By Tristan Wright
Starting a few years ago, something wonderful began to happen in our country: Americans everywhere triumphantly welcomed hard cider back to their tables. With the cider movement in full steam, cideries like Alexandria’s own Lost Boy Cider can be found in almost every state today.
Annual production continues to grow at record pace and consumers are enjoying an incredible variety of well made and honest ciders to choose from. Some cideries focus on sweet cider, others on dry. Some use traditional apple-only recipes. Others buck tradition and produce a new era of ciders by incorporating exotic fruits, vegetables, teas and herbs into their ferments. There are no limits these days in the world of cider making.
But buyers beware: not all cider is created equally. It’s important to aim for freshly pressed apples grown locally rather than concentrated, which creates a sub-par cider hiding behind lab-created “natural flavors” and sweeteners.
So, what makes a really good cider? The answer is complicated. Regardless, it all starts with a familiar fruit: the apple.
Nearly all of us have heard of Golden and Red Delicious apples. What of other cider apples, though? Just some examples are Gravenstien, Arkansas Black, Pippen, Ashmead’s Kernel, Greening, Roxbury, Northern Spy or Foxwhelp. These rockstar apples with rock band-worthy names are a few of the industry heavyweights that have survived ions of challenges from climate change to America’s Prohibition movement, which took a terrible toll on the country’s orchards, wiping out 90% of our varieties.
Affectionately referred to as “spitters,” these survivor apples pack a wonderful punch and are filled with all the fantastic things necessary to create a world class cider. Amazingly new varietals thought to be lost are slowly being discovered every year. This is exciting for the future of cider making.
As a kid passing by under a crabapple tree, it’s likely that you have taken a bite of one of these sour and chalky gifts and hastily discarded both the apple and the bite you took. However, with some patience and a little cellar magic, the juice from these tiny beauties can be turned into liquid magnificence.
These cider apples, and others like them, all contain the golden trifecta of characteristics which cider makers seek when trying to build the perfect profile for their creations: sugar, acid and tannins. An apple high in sugar and acid with skin possessing moderate tannins will create a lightly colored, balanced and aromatic drink full of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals. But if there is too much of one and not enough of another, the quality of a finished cider is unrepairable and lost forever. Amazingly, once fermented, the juice from these apples will yield an alcohol content of 6% to 9%.
It sounds easy. Find some apple trees, collect the apples each fall, press the juice from the apples and fill up a carboy or two with the juice, add a little wine yeast, wait a few weeks and presto. You’ve got a hard cider to make for a memorable holiday party.
In reality, though, making a refined and drinkable hard cider isn’t exactly this simple.
If the spring was kind to the trees, a late frost stayed away, rain came when it was most needed, hillside temperatures didn’t get too hot or cool, the apples escaped local predators, the sun shined brightly on short days and the apples got picked and pressed at the exact moment in time when they were peaking, it is possible to create a good hard cider.
But a great hard cider is a true balance between science and art, and notoriously uncooperative to turn into alcohol if mismanaged. This leads to an important part of the cider making process: the cider maker.
Cider makers are a jovial albeit particular group who could be classified as partial engineers, repair and maintenance specialists, janitors, lab technicians, amateur chemists and most importantly, creative and patient artists. There is no limit to the possible creations by using a blend of cider-specific apples and adjunct fruits, spices or teas. The only limit is the cider maker’s creativity. With more than 100 obtainable apple varieties now available to us and 20 times that amount in adjuncts to co-ferment the cider, options are limitless. Lost Boy Cider’s mission is to create sugar-free, unpasteurized and unfiltered ciders using earth-grown ingredients.
By not interfering in the process, it’s possible to create an accurate representation of who and what the cider was meant to be.
Now that you’ve had a crash course in cider apples, next time you find yourself in need of a treat, snag a bottle or can of well-made hard cider, sit back and enjoy the experience knowing all that went into creating the cider you’re drinking.
The writer is the founder of Lost Boy Cider.