I have a confession: I hate beer. I mean, I loathe it. Even after years and years, after heapings of scorn from friends, after recently trying at least twenty kinds at a local festival.
It all still tastes like piss to me. [REDACTED TO MAINTAIN CLASS AND DIGNITY.] So when my friends are drinking beer, I’ll usually go for white wine (if I’m feeling refined) or semi-cheap tequila (if, well, not). But sometimes, you want to be a cool kid, too, drinking something yellowy-brown out of a glass bottle. What to do then? Hard cider. It’s like beer’s sweeter, less foul, fresh-off-the-bus-from-the-country cousin. It’s like the guy down at the bar who’s more likely to call you back (and less likely to give you chlamydia).
While there may not be as many kinds of cider as there are beer, there are still a number of directions you can go. Generally, though, there are two main questions you have to answer before you find the hard cider for you:
- How sweet do you want it?
- How do you feel about flavors other than, or in addition to, apple?
When it comes to sweetness, the quintessential battle is between two hard cider heavy-hitters : Woodchuck and Strongbow. Both are widely available, which is awesome, but each hits a very different note.
Nearly half of the cider sold in the U.S. is made by Woodchuck. Meet Woodchuck Amber, the biggest gun in the Woodchuck arsenal. It’s pretty good and quite apple-y, and I’ve certainly drunk my share of it over the years. (It’s the cheapest cider around, and it’s the most likely to be available in marginally sketchy bars.) But it’s also a bit like alcoholic, apple-flavored candy. It hits you with sugar right off the bat, sweet and fruity, but if you stick it out, you’ll find some depth and complexity in the bottle, as well. Recommended if you like things sweet or are at a bar that serves nothing else.
This, on the other hand, is Strongbow, the second most popular cider in the U.S. and most popular in the world. Strongbow’s strength can be a bit oversold . (In the early 1960s, Strongbow was marketed as “the strong cider for men.” Which is idiotic, because: misogyny. ) But compared to Woodchuck, it is quite a bit drier. It’s still pretty sweet, since it’s, you know, cider. At the same time, though, it’s got a bite and some tang, and the fizz hits your tongue more strongly than in the smooth, sweet Woodchuck. Recommended if you don’t like things too sweet. If you’re tempted to drink Strongbow because you don’t want to seem feminine, go away.
Traditional hard cider is, of course, made with apples. But that’s not all that’s available these days, for better and for worse.
The most successful version of this I’ve found is Fox Barrel, which makes a variety of pear-based ciders. Fox Barrel is a relatively young brand (independently founded in 2004, recently bought out by Crispin Ciders), and seems to take its California roots as license to experiment a bit, and to good effect.
Another direction I’ve seen ciders go in is berry-based. And I mostly disapprove, whether in solely berry or apple-berry situations. (Caveat: I haven’t sampled widely in this realm, since I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve had.) One exception, though, is once again from Fox Barrel. The Fox Barrel Blackberry Pear Cider is sweet, but delicately so, and complex, too. The berry adds depth and roundness, not just jelly-like sugar levels. This one’s highly recommended.
Another flavor-changer is the addition of other tastes to a company’s standard apple-based cider. This is definitely a mixed bag.
The Ciderboys Mad Bark is…not bad. It tastes like apples and cinnamon, which is a plus (an unfortunately unusual plus) in something claiming to taste like apples and cinnamon. My problem with it, which is not universally shared, is that I’m not sure I want to drink something cold and alcoholic that tastes like, well, apples and cinnamon. It’s like drinking an apple pie. Which is a little bit weird. I think it’s technically not as sweet as Woodchuck—it’s certainly less syrupy—but the signals the cinnamon sends to my brain makes it seem sweeter than it is. A friend (who typically avoids alcoholic beverages for flavor reasons) genuinely enjoyed it, though. So if you’re skeptical about booze in general, this may be a good starter cider.
This one, though? Not so much. Drinking Angry Orchard Apple Ginger is like seeing a Mel Gibson mugshot on the top of an article. You’re excited because you think the article will be fun, but really it’s just depressing and weird, and it leaves you sad, with a bad taste in your mouth. Yeah. This is not good, no matter how well ginger and apple go together outside the bottle. (Stick with Angry Orchard’s regular cider, which is quite good, if a bit sweet.)
If all of these extra flavors make you a bit uneasy—and I can’t blame you, even for the ones I like—but you still want fruitiness, then you should go with a cider that plays up the clear, crisp taste of apple.
If that’s the case, then try J.K’s Scrumpy Hard Cider, which is made in Michigan and tastes powerfully of apples. Organic and unfiltered, it’s like a less-sweet and funkier version of the unfiltered apple cider you can get from a local orchard come autumn. My partner took her first sip and exclaimed that it tastes like fall in a glass. (Which isn’t the case for most other ciders, which taste like sugary sort-of-alcohol in a glass.) It can be harder to locate, but you can usually find it at Whole Foods and some liquor stores. J.K’s Scrumpy Hard Cider is a great example of what cider can be. Indeed, cider isn’t just a less-nasty substitute for beer—it’s a delicious, fantastic adventure of its own. (Though the fact that it doesn’t taste like
piss [REDACTED] bad things is, of course, a mark in its favor.)
What’s your favorite kind of hard cider?
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