Cidermakers Tap into Tradition

Photo by Autumn Stoscheck.

At CiderCon in Baltimore earlier this month, cidermakers from around the world converged to showcase everything from barrel-aged ciders to ice ciders, dry-hopped ciders and wild fermented ones. Flavors ran the gamut, from maple and cinnamon to habanero and mint, and there were ciders with all the elegance and complexity of fine Champagnes.

This flavor and style spectrum shows a cider industry that’s still evolving as major companies like Heineken and Stella and tiny orchardists in Michigan and Virginia share shelf space. And while big brands like Strongbow, Crispin, Stella and others still dominate, Nielsen data shows that smaller regional and independent cidermakers are increasingly driving category growth and accounting for a quarter of the market in 2017, up from 8.8% in 2014.

In the face of this growth, the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM) released new style guidelines last fall to help unify the language surrounding cider production. The guide splits cider production into two standard categories: modern and heritage. Modern ciders are the most commonly found styles on shelves today. They’re low in tannins and high in acidity and are made from the same culinary apples commonly found in grocery stores (Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Gala and Fuji). Heritage ciders, on the other hand, tend to have more assertive tannins and are made from heirloom apples, crab apples and bittersweet/bittersharp varieties—apples that are great making cider but not for eating. Heritage ciders are often orchard-based, distinctly regional ciders made using traditional techniques. Here are a few ways today’s cidermakers are working to bottle the purest expression of the apple.

Using Cider-Specific Apples

Good cider begins with the apples, so cidermakers who own their orchards (and others who work closely with local orchardists) like Castle Hill, Foggy Ridge and Farnum Hill focus on making cider with historic varieties that create more complex flavors than culinary apples. “Although there are lots of ciders made from diverted waste apples from dessert and processing operations, that’s not the kind of cider we make,” says Autumn Stoscheck, founder of Eve’s Cidery in New York’s Finger Lakes region. “We’re an orchard that’s growing apples specifically for cider.”

The distinction between culinary apples and cider-specific apples is important because each kind of fruit demands a different kind of attention. For apples we eat, qualities like crispness and color are important, but for cider apples, qualities like good water retention, brix levels and acidity are key. Heirloom apples like Roxbury Russet, Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy; bittersweet apples like Dabinett, Ellis Bitter and Yarlington Mill; bittersharp apples like Kingston Black and Hereforshire and Redstreak—these are all apples that create a more complex character in cider. “Our vision is to make great cider that tells a story about the land, so a lot of our growing practices revolve around developing character rather than achieving high yields and consistency,” Stoscheck says. (To continue your education in ciders made with these kinds of apples, check out a few of our favorites here.)

Single-Varietals + Single Orchard Releases

While a scientific link between terroir and cidermaking has yet to be formally determined, farmers agree that certain apple varieties grow better in certain parts of the country, and growing conditions can change the way an apple tastes once it ripens. To tap into that sense of place, cidermakers like Dragon’s Head, Tilted Shed and Albemarle are straying from the typical routine of blending different varieties and releasing single-varietal ciders to showcase the virtues of one type of apple and where it was grown. “Terroir absolutely comes into play with cider,” says Big Hill Cider co-founder Troy Lehman.

At the Pennsylvania cidery, Lehman and partner Ben Kishbaugh have experimented with single-varietal releases of Golden Russet (pictured above) and Kingston Black. “80 percent of the cider fruit grown in Pennsylvania is grown along the spine of the Appalachia, from Adams County, where we are from. We’re on the east side of the mountain and our elevation is about 1200 feet, so there’s a little more stress on the trees with the fluctuation between day and nighttime temperatures. We’re also working in very rocky mountain soil, so there’s a minerality there. The minerality you picked up in the Golden Russet [cider] is because of the place. I couldn’t make the ciders I do in any other place.”

Anxo co-owner Sam Fitz also believes apples have a connection to where they’re grown, but because the Washington, D.C.-based cider bar and taproom sources fruit from nearby orchards instead of owning their own land, Fitz also appreciates the differences that can be found from orchard to orchard. “We work with three orchards for our flagship cider Cidre Blanc. They’re all 60 miles apart from one another and the apples from each one don’t taste anything alike,” he says. “Our first product will be a blend, but then eventually we’ll do single orchard releases.”

Angry Orchard cidermaker Ryan Burk pick and evaluates cider apples. | Photo courtesy of Angry Orchard.

Wild Fermentation

Even though apples are the primary consideration in cidermaking, flavor is also driven by the people who make the liquid and the decisions they make during the process. For cidermakers like EZ Orchards, Sundstrom and Oliver’s Cider, wild fermentation, or fermentation with natural and wild yeasts instead of commercial ones, is another way to impart an origin-specific character to a cider. “Cidermaking is all about choices, and wild yeasts are a good choice because you have a real claim to a sense of place and terroir,” says Oliver’s Cider owner Tom Oliver.

At his England-based cidery, Oliver primarily uses wild yeast and ferments in small batches with minimal intervention as a nod to tradition, but also to extract “more colorful, complex possibilities” out of a cider. “You have to accept here that a lot of character is derived from the way the yeast works,” he says. “If you only have one yeast you’ll get less character, but multiple yeasts in a classic wild ferment give you multiple possibilities in character.”

Oliver recently collaborated with Ryan Burk, the head cidermaker at Angry Orchard (and one of our 2018 Imbibe 75 People to Watch) on a special wild ferment release called Understood in Motion #3. It’s the third in the series of collaborations that explore the cidermaking process, and it’s made with batches of cider naturally fermented at Oliver’s and Angry Orchard, blended together to create an understated, funky still cider with a pleasing dry finish.

Burk is also a fan of wild fermented cider. “Cider’s distinct personality starts with the fruit, and in the cases where we use wild fermentation, the environmental conditions create distinct, natural flavors,” he says. “Our latest style made with Tom Oliver is an example of this process with fermentation happening both at the Angry Orchard in the Hudson Valley and Tom Oliver’s orchard in the UK.”

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