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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cider Saturday: Winter Harvest and Cidre de Glace

The November leaves are falling, but the fruit stays put.
When I was working on the cider book, all the pieces fit together like a puzzle.  The English, French, Spanish, and new American traditions all related to each other and to historical antecedents.  And then there's this weird thing in Quebec called cidre de glace, or ice cider. It is as thick as maple syrup and nearly as sweet, but balanced by intense acidity.  It comes in tall, narrow bottles, and it's best for  sipping after a meal or as a warming tipple by the fire. 

If you're looking to see where it fits in the world, you need to cast your eyes to the vines.  The inspiration for ice cider is eiswein, an old beverage that lived a sort of spectral existence dependent on the whims of mother nature.  The first eiswein was probably made in 1794 in Franconia, when an unseasonably early frost struck.  It must have been a hell of a chill, because it lasted long enough that the vintners decided to press their grapes as they found them, frozen solid.  Well, not exactly solid; the juice inside separated out into water and concentrated juice.  The water was frozen, and the juice a viscous treacle.  Once pressed, the concentrated juice became the source of a heavy, sweet wine that could only be reproduced when the weather cooperated.  That was, until Québécois vintners realized they had the perfect climate for eiswein--and they now make the bulk of the world's output.

The first cider-maker to realize it could be done with apples was Christian Barthomeuf, who noticed that there were certain apple varieties that hung on the tree long after the leaves had quit it.  He made early ice ciders (which he called, confusingly, cidre doux, "sweet cider"--a name used for a very different product in France) on a non-commercial scale and then collaborated with François Pouliot at La Face Cachée de la Pomme to make the first commercial version.  Pouliot wisely rechristened their product "cidre de glace."  Barthomeuf went on to found his own cidery called Clos Saragnat.

François Pouliot. (Pete Brown fans should look
closely at the book near his right elbow.)
There are two ways to make ice cider, and both have fussy names.  "Cryo-extraction" follows the procedure of eiswein.  As apples hang in the frozen air, ice collects near the core and freezes, forcing the thick, sweet juice out toward the skin.  But here's an interesting wrinkle to the process: in the natural environment, the apple is frozen, thaws, is re-frozen, and so on.  At La Face Cachee they explained, "The taste of it when you bite into it is like a cooked apple coming out of the oven because it’s cooked by the cold.  The apple is a little bit brown, and soft, and crinkled."

The cideries wait until the dead of winter--January, usually--to press the fruit.  They press during a long cold snap so that the fruit is thoroughly frozen.  What trickles out is a juice concentrated several times over.  The cideries let it ferment very slowly (amazingly, that dense liquid doesn't overwhelm the wine yeasts they pitch), but stop it when it reaches about ten or 12%, leaving lots of sugar.  

What's fascinating about the cryo-extraction method is the flavor it produces, which is incredibly distinctive.  I found it musky and funky, with deep, sensual--and slightly over-ripe--tones.  As I chatted with François, he knew immediately what I meant and said, "wild mushroom."  He called it "exotic," which is definitely true. 

It takes roughly 80 apples to make one small bottle (375 ml) of ice cider, so you can imagine how little ice cider is made through this method.  One maker I visited, Cidrerie du Minot, blended in cryo-extracted cider with cider made by cryo-concentration.  The musky flavor is strong enough that even at 20% it ably carried through.

Eden Ice Cider.  Farmhouse in the front, cidery
around back.  Those are containers of juice
awaiting the freeze on the right-hand side.
An easier--but not easy--way to make ice cider is by freezing the juice rather than the apple.  This is the method Eden Ice Cider uses just south of the border in Vermont.  With the frozen-fruit method, makers are limited to those varieties that will actually still cling to the tree through the winter.  At Eden, Eleanor and Albert Leger select their fruit based mainly on the way it tastes.  They use lots of heirloom American varieties, leaning heavily on acid fruit.  

There is something similar in the process, though.  The Legers stack plastic totes out on the ground beside the cidery and let Vermont's winter do the rest.  As with cryo-extraction, the changing temperature freezes and thaws the juice until the liquid migrates down to the bottom of the vessel.  She explained it this way.  "You get a much more intense concentrate than if you were to put it in a commercial freezer; the juice is stuck in the matrix of the water."  The natural freezing is so important that when the cideries of Quebec submitted their definition of cidre de glace for legal protection, they stipulated it must be frozen by nature, not a refrigerator.  

It's pretty hard to find this stuff.  You can get a bottle of Eden in Portland, but the Quebec ice ciders are a lot harder to find.  (Possibly it's easier on the East Coast.)  If you happen to stumble across a bottle--made via either process--I recommend you buy it.  The flavor and intensity is unique, and cider fans will definitely appreciate it.


  1. Ice cider is indeed a rare find in the US. In fact, I have never seen a Quebec ice cider for sale here, and even Eden is difficult to track down outside Vermont and New York City. As for the Pacific Northwest, Tieton Frost might be available at better bottle shops. I'm uncertain if it's truly an ice cider (natural cold) or not. Tieton ships their ciders to most US states.

  2. With all this talk of concentration, I think of distilling. Has anybody up there in Quebec thought of making an apple jack out of these ciders? It could be delicious.

  3. @Patrick Michel Jodoin has been distilling since 1999. Follow the link for their spirits lineup.