Cider just evokes fall feelings, doesn’t it? Falling leaves, cozy sweaters, crisp mornings, and hot apple juice with spices. And for those of you over the age of 21, hard cider in a variety of flavors and intensities.
Cider has been a popular beverage in Europe for centuries, and while it has been made and drunk here in the United States since colonial times, but is just now starting to gain in popularity. Boutique cider makers are popping up all over the country, creating a huge variety of different ciders.
Cider and hard cider can be made from the juice of any old apple, but there is a particular class of apple that makes particularly good cider. Aptly, they are called cider apples. Cider apples are often bitter and dry to the taste, but are great for juicing. Hundreds of varieties of cider apples exist, and their juices are fermented (for hard cider) and blended to create a wide array of ciders.
Once harvested, apples are ground down into a pulp, called pommage. In past history, they were ground using huge millstones and horse or water power. Nowadays, most cider mills have electric grinders. The pulp is then transferred to a cider press and layered with sweet straw or hair cloths, then slatted wood racks, followed by another layer of pulp, until the stack is 10-12 layers high.
Racks of apple pulp being pressed at Cardigan Mountain Orchard cidery in New Hampshire. Photo source
These stacks are then pressed and pressed until all the juice has been extracted. The juice is then strained through a sieve and transferred to either open vats or closed casks. The leftover pulp finds use as animal feed. Hard cider is fermented at low temperatures for three months to up to three years.
Both naturally-occurring and added yeasts convert sugars in the cider to carbon dioxide, which bubbles out and escapes, and alcohol, hence “hard” cider. Before the yeasts have consumed all the sugar in the first fermentation, cider is usually siphoned off to a new fermentation cask or barrel. In this second fermentation, extra sugar is often added, and the barrels are filled completely so that there is no air. The carbon dioxide stays in the cider, creating carbonation.
Cider can also be pasturized, spiced, blended, and bottled “soft.” Soft cider is a fall favorite of all ages, especially when it’s served nice and warm on a crisp fall day!
Often ciders from different vats and apple varieties are blended. Ciders can be dry, fruity, spicy, smooth, and a range of flavors in between. They are also found blended with other fruit juices, like cranberry or grape. In Europe, many countries and regions have their own cider varieties. For example, in France, most ciders are sparkling and often served in traditional wide ceramic bowls or mugs. In the Asturias region of Spain, cider has ancient cultural roots – it was first mentioned in 60BC by the Greek geographer Strabo. The region produces 80% of Spain’s cider, and is traditionally served in cider pubs. Asturians also have a special technique for pouring cider – holding the bottle aloft in one hand to pour into a cup held by the other hand far below.
Cider has a long history in the United States. It was often drunk on a daily basis in colonial times, as the water was unsafe to drink. Apple saplings were carefully brought over from England and soon spread throughout the colonies, and there are records of at least one English apple cultivar used for cider and cooking, Catshead, being grown on Berkeley Hundred Plantation in Virginia around this time; later introductions from England would have included Foxwhelp, Redstreak, and the extinct Costard apple. Wealthier farmers imported French apple varieties. Imports of beehives closely followed apple tree imports, as honeybees are imperative in the pollination of apples, but were not native to the New World.
Today, some cideries, mainly in the Eastern United States, have access to heirloom varieties of apples – the same ones colonists used! Everyone is getting in on the cider business, from local cideries to big beer brewers like Boston Beer Company, the makers of Sam Adams beer and now Angry Orchard cider. Cider houses and tasting rooms are also popping up all over the country.
The United States Association of Cider Makers has a list of cideries by state. Find one near you and enjoy a frosty glass of cider this fall!