Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Thirst Boston: Craft Cider--From Orchard to Glass

On Friday, I'll be traveling to Vermont for TasteCamp, the annual event that brings together a small number of wine writers to explore the wines of a specific region. Over the years, TasteCamp has evolved and expanded to include an exploration of locally produced beer, spirits, ciders and even food. Thus, while we are in Vermont, we will sample a diverse selection of beverages including hard cider. While at Thirst Boston, I had a sneak peek at a couple of the cider producers we will meet in Vermont and want to share some insight into their products.

First, let's reach back to 1852, when Vermont passed a Liquor Law which essentially was a type of Prohibition, banning much alcohol production. Fortunately, the production of hard cider was not prohibited, as long as no other fermentable sugars were added to it. However, you couldn't sell cider at any "...victualing house, tavern, grocery shop, or cellar, or other place of public resort.”  Why was cedar allowed to remain legal? First, it was easy to make and with "...the abundance of apple trees and orchards across the state, it would have been impossible to outlaw production." Second, cider was " important staple of daily nutrition. Consuming water was still a dangerous gamble, and beer produced at breweries was illegal under the law." The Liquor Law significantly increased cider consumption though around 1880, cider production and consumption was finally outlawed.

(All the above quotes are from Vermont Prohibition: Teetotalers, Bootleggers & Corruption by Adam Krakowski.)

Now, back to the recent past. At Thirst Boston, I attended the seminar Craft Cider: From Orchard to Glass, which was described as: "No longer New England’s best-kept beverage secret, cider is popping up on menus at bars and restaurants all over the country these days. It’s shed its too-sweet reputation and now cider (essentially fermented fruit) is known as a sophisticated and complex beverage that can stand on its own or take the place of beer, wine, and even a cocktail." The seminar was supposed to cover the "...different styles of craft cider, how they are produced, and how to pair food and cider. You’ll leave with a wealth of information enabling you to better choose and enjoy all kinds of cider."

The presenters included Eleanor Léger, founder of Eden Specialty Ciders, and David Dolginow, co-owner of Shacksbury Cider. Eden Speciality Ciders extends back to 2007, getting their start with apple ice cider though they have since expanded to produce a variety of different apple ciders, leading to their name change from Eden Ice Cider to Eden Speciality Ciders. They have about 1000 trees, growing 42 varieties of apples, and also buy apples from a number of local growers. David, and his partner Colin Davis, got into the cider business, partially after tasting the delicious ciders from Eden. In 2013, they founded Shacksbury Cider in Shoreham, Vermont.

The seminar began with some general information about apples and cider, such as that most apples trace their ancestry to the Eurasian country of Kazakhstan. Elinor made it clear that Eden and Shacksbury produce niche ciders, very different from the large commercial ciders that are available in the market. The key difference is the orchard, the type of apples which are used in the ciders.  Apples can roughly be divided into three basic types, eating, heirloom and bittersweet/sharp. There was brief mention of a local, old heirloom apple called the Roxbury Russet which originated around the 1640s in Roxbury, MA. There was also some information about the three main styles of cider in Europe, including Spain, France and England.

Cider has become a significant category and in 2015, about 28.7 million cases of cider were sold, though that figure doesn't include sales of cider at restaurants and bars. The commercial cider category grew by about 6% but the craft cider category exploded, with a growth of 44%! Though some of those large, commercial cider producers may have helped to initialize the cider craze, more people now are seeking out craft ciders, those smaller, more artisanal producers. Elinor noted that there is lots of innovation in the cider industry, plenty of experimentation with styles and types. They don't have to follow traditional styles and can try to create their own path.

Why does the cost of cider vary so much sometimes? One of the big differences is the cost of the ingredients used to make the cider, especially the pre-fermentation, raw juice cost . For example, water costs about $0.02 a gallon while reconstituted concentrate is only $0.70 per gallon. When you consider juice from culled dessert fruit orchards, the cost rises to $2.50 per gallon and the juice from apples specifically grown for cider are a significant $8.00 per gallon. A number of commercial ciders often are much cheaper because they use reconstituted concentrate while the more craft ciders, using cider apples, much charge more due to the much higher cost of their basic ingredient. Keep that in mind when you start criticizing the higher price of a craft cider.

Eleanor led off our cider tasting with the Eden Sparkling Dry, which is a Champagne-style cider made from heirloom and bittersweet apple varieties grown in Vermont. About 50% of the blend is the cider apple Kingston Black while 30% are heirloom varieties and 20% are grocery-type apples. With a 8.5% ABV and no residual sugar, this cider is from multiple harvest years,  undergoes a secondary fermentation and then is disgorged about six months later. This cider will last for about a year and then it might start to oxidize. It tasted dry and clean, with pleasing apple flavors and a nice effervescence. It's recommended that you can pair this cider with oysters, seafood and veggie dishes. I think oysters might be a tasty pairing, especially some briny ones that would then accompany the dry apple flavors.

David then stepped up to present the second cider, the Shacksbury Pet-Nat, which is part of their Lost Apple Ciders program. This program is intended to seek out the type of apples that were planted for cider over one hundred years ago. This particular cider is a blend of lost apples foraged around the towns of Danby and Tinmouth as well as some English cider apples that are grown at Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall. This cider also uses an old, traditional method of fermentation, which is a hot method in the wine world, known as Pétillant-Naturel or Methode Ancestrale. In short, this method allows the initial fermentation to finish in the bottle. This traps carbon dioxide in the bottle, creating carbonation.

With a 6.7% ABV and no residual sugar, this cider was fermented with native yeasts and was bottled without any added sulfites and without being filtered. As you look at the photo above, you can see that it is cloudy from that lack of filtering. It is bone dry, with a light effervescence, and delicious apple flavors with hints of pear and lemon. It had a long, pleasing finish too. A very interesting cider which would also pair well with a variety of foods, especially seafood.

We then moved onto the Shacksbury Dry, which is sold in a can. This cider was only released about two weeks ago and is a blend of about 70% grocery apples and 30% bittersweet, with about 30% of the total apples supplied from the UK. The English varieties are slow fermented to fully express the apple. This cider has 0.4% residual sugar so it is primarily dry with only a kiss of sweetness. It presents more of a carbonated apple taste and tastes better than many of the other canned ciders from the large commercial producers.

I was fascinated with the Shacksbury WhistlePig Barrel-Aged Cider, where this cider was aged in used barrels supplied by their neighbor WhistlePig Rye. This cider is a blend of about 90% bittersweet apples and 10% grocery apples, including McIntosh, Empire, Cortland, Dabinett, Somerset Redstreak, Browns, Michelin, and Ellis Bitters. The apples were sourced from Sunrise Orchards in Vermont and Dragon Orchards in Herefordshire, England. With a 6.9% ABV and 1% residual sugar, this cider saw a slow, partial native yeast fermentation.

Then it was aged in Whistlepig barrels, which were previously Sauternes barrels, for about six months. The barrels are then returned to WhistlePig. David stated that cider is very delicate so you must be very careful with barrel aging and they engaged in three years of experimentation before finding something which they felt good for their cider. This is their first batch and they consider it to be a dessert cider. I found it to be more full-bodied and smooth, with a complex melange of flavors, including caramel, honey, vanilla, mild spices and some fruity notes, mostly apple but with some citrus and pear as well. It has only a small touch of sweetness and mild effervescence. A fascinating cider, I think this would be great with cheese.

Another fascinating cider, presented by Eleanor, was the Eden Orleans Herbal Aperitif, which I think is almost an "Apple Vermouth." This cider was developed in collaboration with Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista. Made with Vermont apples, this cider was infused with organic herbs from their own fields, with Basil and Hyssop being the primary herbs. On the nose, the cider presents an alluring aroma of herbs with apple hints and on the palate it is savory and interesting, blending apple flavors with floral notes, herbal accents and a touch of honey. It is about 16% ABV, but the alcohol is well integrated and balanced. With a lengthy, satisfying finish, this is an intriguing and compelling cider, a unique blend which has lots of potential.

Eleanor stated this Aperitif could be simply enjoyed over ice with a twist of lime, though it also works well in cocktails. For example, you could blend it with some Ginger Beer to make an Orleans Mule. Or for something special, you could try a Vermont Vesper, made with Barr Hill Gin and Green Mountain Organic Lemon Vodka. I'm curious how it would do in a Manhattan as a substitute for Vermouth. I want to note that Eden also produces a Bitter version of this Aperitif. At TasteCamp this weekend, I plan on buying some of this Aperitif and look forward to tasting the bitter version too.

We ended the tasting with the Eden Heirloom Blend Ice Cider, which is a blend of about 50% cider apples and has no added sugar. Interestingly, it takes over 8 pounds of apples to create a 375ml bottle of this ice cider. The apple juice is left outside during the winter and it is later aged for a time in French oak, former apple brandy barrels. With a 10% ABV and 15% residual sugar, it is sweet though with balanced acidity so it isn't cloying. It has rich, sweet and tart apple flavors with hints of baking spices. A pleasing after-dinner drink, which I also think would go very well with a Vermont cheese plate.

I asked both Eleanor and David about using these ciders for cooking. Eleanor mentioned that the Orleans Herbal Aperitif would be excellent for general use and that the Ice Cider works well as a reduction for pork dishes. David mentioned that they have a partnership with a Basque cider producer and that their product would work well for a simple Chorizo a la Sidra, chorizo cooked in cider. In addition, the said that Mussels Braised in Cider is another excellent choice.

I love the innovation displayed by these two Vermont cider producers and their dedication to their craft. These are ciders that intrigue and tantalize the palate. And they have uses beyond simply being enjoyed in the glass. They can be part of a craft cocktail or be used in a recipe. This seminar was a  cool glimpse into what TasteCamp Vermont will bring this weekend.

You don't have travel to Vermont for these ciders (though you probably should make the trek to see the cideries) as these ciders are available in Massachusetts through Ruby Wines.

No comments: