Cider for summer, and its low-cal come-on


Cider, with its crisp flavor, can be a refreshing warm-weather quaff. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 7, 2011

Yep, it’s totally official. We’ve reached the tipping point on so-called “skinny” margaritas: Hungry Girl’s 115-calorie margarita. Skinnygirl’s 100-calorie pre-mixed version. Applebee’s sassy 100-calorie SkinnyBee Margarita.

Last week, I received a news release from Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain announcing its ready-made Skinny Margarita, doing Skinnygirl and SkinnyBee a whole five calories better, at 95 per serving.

Numerous times in the past, I’ve poked fun at, and holes in, the whole skinny cocktail movement; check the Food section’s All We Can Eat blog archives for my rants.

With a sigh, I’m telling you that the Diet Police’s incursion into cocktails has sapped a bit of the fun from margaritas. It’s a shame, because that cocktail is one of my go-to hot-weather drinks. So as summer approaches, I’ve been searching for something, you know, less skinny-fied. This search has led me in an odd, counterintuitive direction, but I think I’ve found my early summer drink: cider.

Wait, you say. . . cider? Yes, I know. Made from fermented apples, cider seems a rather non-summer-seeming drink. But stick with me here. I mean, there’s no particular reason cider should only be drunk in autumn. Pinot grigio grapes, like apples, are also harvested in the fall, but you drink that stuff chilled all summer long.


Comte Louis de Lauriston Cidre Bouche Brut has a crisp flavor. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

As it happens, few weeks ago, I was in Asturias, a region in northern Spain, in a cool coastal city called Gijon. In Asturias, sidra (cider) is religion, as important as wine is in other regions of Spain. Because I absolutely love the stuff, it was like nirvana, and I sampled plenty of the local varieties.

In Gijon, you order sidra by the liter in bars called sidrerias, or cider houses. Then, with amazing skill, bartenders or waiters will pour out the cider in a long stream, holding the bottle high over their heads and splashing a little bit down into a glass held at waist level. You are served a couple fingers of the agitated, cloudy cider, which you are then expected to drink in one gulp. Salud!

“You will never see a region anywhere else where people drink so much cider,” said Jose Luis Roza, commercial director at Trabanco, the cider producer I visited near Gijon during my visit. “The Spanish economy is terrible, but the cider houses in Asturias are full.”

In America, we refer to real cider as “hard cider,” a term I hate. Cider is cider. The stuff with no alcohol is the exception and maybe should be called “soft cider.”

Asturian cider is extremely dry, with pleasant funk on the nose and serious acidity on the finish. It is unlike a good deal of ciders we see in the United States, such as Woodchuck or Strongbow.

“In Asturias, if you get a sweet cider, you send it back,” Roza said.

So while you can find brands such as Trabanco in the United States if you look hard enough, why don’t we see more Asturian cider in the United States? One reason is that more than 90 percent is consumed in Asturias. In fact, until a decade ago, most brands didn’t even put a label on the bottle. Trabanco was the first.

Secondly, because Asturian (and its cousin, Basque cider) are not carbonated, you need someone with the skills to do the long-range cider pour, which creates natural carbonation. “The problem for Trabanco, of course, is that in the U.S., in a typical city, you will not find a waiter who can pour like this,” Roza said.

Well, since I’ve returned, I’ve found Trabanco (both its basic black label and its high-end Poma Aurea) and a Basque cider called Sarasola (the Trabanco is available at Cork Market; both are served at Estadio). With a little practice over my kitchen sink — honestly, most people with decent aim can do this — I’ve figured out the pour.

“I really cannot say why cider gets such short shrift here in the USA,” said Joe Riley, fine-spirits manager at Ace Beverage in the District. “Perhaps it’s just lost in the cacophony of advertising for beer and other beverages?”

This may be true. It has recently been fashionable to suggest cider as an alternative to wine at Thanksgiving. But mostly, cider has been marketed as an alternative to beer, positioning itself next to microbrewed beer. The reality, however, is that real beer drinkers will never favor cider, and so it has ended up in this weird Never Never Land alongside malternatives such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Four Loko and the gone-but-not-forgotten Zima.

The best way to rescue cider from this fate might be to advocate its consumption, ice-cold, during the summer months. The other night, when it was gross-sweaty-hot, my wife and I gathered a few of our favorite ciders for a tasting, along with my new Spanish finds.

Farnum Hill’s Semi-Dry and Farmhouse ciders from New Hampshire and Aspall Dry cider from England were absolutely perfect on a sunny patio as we snacked on cheese and vegetables. So were two ciders from the Calvados producing region of Normandy, France: Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouche Brut (available at Potomac Spirits and Rodman’s in the District) and Comte Louis de Lauriston Cidre Bouche Brut by Christian Drouin (available at MacArthur Beverage).

All the 750-ml bottles of cider we tried retail for about $10, but that wasn’t the number that impressed us the most. Turning the Comte Louis de Lauriston around to look at the nutritional information on the back, my wife shouted, “Omigod! This stuff only has 100 calories a serving!”

Ding ding ding. Think of the diet-marketing possibilities. Just in time for summer: Skinny Cider. Oh, and just in case you get any ideas, Applebee’s and Chi-Chi’s: I’m already planning to trademark it.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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