Drink

A Food Riot Guide to Hard Cider

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.

Hard Cider: Woodchuck AmberNearly 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.

 

 

Hard Cider: StrongbowThis, 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.

Fox Barrel Blackberry Pear BoxAnother 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.

Hard Cider: Ciderboys Cinnamon Apple

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.

 

Angry Orchard GingerThis 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.

Hard Cider: JK ScrumpyIf 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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About Derek Attig

Derek Attig writes and teaches about book culture, technology, and history. When he's not working on a book about bookmobiles in American life, you can find Derek cooking or spending way too much money at restaurants. He blogs at Bookmobility.org. Follow Derek on Twitter: @bookmobility

  • Lolatron

    Woohoo, an article on cider! I’m with you on beer vs. cider. Some ciders taste too beer-y for me though (like Strongbow or the amber varieties of various labels). I love Crispin and Fox Barrel. Local independent cideries are often treasure troves too – such as Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Maryland. They let you take tours of the orchard and do tastings, too!

    • bookmobility

      Ooh, orchard tours! I’m back home in Washington State for a few weeks, and the local market has at least 10 kinds of local cider I haven’t seen anywhere else. I have my work cut out for me!

  • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

    This is awesome!! Now, time to hire personal security. You know how those beer fans can be…

  • CassandraNeace

    I HATE BEER, TOO.

    Yeah, I had to say that in all caps. There is only one beer that I like, and it’s local, and it’s seasonal, and it’s brewed with hibiscus. It’s also pink. http://buffbrew.com/beers/secessionist (it’s the summer ale at the top of the list). Particularly spectacular when used in a shandy with hibiscus soda.

    We also have a local cider that I really, really, really love. It’s also a summer seasonal and it’s made with Strawberries. LOVE IT! http://leprechauncider.com/our-ciders/

    Beyond that, I like the Woodchuck 802, and the Winter varietal they do. It makes me happy.

    • bookmobility

      If all beer was pink, I might be convinced to like it. 802 is great, and I like Winter, too. The Woodchuck Spring horrifies me, though.

  • http://wrappedupinbooks.org/ molly

    I loathe beer, too. And while I’m usually fine drinking wine or booze, sometimes I do feel left of for not having that amber brown bottle. Some celiac family members turned me onto cider because they enjoy it as a gluten free alternative to pear. My favorite is the original Angry Orchard — I agree the ginger kind was weird, even though the idea seemed great. I’m going to try some of these others now!

    • bookmobility

      I hope you try some of the others; they’re great!

  • Sarah Abigail Swinney Epps

    The best cider I’ve had outside of England (and I mean the best by several orders of magnitude) was Downeast. Unfortunately it’s only available in New England, which is as far out of reach as Old England most of the time.

  • Steph

    Along the lines of Strongbow, Magners and Blackthorn are also great ciders for those who like a drier, less sweet taste. Ace’s Joker is also ok and comes with a higher alcohol content than most ciders. I would also suggest sour beer like Duchesse de Bourgogne for those who like a little fruit flavor in their beer. Sours taste very different from other beers (tart with cherry or sour apple flavor).

  • http://twitter.com/clintonk Clinton Kabler

    Ok, so I’m going to get really geeky on you. When we did the Camino Santiago, we passed through the region of Asturia. They served this wonderful Cider – Sidra de Asturia. There was a special way of holding it up way high and letting it fall into your glass. Regardless, the cider was wonderful. WONDERFUL! You’ll have to look harder to find it, but here are some importers in the US: http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/sidra/0

  • Ann Marie

    I’m a huge cider fan and have tried tons of different kinds. JK Scrumpy’s is hands-down the best that I have ever had. It tastes like actual apple cider (versus a sugary substitute for it).

    Also, I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the snakebite (half cider, half lager) because that is just about the BEST drink out there. :)