When your interview subject greets you on a Saturday morning with an unopened bottle of booze, two glasses, and a business card imprinted with his nickname, chances are that you’re in for a good day. Although I first walked into Yankee Spirits in Swansea wondering why I was assigned a story about cider – a beverage I tried maybe once in college – I walked out over an hour later with some new knowledge, a bottle of organic J.K.’s Solstice Hard Cider and a buzz.
I met up with Ray “The Beer Guy” Guerrero, Yankee Spirits’ craft beer manager, an arduous position that requires long hours (of beer tasting) and grueling travel (to brewer trade shows). Only the Ben & Jerry’s taste testers have it worse. Ray and I sat down to talk cider, and we began as all talks should – with a tasting. Out from Ray’s private stash came a bottle of Clyde’s Blackout (named for its 12% ABV) from B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill in Mystic, CT – the oldest continuous producer of hard cider in the U.S. and the only remaining steam-powered cider mill in the country. I might as well start from the beginning.
Basically, cider is fermented apples, though there are variations that use other fruits such as “perry” or pear cider. Ciders can be made from a single type of apple or a blend, and the apple base can stand alone or be the foundation for added flavors. Being a newbie, I ask about hot cider and Ray is quick to emphasize, “if it’s fermented, it’s cider… anything else is just hot apple juice.”
Ciders come in a variety of styles, including dry, sweet and semi-sweet, as well as still (non-carbonated) and sparkling (carbonated). Ray broadly classifies his ciders as “refreshment” (mass produced) or “artisanal,” and he speaks at length about the latter: “The variety has really expanded and everything they’ve done with beer they’re starting to do with cider. Aging, adding different yeasts and hops, adding different fruits… there’s an old German beer purity law (called reinheitsgebot) that says German beer can only be made with four ingredients – grain, hops, water and yeast. There are no such rules with cider and it’s wide open.”
Some artisans do “go nuts,” Ray says with a laugh, citing one who put a new spin on hot cider by brewing his cider with hot peppers. Another brewer smoked apples on alder wood previously used to smoke sausages, thereby imparting a smoky sausage taste to his cider. Others have taken a more scientific approach to innovation by distilling to make apple brandy, known as “pommeau” when cut with fresh apple juice.
In discussing cider, it became evident that the beverage exhibited both beerand wine-like qualities. Also, the Clyde’s cider we had opened at the start, quite dry on the first sip, was now much smoother – like a red wine that needed to breathe a bit out of the bottle. Ray acknowledged the nuance, but clarified the spectrum. “All three (beer, wine, cider) are fermented, but cider is more like beer… I’d say two-thirds beer and one-third wine.” Not a bad mix.
Ciders are a fast-growing segment of the beverage industry, with Ray estimating 25 percent growth in the last year alone. Consumers may have heard of Strongbow, an English cider that is the biggest seller in the world, or Woodchuck, a Vermont-based cider that is the biggest seller in the US. But many new players are entering the mix, including the “big boys.” Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch launched their first cider – Michelob Ultra Light Cider – and MillerCoors acquired Midwest-based Crispin Cider Company.
Domestic ciders generally originate from prosperous apple-growing regions like the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest, and, of course, New England. In fact, our very own Newport Vineyards produces Rhody Coyote Hard Apple Cider, described as “cold fermented to a fine sparkle.” Rhody Coyote is available at the winery and select liquor stores.
If you’re new to cider, your best bet is to find a connoisseur like Ray who can steer you in the right direction based on your preferences (malty or hoppy, dry or sweet, carbonated or still). There are also gluten-free options for those who can’t drink beer. Ray and I browse the store’s cider aisle and he highlights J.K.’s Solstice Hard Cider. “It’s made with vanilla, cinnamon and a touch of maple syrup… not to be sexist, but the ladies really like that one.” Figuring that my fruity-vodka-loving girlfriend and I could use an expansion of our palates, I bought a bottle.
A good time to stop by Yankee Spirits will be on September 29, when they will host an Oktoberfest event at the store from 1-4pm with tastings of nearly 100 beers. Ray is not yet sure if ciders will be included in the tastings, but it will be a good excuse to shop nonetheless. Just make sure you eat lunch first, in case Ray brings out the Clyde’s Blackout.