William M. Dowd photoThere are few plants on the Earth that somewhere, some time, somehow, someone hasn't tried turning into an alcoholic beverage.
From Egyptian pharonic dynasty beer that was thick with fibers and seeds to today's multiply-filtered, pasteurized craft brews. From accidentally fermented grapes and other fruits that led us to today's fine wines. From rough, raw alcoholic drinks to today's premium spirits. And from semi-sweet to extra dry fermented apple cider of the Middle Ages to -- well, to the semi-sweet to extra dry fermented apple cider of today.
Let's talk about that.
Cider is truly an ancient drink. It is neither wine nor apple juice nor what today passes for commercial cider in the United States, that overpowering stuff made from sweet dessert apples, often goosed up with bittersweet apple concentrate and loaded with high fructose corn syrup in the manner of most soft drinks. In the U.S. we tend to call the original version "hard cider" to differentiate it from the non-alcoholic version. Elswehere, it's just plain cider.
Traditional cider, higher than beer in alcohol content but lower than wine at about 6.5 to 8.5 percent -- meaning in the 13 to 17 proof range, is made in various parts of Europe from apple strains with which the average consumer is not familiar: Somerset Redstreak, Medaille d'Or, Bulmer's Norman, Kingston Black and Dabinett, for example. You won't find such popular eating apples as Macintosh, Delicious, Granny Smith, Cortland and the like in anything considered a fine cider.
There even is a pear cider, known as perry, much less popular but traditional nevertheless. It has been made for centuries in Britain, particularly in the west and in Wales, and remains popular across the English Channel in the French region of Normandy and up north in Sweden. It is made virtually the same way as apple cider, usually with an 8 percent alcohol volume, which means 16 proof. The most common UK cider pear is the Blakeney Red, not an appealing eating fruit but just right for cider.
A mutual acquaintance put me onto Farnum Hill Ciders, made at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H., near the Vermont border. He touted it as an excellent example of traditional European cider making, "not at all sweet like the usual ciders you get in supermarkets. More like a selection of wines."
Farnum Hill, owned and operated by Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer, has been growing what they refer to as "real cider apple trees" for the past 16 years. Their crops are heirloom variety apples that were cellar staples in colonial times or in common usage in Europe, but now rarities here. Esopus Spitzberg, Yarlington Mill and the aforementioned Kingston Black, Medaille d'Or and Dabinett allow Wood to turn out a wide variety of ciders, each with its own nuances.
I convened a four-person panel to sample and evaluate a quartet of Farnum Hill ciders -- a sparkling trio of Farmhouse, Semi-Dry and Extra-Dry and an Extra-Dry Still.
Cider makers tend to speak of their products as winemakers do of theirs, and urge them to be consumed with food. We set up our tastebuds with a light tapas assortment -- chicken satays with spicy peanut sauce or dots of wasabi, stuffed mushrooms and assorted cheeses (an eight-year-old Canadian cheddar, a raw cow's milk gruyere called L'Etivaz from Switzerland, and a raw whole sheep's milk Abbaye de Belic from the Aquitaine province in the south of France).
Wood suggests, "When you taste, it might be best to avoid interspersing our ciders with sweeter ones, either European or American. Certain juxtapositions could be cruel to some or all."
While I understood his concern about interspersing, I disagree that there should be no comparison. We had small glasses of another New England product with our tapas, a tasty, sweet sparkling "American Cider" called Johnny Mash. It's a 12-proof, oak aged beverage created in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts by Furnace Brook Winery at Hilltop Orchards near the village of Richmond. Because it is more akin in taste with commonly-found American ciders, it offered a good baseline for comparison of the dry European-style Farnum Hill ciders. And, it has performed exceedingly well in cider competitions for more than a decade.
Our tasting notes:
• Farmhouse Cider: This is a pale gold, light bodied slightly sparkling cider. It wasn't overwhelmed by the tapas and cider that came before it, but it put our panel in the right frame of mind: i.e., don't expect a big apple bang on the palate the way we've been conditioned to expect from American-style ciders. Mid-palate apple taste, but not from start to finish. Farmhouse would be nice with mild foods, but overwhelmed by anything spicy.
• Semi-Dry: A slightly more apple-y taste, but with hints of tropical fruit. Tarter than the Farmhouse, very subdued nose. If you fool with it long enough, you begin to extract more taste. Although the maker calls it "a happy companion to most foods," our panel disagreed, noting it worked best with a bit of sliced apple and the gruyere that helped coax out the flavor.
• Extra Dry: This one was a hit with all involved, possibly because of the more forward taste of apple, a fragrant nose one of our tasters said is "closer to the kind of balance you'd expect from a good wine." Here again, we disagreed with the maker's evaluation that it would be "a palate-cleansing friend to most foods, except perhaps desserts." We felt it would go well particularly with desserts because, of the four Farnum Hill ciders we tried, this one stood up best in all categories -- golden color, full nose and body, and a long, pleasant aftertaste.
• Extra-Dry Still: Not a hit with anyone. We found it pallid by comparison to its companions, too acidic and, as one put it, "it would benefit from a spritz."
Farnum Hill has seven different ciders, some of them seasonal. Because apple quality varies season to season, there will be some variations in the ciders from year to year, much like grape quality affects wine whereas other alcoholic beverages are far less beholden to the crops used in their creation.
In essence, this tasting went about the same way most do. Individual values and tastes created some division among the panelists, but the best was deemed best by all and the weakest weakest by all.
One other thing we all agreed on was that cider should be anything but a forgotten beverage of choice when it comes to food pairings, no matter the season. It deserves being returned to the esteem in which it once was held in this country, and offers a distinct alternative to the everyday drinks we consume.
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