The CIA loves beer so much, we have an outpost of the Brooklyn Brewery right on our campus in Hyde Park, New York! For beer enthusiasts, there is an adventure in every bottle as we search for the qualities that make each beer unique: malt, hops, technique, inclusions of fruit or florals. For something so ubiquitous, beer certainly can be complex.
But beer is not for everyone, and if you count yourself among that group that just can’t find joy in the bitterness of a good IPA, you’ve likely noticed something finding its way onto beer lists all over the country.
Cider, made from fermented and press apples, is a hot ticket these days. Everyone from large beer manufacturers to small, local craft breweries are getting into the game. Sales of cider are up, and for those of us who have always wanted to appreciate the refreshing qualities of a cold beer, it’s an exciting trend.
Just like beer, we’re seeing experimentation in flavors, techniques, and varieties that are making it all the more fun to sample. And while it all seems so new and fresh, the truth is, cider is a fundamental part of our American history, and may even have a bigger claim than beer itself.
As we celebrate this Presidents' Day, we should remember that our forefathers were cider enthusiasts themselves. You may already know that back when clean, potable water was not always accessible, drinking alcohol – especially in the form of cider and beer – was the safest way to avoid disease. It’s rumored that John Adams actually started each day with a big glass of cider, which is a bit different than today’s health routines (do you think George Washington enjoyed a matcha latte?).
Cider lost its place in the American hearts thanks to prohibition, when many of the country’s apple orchards were torched, but it remained popular in England and elsewhere in Europe.
So, if you want to drink like our forefathers and enjoy a cold cider, what should you look for, and what are the different styles that you might see on a menu?
Just to get it out of the way: cider can come from all over the world. Generally speaking, English and French ciders will be familiar, though they can be very complex. They’ll range in sweetness and acidity, of course, but you’ll mostly know what you’re getting into. Spanish cider is another story. Typically found in wine-sized bottles, Spanish cider, or sidra, is notable for its sour, sometimes vinegar-like qualities. The flavors will be complex and maybe even unusual, and like a good cheese, it wouldn’t be offensive to call it “funky.”
But let’s talk American cider, considering we’re celebrating our first Presidents.
Like most large-scale commercial products, American cider made by big beer manufacturers seeks to appeal to a wide audience. This means it will usually be sweet, but also very neutral in flavor. That’s why it’s great to look for local or small-batch brewers who are exploring flavors and processes that those big names may not. You might find some of these ciders in cans or bottles, but the really special ones will come in wine-sized bottles.
Once you’re really into cider, you can start exploring the nuances of apple varieties, since a cider made with Hudson Valley apples will taste very different than those made with apples from Washington state. In fact, very few ciders will be made with just one variety of apple! But for Cider 101, you can rely on basics that you may already know from wine-tasting.
- Sweet vs. Dry: Though the label may not always indicate the sugar level, many cider-makers will indicate that a cider is dry, which means it is not very sweet and a bit more acidic. You may even see a label that says “hopped,” which are the flowers used in beer production that make a brew bitter. A “hopped” cider will have similar beer-like qualities, though usually not quite as bitter.
- Bubbly vs. Still: The wide majority of American ciders are sparkling, either through the carbonation process or in-bottle fermentation, like champagne. Traditional ciders tend to contain less fizz and may be completely still. Some enthusiasts believe the flavors in a still cider are more pronounced, so you’ll just have to try for yourself.
- Other flavors: Although purists will insist cider should be made with 100% fermented apple juice, it’s not uncommon for today’s cider-makers to experiment with infusions, especially in small batches. Look for the addition of herbs, spices, or fruit juice, which will remind you of a shandy or German radler.
Even with all of these suggestions and "rules," the only real way to discover what you like about cider, just like with food and wine, is to taste taste taste. Talk to local cider-makers to find out what makes their product unique, and explore ciders as you travel around the country and around the world. After all, the American spirit is one of adventure!