"Last year, they had a great crop of Kingston Black," home-brewer Rick Garvin says as he plucks purplish-red fruit from one of 3,000 semi-dwarf apple trees at the Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson. "It makes a nice, balanced single-variety cider."
Garvin, a McLean resident, meant hard cider -- the alcoholic kind. In America, we have to use an adjective to distinguish it from sweet cider, which is fresh, unfiltered apple juice. But in England, where every 12th pint slung over the bar contains cider, the term always denotes strong drink.
Some of the best apples for making hard cider are not the kind you find in a supermarket. Rob Miller, who owns the orchard, says Kingston Black is a bittersharp, a variety rich in acid and tannin. You wouldn't want to bake such apples into a pie; a bite of the fruit leaves a dry, woody sensation in the back of the throat. But the juice "makes a thick cider on the side of a sweet syrup; it ferments well," he says.
The juice is what brought two dozen members of the Washington area home-brew club, Brewers United for Real Potables, to Miller's farm on an early September outing. They planned to use his cider press to smash their newly picked apples into pomace and squeeze out every last dribble of juice, which they would tote home in glass jugs and plastic buckets. Dosed with packets of yeast and allowed to ferment for a few weeks, the juice transforms into a lightly effervescent, pleasantly tart alcoholic beverage that our colonial forbears likened to champagne.
Hard cider is a potent reminder of America's bucolic past. "Johnny Appleseed was actually planting apples for cider," says Dave Fredlund, district manager for Green Mountain Beverage in Middlebury, Vt. John Adams, our second president, regularly downed a tankard for breakfast to settle his stomach, Fredlund says. (That must have been quite an eye-opener; in early America, cider often was blended with spirits to keep it from turning into vinegar.)
During the 18th century, American adults imbibed an average of 34 gallons of hard cider a year, according to W.J. Rorabaugh's book "The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition." Cider consumption plummeted rapidly in the 19th century, giving way first to bourbon whiskey, then to lager beer and soft drinks. It didn't help that cider's popularity was strongest in the countryside, where Prohibitionist sentiments held sway.
After a century and a half as an anachronism, hard cider is staging a comeback. Since that BURP member outing, Miller has had 25 to 30 other home-brewers drop in to buy the juice. (It's available at his farm, 10 miles west of Frederick, and in pasteurized form in half-gallon bottles at the South Mountain Creamery in nearby Middletown.) Sales of commercial cider are up 14.4 percent so far this year, making it the fastest-growing segment in the alcoholic beverage industry, says industry analyst Bump Williams. Miller sells only fresh fruit and juice, but he intends to apply for a winery license that will allow him to market his own hard cider.
Fredlund estimates that Americans consume 4 million cases of hard cider a year. That translates into about 290,000 barrels, the output of a large craft brewery. But that's still a major step upward from the paltry 145,000 cases sold in 1990.
In 1991, the Joseph Cerniglia Winery (as Green Mountain was originally called) phased out its high-alcohol apple wine sold in Mason jars in favor of a lighter, more accessible beverage. Cerniglia decided to package his new Woodchuck brands in six-packs and kegs, and reduce the alcohol content to a more beerlike 5 percent by volume.
Woodchuck set the pattern for its imitators. E.&J. Gallo introduced its Hornsby's brands in 1995, and several breweries followed suit, including Boston Beer Co. with its HardCore line and, more recently, Harpoon Brewing Co. with its Harpoon Cider.
Today, Green Mountain is the Anheuser-Busch of the U.S. cider industry, accounting for 52 percent of domestic sales, by Fredlund's reckoning. Its Woodchuck ciders tend to be aromatic, rounded and fruity, dominated by the sweet, fragrant McIntosh apple. The 802 Dark and Dry (named after Vermont's area code) has caramelized sugar added for extra body and color. Woodchuck Granny Smith is made entirely from the tart green apples of the same name. Green Mountain also markets pear and raspberry ciders, in which other fruit flavorings are added to an apple base, as well as a spiced cider in the fall and an oak-aged cider in winter.
European imports offer a drier, more complex alternative. Samuel Smith's Organic Cider from England is a pale straw gold, crisp and thirst-quenching, almost like a champagne. The Normandy region of France is noted for its fruity, bubbly, low-alcohol ciders. Organic Etienne Dupont has an apple blossom aroma, a tart and fruity flavor and a spritzy carbonation. By contrast, most U.S. ciders are lightly carbonated. Jaime Schier, Harpoon's quality control manager, explains that if the CO2 exceeds 1.2 volumes per liter -- less than half that of beer -- Uncle Sam levies a "crippling" sparkling wine tax.
Cider occupies a no-man's land in terms of federal regulation. Technically, it's a wine. But due to a loophole in the alcohol code, labeling authority for lower-alcohol varieties defaults to the Food and Drug Administration instead of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. That's why bottles of cider, unlike beer or liquor, contain a nutritional information panel that lists the content of fat, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars and proteins.
Woodchuck is typical in that its label notes the presence of sulfites, preservatives that can spark an allergic reaction in some drinkers. But Fredlund says some of the antioxidants that abound in fresh apples remain in the fermented drink. He also notes that ciders contain no gluten, a gummy protein found in grains such as wheat and barley that can be dangerous to sufferers of celiac disease and wheat allergies.
Four weeks after BURP's apple-picking excursion, the home-brewers' ciders are bubbling away. Cider is easier to make than beer; you don't need to steep the raw material in hot water to break down starches into sugar, nor do you have to add hops. Garvin, however, has dissolved 12 pounds of clover and thistle honeys into five gallons of cider to create a hybrid beverage called a cyser. Rather than add ale or wine yeast, fellow home-brewer Bud Hensgen of Arlington has allowed airborne microorganisms to ferment his cider; a sample drawn from a plastic jug with an airlock is tart, faintly apple, with a hint of clove.
In 1997, Congress passed a tax relief bill that reduced the excise tax on cider (the non-sparkling kind) to 22 cents a gallon, on a par with microbrewed beer. That windfall, plus renewed interest, has spurred the opening of farmhouse producers such Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur in southwestern Virginia. Owner Diane Flynt grows more than 30 kinds of apples ("they're not dessert apples; they're ugly and hard to grow") rich in the tannins, acids and sugars needed to make good cider. Her products include Pippin Gold, a blend of cider and 80-proof apple brandy from the Laird & Co. distillery in Scobeyville, N.J. She recommends soaking peaches in the cider and serving them with pound cake.
At the Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Va., about 10 miles south of Charlottesville, owner Chuck Shelton cultivates 80 varieties of heirloom apples, including several strains that date to Thomas Jefferson's day. One of Shelton's three ciders, Jupiter's Legacy, is named after Jupiter Evans, a slave who was entrusted with bottling the cider produced at Monticello.
Shelton hand-bottles his ciders in 750-milliliter corked champagne bottles, borrowing his bottling apparatus from Flynt. They're available only at the cidery's tasting room, although he hopes to self-distribute eventually. Shelton describes his ciders as resembling "a very dry white wine," with minimal or no sugar added to adjust the taste.
Albemarle CiderWorks opened in July; Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) paid a visit to the tasting room on July 13. "He stayed for an hour and a half," says Shelton. "I had sent him a trial pack of my ciders. I thought he'd put it in a trophy case, but he must have tried them, because he mentioned that he liked one in particular, the Royal Pippin."
Cider claims another convert.
Beer columnist Greg Kitsock can be reached at email@example.com.