Portland Cider Summit is just two weeks away, and it has, as usual, an impressive line-up. We're still in early days with cider-drinking, but last year was a watershed in the transition from obscure niche beverage to the mainstream. At least around Portland, rare is the pub or restaurant that doesn't have at least one tap devoted to fermented apple juice. Still, I find that while many people enjoy a nice pint of cider, it still remains mysterious to them. For this week's Cider Saturday, I'll outline some of the basics and next week look at some of the more interesting ciders to try at the Summit.
Consider National Tradition
There are three very important cider-producing regions, and they make very different kinds of cider: England, France, and Spain. French cider is rich and silky, highly effervescent, and complex. Traditional makers use an old process called "keeving" that strips the fermenting juice of nutrients so that the yeast goes dormant. It means they can produce very sweet ciders without risk of bottles exploding. French makers use bittersweet apples to give their ciders a burly tannic structure to balance the sweetness. With wild fermentation, there are often blue-cheese aromas and flavors along with a forest-floor earthiness. At the fest, you can try one of the classics by Dupont or our home-grown version by EZ Orchards (the one called Cidre).
Spanish cider making is all about the pucker. Makers use tart apples and produce ciders that are still, funky, and often very sharp with acid. The flavors are a perfect complement to rich meaty dishes or salty seafood dishes--both characteristic of the cuisines of España Verde--green Spain--that band on the northern coast where ciders are made. One of the Basque makers, Sarasola, will be at the fest, and it's a great introduction to one of the funkiest of all the Basque ciders.
Finally there's the English tradition, and it will be most familiar to Americans because it's more or less the tradition we have imported. English ciders are, like French ciders, made with lots of bittersweet apples and not much acid fruit. They may be sparkling or still, sweet or dry, but traditional English ciders are marked by a stiff tannic backbone and lots of classic orchard flavors--blossoms, forest floor, baked apple, earth, and myriad fruity flavors. In the US, cider makers are quickly planting cider trees to bring these flavors back into American ciders. Unfortunately, there aren't any English ciders at the fest, but try Bull Run Powerhouse and Cider Riot 1763 and you'll understand the tradition.
Sweet or Dry?
One of the more misleading elements of the cider world is the designation of sweetness. Left on its own, cider will ferment to dry, leaving only traces of sugar left over. Makers have ways of sweetening ciders by stopping fermentation, adding sugar back in, or keeving, but there's a problem. Each national tradition defines "sweet" differently. In England, a sweet cider is not quite as sweet as a dry French brut--that is to say all English ciders, dry, semi-sweet, and sweet, are sweeter than the average dry French cider.
Sample around and decide whether you like ciders with a bit of sweetness or not. Unfortunately, once you learn where your preferences lie, it's a bit hit-and-miss to find ciders that meet them. One cider maker might think of a 1.008 cider as semi-sweet, while another would call it sweet.
More and more, people ask, "what kind of cider is it?" They mean, is it hopped or cherry or pear? There's nothing wrong with flavoring a cider. In the Pacific Northwest, we have miles of eating apples, so the apple juice comes from Fuji, Granny Smith and the like. These apples are to cider what concord grapes are to wine. It's not that concord grapes would make undrinkable wine, just that it wouldn't have the structure, acidity, and complexity of a good pinot. The same is true with Fuji apple juice. So to fill out the flavor palate, cideries have been adding juices and spices to create tastier ciders. Some of them are really spectacular--Two Towns Rhubarbarian (not at this year's fest), is a great example.
Just as with beer, though, it's worth considering a question: have the flavors been added to make the cider taste more or less like cider. You can make a beer with vanilla and coffee that tastes like a latte, but then you're in the business of making not-beer. The more intensely-flavored ciders, with chiles or heavy fruit additions, sometimes seem like they're trying to conceal their cider-ness.
Consider trying a true perry. In the Northwest, we have many pear-flavored apple ciders, and these are often very nice. But cider has a sister made exclusively with pears, and this beverage is known as perry or poire (in France). Pears have a natural sugar called sorbitol that doesn't ferment, so perries are a little sweeter and silkier than ciders. They are a related but entirely separate beverage, and you may find you like them even more than apple ciders. There's a spectacular French poire by Drouin, and Portland Perfect Perry is another to sample.