Maybe you’ve noticed your friends eschewing wine, beer, and cocktails lately in favor of hard cider, and you Just. Don’t. Get it. Perhaps your first exposure to cider was a syrupy slug of Magners in college, or a can of super-sweet Angry Orchard (in a recent survey, the most popular hard cider in the United States).
But the truth about cider is that its flavor profile differs enormously depending on which European nation it’s modeled upon. Cider—sidra in Spain, cidre in France, and apfelwein in Germany—still has a huge presence in Europe, where it’s been enjoyed for centuries. And those nations’ renditions are hardly apples to apples: They’re as different from one another as can be. Dan Pucci, cider director of New York City bar and restaurant Wassail, explains the world’s major producers—so you know what to ask for next time you’re trying to expand your horizons.
“They drink more cider than anybody,” Pucci says of the world’s biggest cider market, which is “very diversified; expect lots of alco-poppy ciders that are not of the highest quality, but also fine orchard ciders.” Cider apples are generally classified into four types: sharps, sweets, bittersweets, and bittersharps. No matter which of these they employ, he says, U.K. ciders often have a bittersweet quality and a tannic backbone; two such bottles widely available stateside are Oliver’s and Aspall. Lucky enough to be traipsing about England? Seek out the “funky, savory, minerally” Burrow Hill.
Like Champagne? Dig slightly sweet cocktails? You are gonna like this cider. French cider is a revelation. It’s almost always sparkling, since it goes through a natural process called keeving in which the cider continues to ferment in its bottle. Because of the way it’s initially fermented, French cider tends to be sweeter and lower in alcohol-by-volume—between 3 percent and 5 percent—than others. Stateside, if you’re lucky enough to see a bottle of gently sparkling, delicately sweet Le Pere Jules, or the buzzy Cyril Zangs, snap them up. If in France, look for Normany’s Ferme de Billy.
“Spanish cider has not changed at all in about 1000 years,” says Pucci. Typically in Spain, apples fall off their trees, are picked up, milled, and left out for a few days before they’re pressed, developing “funky, barnyard-y flavors.” These can be tough ciders to wrap your head around, but those who like sour beers often appreciate them. Pucci’s pro tip: Aerate the cider by pouring it from a distance, to soften those intense flavors. One Basque producer Pucci likes, Trabanco, often includes a tiny pouring vessel, called a pórron, right with its cider. You can also look for Shacksbury, in Vermont, which bottle Basque apple varieties in collaboration with a Spanish cidery. Traveling in Spain? Look for Panizales.
This nation’s offerings are almost as eclectic as America’s own, except that this is a much smaller player on the international scene. Pucci says these ciders tend to have a “fruity tartness to them,” without the tannin levels you might find in a French or Spanish cider. Most of Germany’s cider is made near Frankfurt, such as Rapp’s, from nearby Karben. Here in America, look for Wiedmann & Groh apfelwein.
“Impossible,” says Pucci when asked to summarize our cider style. Having boomed by 75 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone, “America is really where we’re pushing the cider market. English cider is a big market, but it’s not endlessly dynamic. In Spain, people want to buy bottles that cost 2 euros. in France, people want sweet sparkling ciders and they want to spend 3 Euros.” In America, though, cideries from coast to coast are creating every feasible variation on classic Old World ciders. Asked to pick two current favorites, Pucci mentions the French-styled ciders at Oregon’s E.Z. Orchards, and Hudson Valley Farmhouse in New York, whose smooth English ciders feature barely bittersweet tannins.
Cider is becoming as American as apple pie, and it might just be time to give it a whirl.