The summer days have been pretty magnificent lately; that bluebird New England sky coupled with the earthy smell of leaf laden soil in the air. Just a hint of Fall coming on now, but we’ll be sweltering still for a spell. This dramatic change in season was something I dearly missed in my previous California days. I can’t say I absolutely prefer one over the other as they both have their highlights.
In the words of troubadour Conor Oberst, “the story is in the soil.” The transformative sway of the seasons from bustling green to dormant white greatly influences the fruit we pull from the ground around these parts. That’s the first part of the equation. I can sit here and rattle off name after name of apples that most have never experienced. There are a ridiculous amount of apple cultivars out there in the world. After much trial and error, I have narrowed my quest as a cider maker down to about 25 different varieties of these selected apples that we both grow and chase throughout New England. Apples are pretty cool, the weird ones especially.
After spending the last several months pouring our ciders down the throats of thousands of potential customers at farmer’s markets, festivals, and other engagements, I have come to a few conclusions. First off, the vast majority of people in our orbit have not experienced ciders made with a higher concentration of bittersweet apples. We also find that a fair amount of folks assume that cider is not their favorite libation perhaps linked to a sickly sweet misadventure of their youth.
Secondly, we pour them a sample of Legendary Dry, they sip it down, ponder for a moment and typically respond, “Huh, I actually like this.” Yep, thought you might. Of course taste buds are all over the map, and we also experience those who prefer sweet or other alternatives. There is also a pretty good contingency of cider initiated folks that are already fans of the category but may be new to “wine” style made ciders.
I was recently in a meeting with 2 other cider producers and heard an excellent description from one of them regarding the world of cider.
Wine Style Cider: Cider made out of apples in the same way winemakers make wine out of grapes. The process is pretty hands off with the use of whole fruit and no additonal ingredients.
Kitchen Style Cider: Cider made more like a chef would approach making a dish. The base is made out of cider, and then the cider maker adds additional ingredients – Cranberries, Cherries, Spices, Ginger, Hot Peppers (can’t say I’m a fan of the hot pepper thing), etc. This style highlights the ingredients with the cider serving a supporting role.
The world of cider is all over the place in America currently. That’s not a good or bad thing. But it is evident from our observations, that educating consumers about the differences is crucial. If they can’t navigate the choices, then one good experience and one bad experience will probably add up to a negative overall. There are plenty of folks that are fans of kitchen style ciders, we make a dry hopped cider and I quite like it. It seems to me anyways, interest in kitchen style cider is similar in context to the endless choices in craft beer these days.
Twenty some odd years ago Pete’s Wicked Ale and Sam Boston Lager were revolutionary. The choice for consumers was between clear beer and brown beer. It has taken craft beer over two decades to evolve. Cider is maybe 4 years into it’s renaissance. And it’s also good to remember that with all the wackiness, over 50% of craft beer is sold as India Pale Ales. My point is that people like to experiment in craft beer, but they overall drink more of their preferred I.P.A.s. Cider gets included in a lot of craft beer comparisons which is good for context, but pigeonholes cider as well. This brings us back to wine style cider. If you’re primarily a wine lover, the more wine style ciders will most likely be more appealing to your taste buds.
We have huddled under our 10 x 10 canopies pouring ciders and chatting with the curious, chipper, and cagey. We have seen hearts and minds change, and it is always a delight for us to brighten up someone’s day with a sip of something pleasurable. As a cautionary tale however, we hear an awful lot of feedback from folks that their initial impression of cider overall hinged on a few bad experiences. These bad experiences could have resulted from a response to some crappy cider. Let’s face it, there is some crappy stuff out there. But just as plausible, the negative experience could likely have come from a misunderstanding of what the liquid was they were about the ingest. If this same individual was able to understand and navigate the world of cider better, than the odds would be much better for a positive experience.
In some ways over the last 4 to 5 years we have gotten ahead of ourselves in our little world of cider. With good intentions and a healthy dose of creativity, the market has been bombarded with too many choices lacking a foundation for consumers as well as cider makers to fully grasp. As much as we might pat ourselves on the back as a cider community in America, we really have just started to understand what the heck we’re doing. We don’t have our Boston Lager, or our Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that has paved the way. We don’t have centuries of cider making experience like those in Normandy or Asturias. But, that’s not all bad, I like the fact that we’re building from the ground up and putting our own spin on things like we tend to do in America.
With the soil, seasons, and fruit I alluded to earlier here in New England, we are distinctly “apple” advantaged in our neck of the woods. There are some amazing varieties of apples here that we need to acknowledge, encourage, and grow. For example, there is a lovely little crabapple called “Wickson” that is pretty much like a delicious sour patch kid when eating out of hand. Mouth puckering acidity coupled with a dense sweetness. These apples ferment and age into something that can give a finely crafted white wine a run for it’s money. You take these acid bombs and combine them with the tannic rich bittersweet apples we have been lucky enough to ferment, and damn that’s some good stuff. The point is, there is a whole world of wine style ciders of which Americans have barely scratched the surface.
For our part, we’ll continue to work on this more wine style of the fence. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate and acknowledge kitchen style ciders. If cider is going to continue to grow and truly become its own unique category independent of wine or beer, we believe it is important to support and educate about both sides of the fence. It’s not based on some high and mighty position. It is primarily based on the feedback from the thousands of smiling faces with whom we have shared our cider with over the summer days.