The Second Coming of Cider

October 24, 2014 7:08 pm Last Updated: October 24, 2014 7:08 pm

For the almost 100 years that followed Prohibition, hard cider in the United States kept a low profile. But in the woods and abandoned orchards, the seeds to its comeback have been there all along.

Hard cider has now come into its own.

The number of hard cider producers has grown by 480 percent since 2011 (from 5 then to 29 now), according to a press release by the governor’s state office.

A year ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Farm Cideries bill into law, making a new license available to cideries using crops grown exclusively in the state. There are now eight licensed cideries in New York state, including Descendant Cider Company, New York City’s first urban cidery, based in Queens.

Comeback Cider

For Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler, owners of Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, Queens, their early interest in cider—and their customers’—gave rise to a long cider list, on tap, by the glass, and in bottles, from various regions of the world.

Their interest became so sustained that they plan to open a fine cider bar, Wassail, on the Lower East Side this coming February, with a list including 80 to 100 bottled ciders, as well as cider-based cocktails.

“There’s definitely a lost history and a real allure to discovering something that is so valid and such a rich part of this country’s history,” said Sandler.

“I think there might even be a little bit of excitement about discovering cider for the first time with the backdrop of what cider is perceived to be, which is this sweet syrupy beverage—which it never was. It’s only become that in the U.S. in the last maybe 15–20 years, presented as a dessert drink, or as a frilly drink, as ‘not beer’ and nowadays it’s even being presented as something gluten-free.”

The sheer variety of ciders is astounding: there are tart ciders, sweet ciders, funky ciders, smoky ciders, and even still ciders.

Lim and Sandler taste ciders all the time, although Lim is currently favoring a French cider from Manoir de Kinkiz in Cornouaille in Brittany.

Last summer they tasted ciders from all around Brittany and Normandy. “The French ciders are incredible. They have a method called ‘keeving,’ which is different from what most American ciders makers are doing, and it’s popular in France and Ireland. You end up with a cider that’s got a lot of residual sweetness with a low ABV [alcohol by volume] but has the complexity of some dryness some funk and acidity. It’s a well-rounded cider that’s got more syrupy more body, more sweetness than the typical American cider.” The Kinkiz, on top of that, has a “cool smokiness.”

Sandler favors Farnum Hill’s ciders, which he finds to be the gold standard for cider makers for their precise blending and excellence at balancing the acidity, the tannins, and sweetness. Farnum Hill in Lebanon, N.H., has been at the forefront of the American cider revival for years. And in addition to their own ciders, added Sandler, their juice is sold to cider makers who are producing great ciders out of it.

For Cider Week, Queens Kickshaw is holding cider dinners on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, as well as hosting an all-you-can-drink sidra party with Rowan Imports on Oct. 31, highlighting ciders from Spain. It’s also hosting the launch of New York’s first urban cidery, Descendant Cider, on Oct. 24.

It’s All About the Apples

If one thing is clear, it’s that the types of apples used in cider are key. Varieties good for eating won’t do. And for some, cultivated apples won’t do either.

Andy Brennan, the acclaimed cider maker behind Aaron Burr Cider, forages for uncultivated apples in upstate New York, including in the woods and abandoned orchards.

These apples are completely unlike the picture-perfect apples you might find at the supermarket.

“Just visibly, they’re different in that they’re imperfect,” said Brennan. “They are generally much smaller. They are knobby and not round. They have little valleys and bulges.”

On a genetic level, when apples are left to their own devices, they exhibit a tremendous diversity.

If you took each of the five seeds from a MacIntosh, Brennan explained, you would not get a MacIntosh from those seeds. “Each of those seeds will create a new variety. That’s how the apple trees are designed to evolve and test new areas for which they could grow.”

Brennan had on hand so many apples last year that he created what he called locational ciders, made from apples from a particular location. A cider from the apples growing atop the Shawangunk Ridge for example, exhibited completely different qualities from another made from apples from the valley only 3 miles away.

“I have no idea what the variety is in maybe 90 percent of the apples that we use,” Brennan said.

Brennan’s vision of cider harkens back to its heyday, in colonial times, when cider was the drink of choice. “Two hundred years ago, everybody had apple trees,” he explained. There would be a cider mill every 10 miles, where people could bring their apples.

Out of 10 trees, about 8 of them would be ungrafted—that is, the result of uncultivated apple trees.

If apple growing was back in the hands of people, rather than farmers, he envisions, there would be a return to a greater apple culture. “In my mind the only way to get that [diversity in apples and apple ciders] is to have cider mills in every town.”

“Cider is only the beginning,” said Brennan, who sees himself as an ambassador for the apple trees. “It’s leading the revival of real fruit diversity. I think eventually it will come around to the eating apples. It’s all about location.”

Paving the Way for Apples

Rowan Jacobsen, author of the recently released “Apples of Uncommon Character” (Bloomsbury, 2014), said the wild popularity of hard cider is a huge factor in the renaissance that apples have started to encounter today.

“You can’t make a great hard cider with common apples,” he said. “It would be like trying to make a great wine with table grapes. All the pinot noirs and cabernets of the apple world were forgotten after Prohibition, and now there’s this scramble to rediscover the great varieties. People are planting cider orchards all over the country. It’s going to be really fun to watch it all happen over the next few years.”

Jacobsen, who has previously authored a James Beard-award winning book about oysters, finds heirloom apples to have their own mystique—albeit quite different from the bivalve. “Each of them is a unique being (and clones of that being) that has been seducing people for centuries. Each of them strikes me as a character with a fully formed personality and a story to tell.”

In his book he quotes Cézanne’s praise for apples: “They come to you with their scents, speak to you of the fields they left, about the rain that nourished them, about the sunrises they observed.”

His first taste of the world of surprising, seductive flavors of apples came by way of the variety Cox’s Orange Pippin, “one of a class of English/Norman apples that have far more complex and citrusy flavors than anything we encounter in an apple,” he said. “It was Cox that made me realize there was a whole upper echelon of apples I’d never known about.”

What does it mean for that common mainstay in supermarkets, Red Delicious?

“Red Delicious is dead in the water,” Jacobsen said. “No one plants it anymore. The big producers are getting much more innovative now, thanks to apples like Honeycrisp, which have demonstrated that the public will go bananas for a great new apple. So we’re seeing better apples come out of the breeding programs and big growers, more than ever before.”

That said, for the weird-looking but spectacular heirlooms, look to farmers markets, orchards where you can pick your own apples, and occasional co-ops.

Jacobsen will be in New York City to sign his book and speak about uncommon apples for Cider Week (Union Square on Oct. 25; Back Forty for a cider tasting on Oct. 27; The Pines on Oct. 26; and The Farm in Brooklyn on Oct. 28 for cider dinners).

For more information about the bushel of events happening during Cider Week (Oct. 24–Nov. 2), visit CiderweekNYC.com

See Rowan Jacobsen’s recipe for Chorizo in Cider, Asturian Style.