Every autumn, the apple craving for everything returns. But thanks to a new wave coming from American orchards, there’s never been a better time to drink hard cider. These dishes also make a great case for cooking with it.
Hard cider is certainly nothing new in this country. A long time ago the farmer who planted old apple trees in my grandfather’s field was probably trying to get some intoxicating drink from them. In the book “The Botany of Desire,” author Michael Pollan devotes most of his chapter on apples to the story of John Chapman. Chapman, commonly known as Johnny Appleseed, planted countless gardens in the early 19th century in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and beyond—all from seed. The thing is, if you sow the seed of an apple, you don’t know what you’re going to get: the fruit of the resulting tree will not be the same as the one that came from the seed. Most of Chapman’s trees produced pungent, bitter, misshapen fruits that were really only good for cider. Refrigeration was not a thing in the early 1800s, so the easiest way to preserve cider was to turn it into alcohol.
Then, Prohibition stopped it all. By the time of Prohibition’s repeal, farmers had moved to cities and beer- and brew-brewed immigrants had joined our ranks. The Native American drink of hard cider was steeped in history.
I feel fortunate to live at more or less ground zero for the hard cider resurgence, not far from my grandfather’s estate. I get my food from local farms (including those owned and operated by my wife) and my fruit comes from local orchards. A few years ago I was buying apples and pears from one of those orchards, Manoff Market Garden, when I noticed that there were several carboys of cider fermenting in the back room. It took me back to my teenage years.
About a year later, Manoffs had obtained a limited winery license from the state and began selling its hard cider to the public. Then another cidery opened in New Jersey, and one popped up at a friend’s in New York, and another came on my radar in Maryland. Something was happening—a change in farming and drinking. Now I am not only drinking stuff but also cooking food from it.
Gary and Amy Manoff have been growing fruit for almost 40 years. When I stopped by the orchard recently, Gary handed me a small yellow apple with a pink blush, which he said was pushing for hard cider. I took a bite and was forced to swallow one. This apple was tannic, bitter, dry—like a fruit grown in the hard-cider orchards planted by Chapman two centuries earlier. Gary told me it’s a variety named Virginia Heaves Crab, and he adds it to the mix for complexity. This is a hard cider apple, and it was almost lost. Now the Manoffs are re-growing it with other heirloom varieties like Smith cider, an apple that was ubiquitous around these parts in the 1700s but all but disappeared, and is now getting a second chance for this tough cider renaissance. .
When I asked Gary and Amy why they would add cidermaking to their long list of farm jobs, they explained that several states have made cidery licensing more attainable. The cost of a license in Pennsylvania is no more than $1,000 – nothing but the cost of adding a revenue stream to the business a small family farm can afford. Like other farmers in apple-growing regions, Manoffs now includes a cider tasting room among his farm’s offerings, and he describes the enjoyment of a particular brand brought by the drink. “No one gets mean or sleepy,” Amy said. “And it’s just that American loves apples.”
an apple for him
American cider for sipping and cooking
For a product made from little more than apple juice, cider offers an incredible variety from bottle to bottle in flavor, strength, and character. Some of the equipment available to beer- and winemakers—barrel aging, aging on hops, wild and selected yeast, lees—gives cidermakers a vast scope for creativity, too. The result can be a sharply bitter and complex chopped cider, a funky wild-yeast sparkling, or a rich off-dry sipper. And hard cider is good for more than just drinking: Chefs use it to punch up everything from sauces to braises. Here, some excellent craft ciders from around the country (all of which come in 750ml bottles unless otherwise noted).
1. Manoff Market Sidri, in New Hope, Penn., makes some single-variety ciders, such as Oki. winesweet ($16). A cider syrup added pre-fermentation in bracing, smoky northern comfort ($16) is responsible for its elevated ABV. NS shredded cider ($16) provides remarkable complexity. manoffmarketgardens.com
2. ewes cidery Produces stable and sparkling cider in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. dried Sparkling Perry ($20) is pressed from wild wild pear, fermented with wild yeast and given secondary fermentation in the bottle which creates a gentle effigy. evescidery.com
3. Redbird Orchard Cider, also in the Finger Lakes, offers some single-variety ciders and several blends. NS 2017 Still Barrel ($16) is a fascinating blend of approximately 40 varieties of apples, collected and fermented over many years, resulting in a fine, well-rounded flavor and a heady 8.5% alcohol. redbyrdorchardcider.com
4. stem cider Denver’s offers ciders spanning a spectrum from dry to dry and semi-sweet. bone-dry, pungent and earthy crab neighbor (500 ml for $1000), pressed from crab apple and Granny Smith, displays upfront acidity and a nice tannic finish. stemseeder.com
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