I finally understand the cider buzz
I have a backlog from 2018 that I'm committed to getting through by mid-February.
Up first is a tasting I participated in with #SommChat in early November featuring Eden Cider, a heritage cider producer in Vermont. Heritage ciders differentiate from modern ciders - those that are sugary, made quickly and often made with sweet apples - because they're produced with "heirloom and cider variety apples and are likely made with more traditional wine-making approaches."
Before I get to the individual ciders, let's talk a little about Eden's cider making.
Eden uses locally grown (both their own and from partner partner orchards in Vermont, North Carolina and Quebec) heritage and tannic apples. Heritage apples are varieties that have been around for hundreds of years but aren't grown on a mass scale or usually sold in grocery stores. They aren't always the apples you want to sink your teeth into as a snack, but many of them make great cider apples because of their tannins, the bitter and astringent phenolic compounds found in the skins, seeds and stems of apples.
Tannins are helpful in fermentation, giving fermented drinks body and assisting in the aging process. As Eden said during our Twitter #SommChat, "the more tannin and acid in a cider, the more it can develop with age. Many of our cellar series ciders are high acid or high tannin or both."
Eden works on a seasonal schedule. They press the apples at harvest or very soon after harvest when all of the apples' booze-making properties - aromatic compounds, tannins, sugars and acids - are at their peak. They work with over 50 varieties of apples. Since a variety's yield can vary from year to year, every year's vintage of ciders is determined by that season's quantity and quality of each variety. All of the apples Eden uses are sustainably grown and Eco-Apple Certified, and the apples grown in Eden's orchards are also biodynamic.
This all sounds very close to winemaking, doesn't it? Eden, and other heritage cider makers, ferment their apple juice (just like a winemaker would ferment grapes) with carefully selected yeasts that are chosen to complement the specific apples they're added to. This process creates, as Eden says, "full flavor, complexity and a good backbone of acidity, whether an ice cider or a dry cider, from high residual sugar to off-dry or bone dry."
Also like wine, Heritage ciders can be still or sparkling, and what I learned during this tasting is that I'm partial to the sparkling varieties. Eden makes sparkling cider in a variety of methods: a full on champagne method where every bottle is hand disgorged, bottle conditioning, pet nat, and force carbonation.
Now, onto the ciders, in the order we tasted them:
Cinderella's Slipper: Made from 20 different apples that you've probably never heard of - all grown biodynamically in Eden's own orchards - this bone dry still cider was left to age on the lees for an entire year. The result is an unfiltered and unfined cider with aromas of bitter apple and little pear, honey and white flowers, plus something a little more earthy. It's tart. I was unprepared for how dry and tart this cider would be, but it was a fantastic introduction to Heritage cider because this is the polar opposite of a modern cider.
Brut Nature: This dry sparkling cider is made using the Champagne method, and it has just a hint of sweetness. It's dry, and when it's opened, it has the fabulous bready, yeasty smell of a sparkling wine that's spent time hanging out with the lees.
Extra Sec: When Eden adds a little something sweet to a sparkling cider, they use their own Ice Cider for the dosage. The addition of the sweetness made this effervescent cider - also made using the Champagne method - my favorite of the sparkling varieties. It has 9g/L (0.9%) of residual sugar (a sparkling wine with that amount of sugar would be classified as Brut). The small amount of sugar was well balanced with the bittersweet and heirloom varieties of apples. Do not think, however, that because I'm talking about sugar that this has the sweetness of many modern ciders. The sugar is much more subtle.
Heritage Can: Eden made a still cider that's easier to tote around to the beach or a picnic. This off-dry cider has "more flavor, less sweet." It's blended with a bit of the ice cider. A lovely drinking cider.
Imperial 11° Rosé Cider: How do you turn apples into a rosé? You add a little red current to the juice. This semi-dry sparkling rosé is lightly carbonated, kind of like you'd find with a Vinho Verde. It has a lot of flavor with a touch of sweetness from a little added ice cider added. It's an easy drinking cider.
Heirloom Blend Ice Cider: By the time we got to the ice cider in our tasting, it was clear our online tasting group was impressed with Eden's lineup. When we got to this ice cider, however, I'm pretty sure we let out a collective "damn!" This ice cider is simply concentrated, fermented apple juice. There's no added sugar, but the combination of quality apples, Vermont's cold temperatures and the time allowed for the concentrated apple flavors to separate from the water in the apples, creates this silky, smooth, vibrant, caramel apple, nutty dessert cider. Just fantastic. Pass the cheese plate or the cheesecake, please.
This Eden tasting helped me understand what all the cider buzz is about, and I've been trying ciders whenever the chance has come up since. I'm sure I'll be learning and writing more about them from now on.
As I learn more about ciders, the one thing I really want (besides more cider to drink, of course) is precise language to help me both understand it and also write about it. Specifically, I'd like a dryness scale, much like the dryness scale for sparkling wine. The Cider Association is working on it with the Cider Lexicon Project that currently has three parts to it: a Cider Style Guide that's completed, a Cider Vocabulary Guide that's still to come, and a Dryness Scale that is also still to come.