Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre tells you which wines pair with your holiday meals and the drink that’s always a no-brainer. (Jason Aldag and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
Columnist, Food

For an alternative beverage for your Thanksgiving dinner this year, consider cider, one of the fastest-growing segments in the alcohol beverage market. It has several characteristics that we look for in Thanksgiving wines. Its bubbles help cleanse our palates between bites, and cider complements a wide variety of dishes. Cider tends to have about half the alcohol of wine. Considering how sleepy we get after all that food, low alcohol is a decided advantage.

Cider combines history with modern cachet. It was a favorite drink in colonial times, Thomas Jefferson’s daily tipple when he wasn’t drinking wine. Johnny Appleseed spread traditional cider varieties after independence, so Americans could grow enough apples and produce enough cider to last until the next harvest.

Today, the craft cider movement taps into our culinary zeitgeist of eating local foods made from heirloom varieties and drinking local wines and beers. The cider movement is helping restore orchards of heritage apple types that disappeared when we started eating, rather than drinking our apples.

Virginia’s Foggy Ridge Cider was one of the first to produce old-fashioned artisan cider from heirloom apple varieties when it opened in 2005. Today, Virginia has 10 cideries, including the popular Potter’s Craft and Albemarle Ciderworks. Castle Hill Cider, northeast of Charlottesville, draws on ancient winemaking techniques to age some of its ciders in kvevri, or clay amphorae buried in the ground.

Cider is also hip: Blue Bee in Richmond is Virginia’s only urban cidery and probably one of very few in the country. Virginia wineries are joining the fun, with Cobbler Mountain Cellars in Delaplane and Corcoran Vineyards in Waterford recently offering ciders. Virginia cider also can apparently slow the passage of time: Virginia Cider Week runs 10 days, through Nov. 23, with restaurants and retailers across the state featuring local ciders.

Blue Bee makes Hopsap Shandy, a delightful cider flavored with hops. Think India Pale Ale without the weight or excessive bitterness. Millstone Cellars in Maryland also infuses some ciders with hops, as well as fruits and spices. Great Shoals Winery in Maryland produces Spencerville Red from an apple variety discovered a quarter-century ago in eastern Montgomery County and grown by Heyser Farms in Colesville. You can’t get more local and creative than those.

Many of these local ciders have good regional distribution. The national market growth, however, is being driven by large brands produced by beer companies. Today’s highest-selling brand in the United States is Angry Orchard, owned by Boston Beer. MillerCoors acquired the popular Crispin brand in 2012 and introduced Smith & Forge cider this year. Last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev introduced Stella Artois Cidre to the U.S. market, and this year launched its own domestic brand, Johnny Appleseed. Woodchuck Cider is owned by Irish beer giant C&C. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the beer companies were determined not to let the hard cider bandwagon pass them by the way craft brewing did.

The dominance of big brands can skew the public’s view of cider. “There’s a misconception about ciders,” says Sherman Outhuok, owner of Thally restaurant in the District’s Shaw neighborhood. Outhuok features 30 ciders, meads and “cysers” — a mead and cider hybrid — on his list. “Most of the popular brands are sappy and sweet. I tell people these are bone dry, funky, even sour, and when they try some, they’re surprised,” he says.

“Cider is catching on, and it’s great that the big companies are jumping in,” says Ed Addiss, who with his wife, Barbara Selig, imports French wines from small family producers under their Wine Traditions label. “The flip side is 99 percent of the people are going to try crappy cider.”

Addiss and Selig recently expanded their portfolio to include five ciders from Normandy and Brittany, two regions in northwestern France where apples have long dominated wine grapes. Although French cider has fallen prey to industrialization, with standardization of varieties and mechanization of production, they sought out family-owned producers who still make cider in the traditional way, with the secondary fermentation occurring naturally in the bottle, like champagne.

Compared with American craft ciders, the French versions are earthier, more complex. Like their American cousins, they are refreshing, light and versatile with food, just the type of drink we need at Thanksgiving.

On Sunday: How to pick a wine that goes with everything on the holiday table.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.