"I just haven't had a cider that really wowed me."
That's a phrase I hear a lot.
"They're just too sweet."
That's another one. Plenty of people love good beer, a glass of wine, or a post-work cocktail, but they never order cider at a bar or buy it at the bottle shop. And I can't blame them: while there's some incredible cider being made these days on our shores and overseas, much of what you see in the grocery store isn't all that appealing.
But that's no reason to ignore the good stuff. The world of cider has more breadth and depth than it's often given credit for, and there's a growing number of producers focused on quality and innovation. The key to getting into cider is to seek out the type that's right for you. Let's look a little deeper.
For Everyone: Really Damn Good All-Apple Ciders and Perries
If cider hasn't appealed to you in the past, it may just be that you haven't tasted great cider. Let's start here: the best ciders tend to be made from freshly-harvested whole apples, ground up, pressed into juice, and fermented. They can be bone dry or quite sweet, completely uncarbonated or lively and effervescent, but they should all have balance and complexity from acidity, tannin, and the flavors brought out by fermentaiton.
One trick for finding something good: look for ciders produced at least in part from fresh cider apples (they'll often proclaim this quite proudly on the label). Ciders made exclusively from eating-apples like Gala or Red Delicious are a bit like wines made from Concord grapes. There's a pretty good chance that most of the ciders at your grocery store are made entirely from concentrates or dull table apples, and they'll taste pretty bland and sweet.
Cider apples are responsible for much of the tannin and acidity that separate great ciders from many of the lame ones. As a group, they have a broad range of characteristics—some provide lots of sugar for fermentation, others have varying levels of sharp acid and astringent tannin. Cidermakers often use multiple apple varieties in every batch to create a balanced, blended final product that expresses good flavor, structure, and drinkability.
When I say 'flavor' above, I don't just mean pure apple flavor. The fermentation process can yield a range of spicy, fruity, earthy, and tart flavors, and each variety of apple used in a cider lends its own style to the finished drink. A cider may taste just like biting into a perfect Granny Smith, but it might also have a hint of tropical, chalky, floral, honeyed, or vegetal flavors.
Once you've tried some ciders made from whole cider apples, consider looking to other orchards: a roundup like this wouldn't be complete without at least mentioning perry. The concept is pretty easy to grasp: apples are to cider as pears are to perries, and the best examples of perry are worthy of serious admiration.
My first perry revelation came with Eric Bordelet's Poiré Granit, a perry made from the fruit of 300-year-old pear trees. It's slightly sweet and hugely textural, with mouth-filling body, gripping tannin, pinpoint carbonation, and puckering acidity. The whole package is unified and well-structured, but tastes different with every sip—every bit as entrancing as an aged Belgian gueuze or a flute of Champagne. This stuff will make you stop and wonder what the heck else is out there that you've been missing.
Great American-made, all-apple ciders to try: Tilted Shed's Graviva and Lost Orchard Wandering Aengus Bloom and Wickson Shacksbury The 1840 West County Reine de Pomme and Redfield* ...and so many others.
Perries to try: Bordelet Poiré Granit and Poiré Authentique AEppelTreow Perry* Snowdrift Perry
For the Beer Lover
While I'd recommend the ciders and perries above to pretty much everyone, beer obsessives should also consider a step off the beaten path.
If you've been exploring the world of sour beer, ask your local cider source if they have any bottles from Basque country, such as the relatively easy-to-find Isastegi Sagardo. Like lambics and other sour beers, Basque ciders like this one are jamming with puckering acidity and earthy wild yeast funk. Flavors from fermentation are the star here, tasting musty, earthy, cheesy, lemony, and vinegary. It's weird and delicious stuff that won't appeal to everyone but is perfect for the tried-it-all sour beer fanatic.
Prefer pale ales, IPAs, and other hoppy beer styles? Then you'll have fun with dry-hopped ciders, made by adding leafy hop flowers to the cider as fermentation comes to a close. This process does not extract the hop's famous bitterness, instead mostly releasing its aromatic oils, which can taste pungently floral, citrusy, tropically fruity, herbal, or pine-like.
The best hopped ciders seamlessly marry these aromatics with the natural fruitiness of the apple, creating a totally unusual drink that is a natural first step into cider for the hoppy beer lover. Most of these bottlings use American hops, which are known for their floral, grapefruity, or orangey flavors, but cidermakers are experimenting with other varieties as well. Versions made with Australian or New Zealand hops are gaining in popularity and offer a punch of tropically fruity aromatics.
Tart Basque-Style Ciders to Try: Isastegi Sagardo Txopinodo Sagarnoa* Virtue Sidra de Nava (made in the US in the Asturian style, which is very similar to that of the Basque ciders)
Hopped Ciders to Try: Zeffer Hopped Up Pippin* (New Zealand hops) Finnriver Dry Hopped Cider* (American hops) Tieton Yakima Valley Dry Hopped Cider (American hops) Citizen Cider Full Nelson (New Zealand hops)
For the Wine Drinker
When you're looking for something to pour into your wine glass, what kind of flavors are you looking for? Do you love salty and dry Italian white wines? Are you a fan of earthy reds like Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir? Are you craving big, juicy fruit and polished oak? Whatever your wine style, there are ciders you'll love if you look around.
If you normally stock up on dry, bright whites and rosés for refreshment, get your hands on a similarly bright cider from the UK. Some examples are shockingly tannic, but the apple-skin astringency has a punchy drying effect that will keep you reaching for your next sip. These are immensely refreshing drinks that you'll definitely want alongside that iced-down bottle of rosé at your next picnic.
Those that dig the earthy, savory stuff should seek out ciders that feature the dusty funk of Brettanomyces, the wild yeast that helps ferment many traditional ciders. Imported ciders from Normandy will often satisfy that craving for something a little bit rustic—many of these ciders are partially fermented by Brettanomyces, leaving behind its characteristic flavor that is commonly described as 'barnyardy.'
But if you mostly crave the dark fruitiness and tannin of a favorite Cabernet, or the jammy style of a big Zinfandel, look for ciders with added berries or other dark fruit. Finnriver's Sparkling Black Currant Cider is a great place to start. It's a moderately sweet drink up front, full and lush with berry flavor that will taste familiar to lovers of those big reds. But the sharpness of the added currants charges in on the finish, balancing the cider and keeping it bright.
Finnriver's cider isn't alone. In similarly great fruited ciders, the flavor of added fruits complement the base cider without overpowering it, offering depth, tannin, and acidity. The result is a powerful, balanced, and complex beverage that can be very wine-like, lush with fermented fruit flavor that'll keep you hooked.
Dry and tannic UK ciders to try: Henney's Dry Cider Farnum Hill Extra Dry Still (made in the US in a dry and still English West Country-esque style) Virtue The Ledbury (made in the US in a fairly dry and assertive English-esque style)
Earthy, funky Normandy ciders to try: Christian Drouin Cidre Brut Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie* Virtue Percheron & Lapinette (made in the US in the Norman style)
Fruited ciders to try: Finnriver Sparkling Black Currant Cider* Blue Mountain Cherry Hard Apple Cider Bonny Doon Querry? (Quince, pear, apple)
For the Spirits and Cocktail Aficionado
If you usually sip bourbon or drink an Old Fashioned, look to ciders aged in barrels that once held whiskey, rum, or other liquor. In the barrel, the cider can pick up a huge amount of flavor from the spirit left soaked in the wooden staves. Some examples can be a bit ham-handed, pummeling you with alcoholic heat or intense spirit flavor, but others are more elegant, incorporating the flavor of the spirit while retaining the base cider's subtleties.
My favorite is Virtue's The Mitten, a great example of how apple and bourbon flavors can neatly marry. It's off-dry and tart with a touch of oak (think vanilla flavor and gripping tannin) supporting the fresh flavor of its beautiful base cider.
Cidermakers' booze-related experimentation doesn't stop with barrel-aging. If you like amari or aperitifs like vermouth and Lillet, there are some producers toying around with cider-based riffs on these drinks. Eden Ice Cider makes cider-based, herbal-infused aperitifs that are forward-thinking and delicious. Their Orleans Herbal Aperitif is a savory herb-bomb a bit like a lighter Yellow Chartreuse. It's 16% ABV, and led by flavors of honey, Thai basil, oregano, and fennel. It makes for a tasty, basil-tinged Alaska cocktail (cut back on the gin just a tad for best results) that is definitely worth a shot.
Experimental Ciders to Try: Virtue Cider The Mitten Alpenfire Calypso (rum barrel-aged) and Smoke (whiskey and mead barrel-aged) Eden Orleans Herbal Aperitif
For After-Dinner Drinkers
Eden is actually best known for another rare and unusual specialty: ice ciders.
These are hard-to-find but delicious beverages made by freezing out some of the water from apple juice in order to concentrate its sugars and flavor. The resulting super-juice is then fermented to make a strong and usually sweet cider of 8% ABV or more.
Well-made ice ciders are strong, intensely flavorful beverages with an impressive balance of acidity, tannin, and sweetness that will make you wonder why you ever capped a meal with subpar brandy or fruit liqueurs. Expect concentrated flavors of honey, apple skin, and cooked fruits with a ripping acidic streak. The ice ciders produced by Eden are probably the easiest to find nationally, but other small producers, especially in the northeastern US, are making great stuff as well.
Ice Ciders to Try: Eden Ice Cider Heirloom Blend Newhall Farms Ice Cider Boyden Valley Vermont Ice Cider
Note: Starred ciders are sold in the state of California by the author's employer, distributor Lime Ventures.