"I’m not defining what an American taste is, but an American taste is not English, it is not French. If you’re trying to create a style or a culture, don’t use other existing styles as your reference point. Look at what you have on hand here, and what people here are already used to and accustomed to. No one is accustomed to drinking French and English cider—no one has any idea what English cider is. We can grow bittersweet apples here, we make ciders with bittersweet apples, but do we need to? Who says that’s better, that that’s desirable even? Why go through all the effort? You’ve got great apples here—it’s still called cider."
____--Nat West, Reverend Nat's Hard Cider
I don't usually begin my posts off with quotes--nor do I usually post Cider Saturdays on Sunday. But Nat West, when he's in full preacher mode, can make a person think. About a month ago, I took a spin through his relatively new digs over on a quiet leafy street near Loyd Center (1813 NE 2nd Ave if you want to stop in for a pour). What I mainly left thinking about--and have been steadily thinking about it as I visited local cideries and ones in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec--is this question of American cider.
Unless you're a close watcher of the burgeoning cider market, you're probably unaware of the nearly existential war taking place to define what cider should be. The protagonists in this battle run the gamut from the large industrial cideries who want you to think of cider as a sweet, appely frolic to artisanal producers who think cider should be as dry, complex, and sophisticated as a fine Bordeaux. Tentative new drinkers are caught in the middle, susceptible to the notion that there really is an answer to what cider "should" taste like.
Nat West is the perfect guy to reframe the discussion. There is no cidermaker less dogmatic, less driven by standards and tradition (which makes the use of the name "Reverend" oddly inappropriate). At the same time, Nat is a student of cidermaking--he loaned me an ancient American cider-making book--and produces wholly traditional products like still Kingston Black English-style cider and a lightly-carbonated version made from cider apples harvested around this time of year. When I visited, these were the various products he mentioned as we walked around the cidery (in addition to his more standard offerings):
- A Winter Cider spontaneously fermented with raisins and also made with muscovado sugar and spices. Made in January and never racked, it sits on its lees and goes through a slow, malolactic fermentation.
- A cider fermented entirely with lactobacillus.
- Revelation Newtown Pippin, which starts with a wild fermentation and then is finished with wine yeast.
- His Revival Dry, the one made entirely with cider apples from the Skurdahl Orchard in Sherwood.
- A thing called Tepache, which is made by fermenting pulped pineapples and then pressing them (pineapple upside-down cider).
- His new Cascadia brand of "American" cider using standard Yakima apples.
Nat got his start as a home cider-maker, scanning the neighborhood for trees he might access as his annual output grew and grew. At one point he was making 500 gallons of the stuff a year--the equivalent of 32 beer kegs. He still wasn't thinking of doing anything other than supplying friends and family at a weekly potluck until he happened across some cider apples from the Skurdahls. (There are so few orchards with cider apples in Oregon that they're all known to eagle-eyed cidermakers.) With those apples, Nat started to glean the possibility of cider and a new profession.
I found all of this surprising. I've now visited a couple of orchardists, and they are intent on having the apple express itself. Nat likes yeast character to compliment the apple--a zymurgical orientation. “We try to hit a taste; we pick a yeast for a taste and then we baby that yeast to get the most flavors out of it. We’re aiming for esters, and we get more esters out of the hot stuff.” One of the orchardists I spoke to said he actively avoids esters.
It's probably not so surprising that I tend to favor the traditional, English- and French-style stuff--much as I guess most advance-case beer geeks would. Cider apples impart a range of tannins and acids that impart complexity we love in great ales and lagers. On my visit, the one that rocked my world was Lorrie's Gold, a memorial cider for Lorrie Skurdahl; it was nuanced, complex, and satisfying. Before I walked into Reverend Nat's cidery, I would have said it's the one that tasted the way cider should taste. Now I'm not so sure. I know that the abominations made with a splash of juice and fortified with fermented sugar water (Nat called them "glucose wine with some apple juice added") are not what cider should taste like. But ciders fermented with saison yeasts, flavored with apricot juice, and hopped? I don't know: maybe that is how ciders should taste. American ciders, anyway.