As an Alternative to Wine, Think Cider

(By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Sunday, November 23, 2008

"The Old Testament warned against the temptations of the grape," Michael Pollan writes in his 2002 bestseller, "The Botany of Desire." "But the Bible didn't have a bad word to say about the apple or even the strong drink that could be made from it. Even the most God-fearing Puritan could persuade himself that cider had been given a theological free pass."

The famed Johnny Appleseed, after all, wasn't planting all those orchards for apples to be eaten or given to a schoolteacher or baked in a pie. In the early years of America, most apples ended up in the cider barrel. Cider was the beverage of choice in those days, mainly because apples were cheaper and easier to come by than the grains and grapes with which Europeans made their liquor. By the 17th century, cider often was being substituted for water, which was considered to be unsafe.

Cider ruled until the end of the 19th century, when temperance-movement zealots began chopping down entire apple orchards, "unable to conceive of any other use for the fruit except spirits," according to "Laird's Applejack Cookbook." That resulted in one of the saddest and least-acknowledged culinary legacies of the temperance movement and Prohibition: the loss of acres and acres of American cider apple varieties.

Cider apples -- such as Kingston Black, Broxwood Foxwhelp and Bramtot -- are very different from the apples you'd eat out of a fruit bowl, and in fine ciders they are used in blending, in much the same way grapes are blended in winemaking. In parts of France, many obscure cider varieties still flourish, but they only recently started returning to the United States, brought back by such cidermakers as Farnum Hill in New Hampshire.

For almost a century, ciders all but disappeared from the American bar. They resurfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when so-called "hard" ciders such as Woodchuck and Cider Jack surfed the microbrew wave and became tap-handle standards in many bars, right alongside the IPAs, the Hefeweizens and the oatmeal stouts.

For almost two decades, "hard" cider has been marketed to Americans as an alternative to beer, with unfortunate results. (And marketing the beverage as "hard" cider is just wrong. Cider is just cider: No need for the "hard" modifier. If you want to call the nonalcoholic stuff "soft," that's up to you.) The approach unfortunately has relegated cider to a weird sort of alternate universe, a netherworld populated by beverages such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Twisted Tea and Smirnoff Ice: You know, drinks that marketing folks try to push on "the kids" or perhaps "ladies who don't like beer." And unfortunately, that's the realm where cider has stayed. I don't know many real beer lovers who will give up their suds for the apple stuff.

It's a shame, and I'd like to change that mind-set. Maybe I can play a modern-day Johnny Appleseed and recover real cider from the fringes.

Here's my modest proposal: Instead of thinking of cider as "hard" or as a substitute for beer, think of it instead as a subtle, complex libation that can stand in place of wine. In many cases it pairs better with food than beer does, especially complementing the types of foods served during fall and winter holidays. Good cider stands up to big-flavored meats, game, pungent cheeses and even that ubiquitous mushroom-soup-green-bean casserole with the fried onions on top.

I've spent time this fall tasting the 20 or so ciders available in the United States, and I've been floored by the range: the clean, refreshing notes of the British cider Aspall; the dry, champagne-like elegance of French products such as Eric Bordelet Sydre Argelette; the crisp, sappy Farnum Hill's Extra Dry, which hits some of the same notes as, say, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

As a rule, I found that ciders with a slightly higher alcohol content (6 to 7 percent) have a fuller flavor and complexity. I also found that I preferred those that used traditional cider apples in the blend.

That was true for the products from Farnum Hill, one of my two favorite cider houses, particularly its Farmhouse and Semi-Dry Still, both dry and sharp with aromas redolent of the whole apple, including the peel. Farnum Hill's ciders, however, aren't cheap ($13 and higher for 750 ml), and its Extra Dry presented an interesting conundrum: It may be an amazing expression of cider's potential, but at what point does it become too winelike and something else altogether?

A cider such as Cidre Bouche from Etienne Dupont, my other favorite, has tiny, sparkling bubbles, a yeasty and ripe fruit aroma, an intense yet round apple flavor and a lightness that makes it very drinkable. With a price tag at about $10 for a 750 ml bottle, it easily could replace a mediocre white wine for enjoyable everyday drinking.

There's nothing hard about that.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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