Newport Vineyards: Cider Selection & ReviewJuly 16, 2020
5 Hard Ciders to Take On Your Next Camping TripJuly 23, 2020
As we often outline, one of our goals is to bring in beer, wine, mead, etc. drinkers into the world of craft hard cider. In this piece, we wanted to examine the general approach of cider and wine and how they may be similar or different. We also wanted to give wine lovers some sense of where to turn when it came to cider so they can find something to match their particular palate.
To do so, we tapped two experts in the cider field to answer some questions about cider and wine.
Adam Satchwell is the winemaker for Two K Farms in Northwest Michigan. Two K Farms is the first Cidery & Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula to commercially grow traditional cider varieties. They make rieslings, rose, and apple wines along with a long list of ciders including a hopped cider and cherry cider.
Our second expert is Stan Wash of Overgrown Orchard. He owns the Chicago-based cidery making wild-fermented ciders at their orchard in Gary, IN. Their ciders are very interesting, including a coffee cider conditioned with Malort, a heritage-style cider aged in Pinot Noir barrels, and a heritage-style cider aged in Calvados Barrels.
How could a wine drinker become a cider drinker? What is the difference between cider and wine?
To put it simply, cider is very similar to wine. Wine is defined as a fermented beverage made from fruit. That is exactly what cider is but made from apples instead of grapes. Cider can offer some of the same aromas and flavors as wine in a lower alcohol and refreshing platform. Often wine drinkers are very interested in the exploration of new varieties, blends, or style. Cider offers the same thing.Adam (Two K Farms)
This is a great question to start with, because the first step in the process is understanding that cider is wine. Well, at least in theory…
In practice, cider today is a much more versatile beverage than wine, as reflected by the myriad cider styles in the market. And perhaps the biggest hurdle for a wine drinker who wants to dabble in cider is navigating this barrier to entry—that is, figuring out which cider to try. And that’s not a decision one should take lightly, as the wrong choice can do some serious long-term damage. Trust me, even though we identify as a “natural cidery” that hovers primarily in the “natural wine” sphere, whenever we do tastings at wine shops, we’ll still get a handful of customers who flat-out refuse to try anything because they “don’t like cider.” And we all know why. It’s because at some point in the past they drank a cloyingly sweet can of sugar water that someone told them was cider. (It’s not your fault.) Luckily, this is a ship that’s easily righted.
So how does a wine drinker pick the right cider? All you need is a basic understanding of how cider is made. The vast majority of cider in this county is manufactured in relatively high volumes and packaged and sold similar to beer. These are the six-pack ciders that you can find week in and week out at your grocery store. To achieve this, these cidermakers will usually use juice from apples you’d find at your grocery store (because we have lots of them), they’ll ferment using commercial yeast (because the result is predictable), they’ll usually pasteurize and add sugar for backsweetening (because people like sweet drinks), they may add adjuncts like fruits or spices (because they’re tasty), and they’ll usually be able to go from juice to shelf in a couple of months or less (no need for extended aging). And just to keep the record straight, I LOVE some of these ciders, and think many wine drinkers would too.
But if my task is to get wine drinkers to like cider, I’d start with what’s historically been called “heritage” or “farmhouse” style cider (although the name is ever evolving – the cider industry is still working on its lexicon…). But the name’s not what’s important, it’s the process that matters. This style of cider usually comes from a farmer or someone who has access to the precious few actual cider apples grown in this country. Ever heard of Dabinett, Kingston Black, Dolgo Crab, Esopus Spitzenburg, Cox’s Orange Pippin? Well, let me introduce you. There are heaps of apple varietals out there that are grown specifically to be used in cider. Many of them taste terrible (we call them “spitters”), and that’s exactly why they’re great for cider. These apples bring two key things to the table: acid and tannin. These are the building blocks of a delicious beverage (both in cider and wine), as they bring structure, complexity, and aging-ability that’s just not present with grocery store apples. And once you have these special apples, there’s really no choice but to ferment them using traditional winemaking methodologies. That usually involves milling and pressing the apples at the cidery, limiting the addition of any chemicals or other additives, and aging the cider for an extended period of time (often using oak barrels). Hopefully by this point wine drinkers’ mouths are starting to water.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)
What similarities are there between cider and wine?
Cider comes in many styles from dry to sweet, from soft to tannic and structured, and the range of flavors can be as wide and interesting as many wines.
In 2019 I produced a single variety cider from Esopus Spitzenburg, a heritage American variety. When analyzing the juice prior to fermentation I got some indication there might be some level of this (think Sauvignon Blanc and it’s grapefruit/passionfruit aromatics) that I could express in the fermented cider, so I conducted the fermentation to go in that direction. Now when I bring a glass to someone I don’t tell them what it is and ask what kind of wine they think it is? Every person answered, “that’s obviously Sauvignon Blanc”.
We also produce a single variety Kingston Black Cider, considered by many to be the “King” of cider varieties. It offers many of the characteristics that people look for in red wine, full-bodied, tannic and deep rich flavors.Adam (Two K Farms)
I like to think of cider as a laser-focused cousin of wine – not “wine lite.”
On paper, grapes are arguably more complex than apples. Grapes have multiple types of acid (malic, tartaric, and citric) whereas apples are 95% malic acid, grapes generally produce much higher ABVs than apples (say, 11–14% vs. 6–9%), and many grapes have the capacity to be fermented as a single-varietal whereas ciders are usually a blend of multiple apples. (Incidentally that’s why you don’t see a lot of pet nat ciders.)
But sometimes less is more. And as it turns out, dialing back the ABV a few clicks and narrowing the acid profile opens the door for other features to take center stage. For the Midwestern-grown apples that we use (which, when blended, usually land around 7% ABV), we get very strong expressions of fruit and acid, hallmarked by heavy notes of stone fruit and citrus. These flavors would be muted if they had to compete with 14% ethanol. By that same token, each additional layer that we introduce into our ciders (lactic acid from malolactic fermentation, carbonic acid from carbonation, the choice of barrel for aging, etc.) also becomes a focal point, whereas some of these same elements are less pronounced when present in wines. For example, while we barrel age all of our ciders, we could never use a new oak barrel (which some winemakers do) because the new-oak flavor would completely overpower a cider.
These nuances aside, the end products (and the way the products are tasted) can be remarkably similar. Our ciders in particular are generally higher in acidity with lower alcohol – similar to qualities that you’d find in wines from Austria or northern Spain. Also, we make mostly sparkling ciders, and (ethanol content aside) I sometimes find it very difficult to differentiate between our ciders and certain wild fermented sparkling wines.
One caveat here is that even though ciders certainly do develop qualities akin to wine and can and should be enjoyed like wine, buying a bottle of cider can be a bit of a crap shoot. What I mean by that is that, as everyone knows, ciders in this country usually get lumped into a single category (you know, the “cider” shelf at the liquor store, or the “cider” section of the menu), which leaves consumers guessing as to what flavor profile to expect in any particular bottle. It reminds me of the time I asked a bartender at famous beer bar in Chicago what kinds of wine they had, and he said “both kinds!” But imagine if even this red and white delineation went away, and your choice at the grocery store was just “wine.” While we all know that no two pinot noirs are the same, when you buy a bottle you’ve never tried before, at least you know what ballpark you’ll be in. But with ciders, it’s really a struggle to educate consumers (using only a 5×7 label) as to where your bottle falls on the enormous spectrum of cider profiles. Now that can be daunting to some consumers, but a welcomed adventure to others. We’re the frontier of cider production in this country, and what a rare and precious opportunity we all have to get to learn and experience a new beverage style while it’s still in the process of finding its identity.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)
What styles of cider would appeal to a wine drinker?
Seeing how there are thousands of different wines in every style imaginable, this depends on what style of wine someone enjoys. If you are a light, dry, crisp white wine person varieties like Esopus Spitzenburg or Golden Russet would fit the bill. Off-Dry or Semi-Dry Riesling drinker? Try Macoun or one of the New World style blends of cider. Oaky Chardonnay? There are some great barrel aged ciders from the subtle French oak aged to very oaky such as some of the Bourbon barrel aged ciders. For sweet late harvest wine drinkers, you have Ice Cider which can be absolutely glorious. We make a Rose Cider that is naturally colored by using red fleshed apple varieties and drinks like a great Rose Champagne. Like red wine? Try the Kingston Black. The point is there are so many styles of cider a wine drinker can easily find something they would find familiar and enjoyable. The real joy is there are familiar things to find in many ciders as well as new and excitingly different aromas and flavors to discover.Adam (Two K Farms)
The goal is always to find a well-aged cider made with actual cider apples. But that’s easier said than done – it’s not always just the 500 and 750ml bottles; good cider comes in cans now too. I always tell people that if the label lists apple names you’ve never heard of, you’re probably safe. Most laws prohibit cidermakers from listing vintages on their bottles, so determining age can be trickier. So you can look for buzzwords, like “heritage” or “farmhouse” style, “wild-ferment,” “natural” cider, etc. Better yet, if you have the luxury of living somewhere that has a specialty wine shop, just see what ciders they have on the shelf – chances are the couple of ciders they have will be right up your alley.
Here’s the best advice: look the cidery up on Instagram. If you see pictures of trees, apples, barrels, sweat, and love, buy it. If you only see curated lifestyle pics, pass.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)
How does the fermentation process differ between cider and wine?
As I said above, cider is technically wine, so in the simplest sense the fermentation is similar to basic white wine making. The big difference is the fruit chemistry, the building blocks are the similar, but the concentrations are different. Both have fermentable sugars, but cider has roughly half the amount, so the resulting alcohol is much lower. Both have fruit acids, but the predominant acid in wine grapes is tartaric and in apples it is solely malic. Both have varying polyphenolic content that contributes to flavor, structure and color depending on variety and growing conditions. Both have aroma and flavor compounds, but apples have more variety of esters and in higher concentrations. So, in a textbook sense the chemistry of fermentation is similar but expressing and balancing the various components in cider is a different game altogether.
There has been a tremendous amount of research dedicated to the fruit chemistry, fermentation and resulting aroma, flavor, and structure compounds in wine. In cider, not so much, the research and available data is far behind what there is in the wine industry. I spend an enormous amount of time experimenting with apple varieties and fermentation techniques to find out just what the possibilities are. I recently installed a fairly sophisticated piece of analytical equipment that allows me to identify and measure various chemical compounds in the juice and cider to give me more information and help guide decisions from the orchard to the cellar to the time of packaging.Adam (Two K Farms)
At the core, the fermentation processes are the same: (1) extract juice from the fruit, (2) introduce yeast, and (3) wait. Especially in comparison to the process for making beer (which has a hot side!), cider and wine are peas in a pod.
To be sure, there are differences. For example, winemakers have the option to allow skin contact (!) during primary fermentation, whereas cider is usually made with the clean pressed juice only (although some cider makers will mill the apples and let them macerate prior to pressing, which is sort-of like skin-contact cider). But both cider and wine makers make many of the same decisions during fermentation, such as whether to add sulfites, whether to ferment with commercial or native yeast, what vessel(s) to age in, how and when to blend, whether to allow malolactic fermentation, etc.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)
Can you age cider like you can age wine?
Like wine, some yes, some not as much. Like wine, cider will evolve over time, the question is what is the best expression of a particular cider? Do you want to experience the young, fresh fruitiness of some ciders or enjoy the secondary and developed flavors that come with time. I will say I have had some ciders well over ten years of age and wish I had more so I could try them again when they were fifteen or twenty years old. Generally, I think most ciders are best enjoyed on the younger side, but as with all things there are always plenty of exceptions.Adam (Two K Farms)
At the cidery, cider must be aged like wine. If you’ve gone to all the trouble of growing true cider apples that are teeming with rich acids and tannins, it would be criminal not to let the cider age prior to release. That’s mostly because many of the vinous flavors and aromas that we long for in a cider don’t show up to the party until many months after pressing, after the microbes have had time to work their magic. There are also benefits of the cidermaking process (or élevage), such as sur-lee aging, bâtonnage, malolactic fermentation, and microoxidation that take time to develop.
Just to give you an example, if you smell a cider and think “Ah, fresh apples!” then you’re probably drinking a very young cider. The volatile compounds that give off that fresh apple smell get consumed fairly early in the aging process, often in the first three or four months. After that, there’s a dead period where pretty much the only volatile chemical in the mix is ethanol. It’s not until around month eight or nine that you start getting ester and phenolic production, where you first learn what type of cider you’ve made. That’s why we traditionally wait at least a year before we do any blending for our final bottlings (and even then, with wild fermentations and no added sulfites, our ciders will continue to develop in the bottle).
In the consumer’s cellar (which is probably what this question was aimed at), aging can also be very beneficial, but likely on a much shorter scale than what a serious wine collector might be used to. Here in the Midwest, we have fairly mild tannins and relatively low ABV, and so I’ve found that our ciders tend to drink best with 1–3 years of age. But, in truth, a lot of this is conjecture, as we just don’t have the data points to make any sweeping statements on this subject. My inclination is that some of our funkier wild ferments will benefit from longer-term aging, much like a lambic beer does, but again, that’s just a guess. So ask me again in 20 years.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)
What is terroir? Discuss the similarities & differences between terroir for cider & wine
Terroir is in essence a simple concept but one that many struggle to grasp. Terroir is all that is a part of the growing and making process. The particular piece of land, the topography, the soil, everything that makes that patch of dirt different from any other. Terroir is the region, the mesoclimate and microclimate. Terroir is the season, is it typically hot or cold, a long season or a short one? Terroir is the human influence, how it is farmed, how it is made. There are no two terroirs that are exactly alike. Dabinett apples grown on our farm will not be the same as Dabinett apples grown on a different farm whether it is one mile or 1,000 miles away. To simplify, our terroir is what make our apple and ciders taste the way they do. I can make a cider from the same type of apples, harvested at the same time, use exactly the same fermentation techniques from two different farms and they will not taste the same. There might be similarities, but they cannot be the same because the terroir is not the same.
As for vintage, there are the same vintage variations found in apples as in wine grapes. Some years are riper, some are higher acid, some have more structure, some give me different flavors. That’s the joy of it, I know I can produce something that will bring some new element every year and you just have to keep going back to experience those wonderful variations from year to year.Adam (Two K Farms)
This is a fascinating topic that really suffers from a lack of research. Dan Pucci is an accomplished cider scholar who writes about cider terroir in a very compelling way. He talks about the concept of “social terroir,” which looks beyond the soil itself and considers things like growing techniques and the farmers themselves as components of terroir. (See this article, for example.) I’m truly excited to see where his research goes.
Maybe the most interesting fact about cider terroir that I know relates to the surprising differences between the exact same apple varietal grown in different regions. For example, we made a single varietal cider with Albemarle Pippin (or “Newtown Pippin,” as most people call it), which clocks in at 6.5% ABV. Albemarle Ciderworks’ version weighs in at 8.5%—a full 2.0% higher—and I know there are versions out there that have higher ABVs yet. We see the same differences in acid and tannin content too. As I’ve mentioned, Midwest-grown apples tend to make high acidity, fruit-forward ciders with lower ABVs and softer tannins, whereas with some coastal cideries using the same apples, the tannins are the star.
But Dan’s right – while cider is still finding its sea legs in this country, the farming methodology behind a cider will usually tell us more about how the end product will taste than the source of the apples. That is, a small organic orchard might sit just miles away from an enormous commercially-farmed orchard but, despite growing in nearly identical soil composition, the apples could end up worlds apart in flavor. So simply saying that two apples were grown in the same town doesn’t tell us much about what will end up in the glass. And so even though I keep telling people that Gary, Indiana is the Puligny-Montrachet of apple terroirs, it just doesn’t seem to be resonating with consumers quite yet.
We also know very little about the year-over-year impact of terroir on cider, in large part because most states prohibit the inclusion of a vintage on cider labels. So consumers often don’t know the vintages of their ciders. Among cidermakers, the most talked about aspect of each “vintage” is probably whether or not apples actually grew that year. Many cider apple varietals are biennial, which means they tend to produce apples only every other year. Plus, at least in the Midwest, we battle spring frosts and heavy rains, which can have a significant impact on whether they’ll be anything to harvest in the fall. In other words, we tend to focus on whether there will be cider apples available at all, and less on how a particular year’s weather might have impacted what ends up in the bottle.Stan (Overgrown Orchard)