans also mix cider with sparkling water or 7-Up to make a really light (especially in terms of alcohol) beverage that I think is hideous. You’ll have to ask them why they do it.
On this side of the ocean, cider was a staple beverage in Colonial America; apples were abundant and fermented almost automatically. Cider may actually have been the main beverage at Colonial meals. Of course, in those days folks worked hard and needed the calories not only from food but from beverages to keep them fortified. Plus, alcohol may have helped kill harmful bacteria in the food.
So what’s happened to us since Colonial times? Why have we stopped venerating Pomona — the Roman goddess of the apple? We still work hard. We certainly don’t just drink water with our meals. And you can find American-made ciders almost everywhere you shop in Mobile — from grocery and package stores to wine shops — so it shouldn’t be hard to stumble on a favorite.
The only possible down side is that hard cider can be sneaky if your taste buds tell your brain you’re drinking apple juice. (Assign part of your brain to reading the bottle’s alcohol content, just to be safe.) Cider can also be higher in calories and sugar than beer. These aren’t bad things, though, just things to be aware of — particularly because the sugar can limit your food-pairing options.
Anyway, I’m primed to lead the cider revival and I’ve got some suggestions for you. In the medium-sweet category, there’s Angry Orchard’s “Crisp Apple” Hard Cider (5 percent ABV). Someone gave me a hot tip that it should be sipped ice cold, so I put the bottles in the freezer for three hours and the tip produced a winner. Crisp Apple smells and — apart from the carbonation — tastes deceptively like any decent apple juice. It’s lightly fizzy and very smooth. Feeling lazy, I enjoyed it with a big bowl of buttered popcorn (sometimes that’s all you need in life). (Widely available in grocery stores, package stores and wine shops.)
Crispin’s Original Natural Hard Apple Cider is at the less apple-y end of the apple spectrum. It’s light and fresh and dry, but it doesn’t really send your brain an “I’m drinking apple cider” message. I tasted cherry and plum flavors, and there was one sip that made me think of Sprite — although not necessarily in a bad way. (It’s very lightly carbonated, not a tongue-scrubber.)
Crispin likes to emphasize that it’s fermented from fresh apple juice, not concentrate, and has no added sugar. It’s pleasant and refreshing, but for me it lacked a “wow” factor. (Available in four-packs at grocery stores and Wal-Mart; 5 percent ABV.)
Samuel Smith’s Organic Cider, made in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, was the fizziest of the ciders I sampled and fairly dry, but not tart. It possibly was the most “beer-like” of the bunch, with surprisingly little apple flavor. Its aromas were fresh and apple-y, though, and its light body made for easy drinking. The bottle says “subtle enough for delicate flavors” and I’d agree; you could pair this cider with salads or other cold meals. (Available on line; 5 percent ABV.)
Lastly, with a name like “Wanderlust” it has to be dry, right? This craft cider with the German name is made by the Wandering Aengus Ciderworks (Salem, OR) and is dusty dry and tart, much more in the German style than the British. You definitely get apple flavors, but more like Granny Smith or crabapple than Red Delicious. There are fresh tart-apple aromas, too, and very little fizz.
Wanderlust is more food friendly — because of its dryness — than Angry Orchard or Crispin, and I believe it would change almost anyone’s perception of cider as an everyday beverage. You really can serve this one with meals and harken back to America’s Colonial roots. I tried it with a full-bore turkey dinner (stuffing, mashed potatoes, peas, sweet potatoes, the works) and it was fabulous. Its crispness was the perfect counterweight to all that heavy food. Roasted pork loin would be a fine pairing, too.
Wandering Aengus Ciderworks makes their ciders from heirloom apples grown in Oregon and the taste they achieve is definitely more complex than with most of the big-name ciders. The alcohol content also tends to be a bit higher than with the others. Wanderlust weighs in at 7 percent ABV, but you won’t notice it at all … until you stand up. (Not yet distributed in AL, but needs to be!! Available in 16-oz bottles and on draft in several nearby states, and on line.)
For info on how to make your own cider, check out www.cider.org.uk, a website produced by Andrew Lea — a Brit who knows his apples.