Crafted for the Season
Crisp ciders for crisp evenings
Actually, they're apples. Cider apples, to be specific. The list on Susan and Richard Anderson's engaging Web site includes these and some 75 more, divided into sweet, bittersweet, bittersharp, sharp and "other" categories. And you thought wine grapes were complicated.
Craft ciders handmade, limited-production, fermented ciders produced from heirloom apples have attracted a small but passionate number of enthusiasts in the past decade or so. On small farms scattered in Northern California, Western Oregon, the Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, a loose community of Johnny-come-lately Appleseeds has sprouted.
The Andersons, who had taken early retirement from Boeing about 10 years ago, set about looking for something else to while away the golden years. "We wanted a niche," Susan explains, "an upscale alternative to wine and specialty beers." Staring at the rows of old, neglected apple trees on their San Juan Island property, they got an idea. Cider!
Craft ciders are a labor of love, and their makers are adamant about certain prerequisites. They favor high-tannin, high-acid, "ugly, bitter little apples. They taste horrible!" says Kristin Ford, who runs Cyderworks with her husband on bucolic Sauvie Island, northwest of Portland.
Unlike mass-marketed versions, craft ciders are fermented in small batches, using organic (or near-organic) apples. These traditional ciders do not use apple concentrate, add no sugar or water, and have no artificial flavors or colors.
Many producers, such as Merridale Ciderworks in Cobble Hill, B.C., also avoid adding sulfur dioxides at bottling, pasteurization and fine filtration. Naturally fermented, craft ciders range in style from bone dry to semi-sweet. Many are nonsparkling, but some, such as those from Ford Farms Cyderworks, are fermented in the bottle, much like French Champagne. The result is naturally carbonated bubbly, with refreshing, dry, green-apple flavors, and half the alcohol of most sparkling wines.
At The Traditional Co. in Culver, Ore., cider-maker Roger Mansfield ferments and ages his juice in new Oregon white-oak barrels specially made for the company. He markets two different ciders: Roger's Semi-Dry and Macbeth's Three Witches Hard Cider (playing on his proximity to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival).
Blending, it is believed, creates the best cider, so tree types are mixed with that in mind. Kristin Ford planted 40 heirloom varieties, fermented all the types separately, and did experimental blends for years before releasing her first commercial product in 2002. This fall she expects to ferment just six varieties for her sparkling dry hard cider; the rest will go to feed Ford Farms' herd of Highland beef cattle.
Sitting on her back porch overlooking the Columbia River, we tasted a dry sparkling cider from the last of the experimental bottlings. Very clean, crisp and light, it was still quite fresh and sound, though no one is recommending aging these ciders long term. Ford's 2002, which is just coming into the market, is very dry, rich and creamy, with a texture much like a good Spanish cava. Naturally carbonated, it clocks in at about 6.5 percent alcohol and sells for around $14.
The Andersons' Westcott Bay Orchards "Vintage Cider" is also a blend, from 16 types of apples, all fermented separately. It comes in a 22-ounce bottle (just slightly less than a standard wine bottle) with a very pretty label depicting a hawk's-eye view of their orchard, and is priced at $5.
At 6.8 percent alcohol, it is comparable to the very lightest sparkling wines. The color is rich and buttery, and the cider has a yeasty, lively mouth-feel, just slightly carbonated (though not fermented in the bottle). Westcott Bay Orchards makes about 500 cases in a single style, though modest expansion is in the planning stages.
The craft ciders made in the Northwest (but not Canada) are available through mail order, and a few are sold at specialty outlets such as Whole Foods and Larry's Markets. Now is the best time to hunt for them, as the new vintage is just coming into the market. And what better speaks of the pleasures of late summer/early fall than the flavors of ripe, tangy, mouth-cleaning apples! If you really want to snap the taste buds to attention, try your hard cider with salmon grilled in apple juice.
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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