One thing I heartily look forward to every harvest season is the arrival of apple cider at the farmers’ market. Admittedly, I seldom make the trip in the pre-dawn hours my husband does, but almost always there’s a quart of that copper nectar waiting in the fridge on Saturday morning. Even the baby loves it.
A quick note and clarification: apple juice and apple cider are differentiated by law in most states and can be a matter of labeling alone. Generally, apple juice is filtered and pasteurized for long shelf life, whereas cider is generally unfiltered and may be unpasteurized as well. “Hard” cider (just called “cider” overseas) is made when apple cider is fermented; meaning the yeast has converted some or all of the sugars into alcohol. It may be aged in oak barrels, just like wine, and it may or may not be carbonated.
Here is a haphazardly collected smattering of a taste test—done with one arm full of baby, one arm full of bottles.
Eden Sparkling Cider, 8.5%, West Charleston, Vermont
This one is from Vermont and is made from heirloom apples grown within 200 miles of the cidery (a word I’ve just learned). The cider is fermented in French oak and is bottle-conditioned. The color is a golden straw and it’s fizzy like a beer would be.
Aroma: Eden is surprisingly musky and perfumed. If I were to take an aromatic red apple and bake it in its skin with a few spices, it would smell a lot like this.
Taste: That musky flavor carries straight onto the palate. Pretty dry and a little funky, it’s a little like sipping apple potpourri.
MillStone Cellars “farmgate” Cider, 8%, Monkton, Maryland
MillStone is a local cellar that makes a variety of different ciders, including this one composed of the tart heirloom varieties Jonathan, Stayman Winesap, and Smokehouse. It’s fermented in American oak barrels and it’s unfiltered, which makes it cloudy and pale yellow. Quite a bit of sediment is settled on the bottom of the bottle.
Aroma: I love the smell of this one because it reminds me very much of the winery I spent a few weeks at in Alsace. It’s the smell of sweet pressed fruit and the sticky residue of the harvest, a cool fresh scent lingering with the yeasty smell necessary for fermenting.
Taste: “farmgate” lives up to its tart varieties and is in fact very dry, sour even. There’s just about no fizz at all and almost no detectable sweetness, though it’s still distinctly apple-y. Very elegant.
Distillery Lane Ciderworks “Sidra Montaña Sur” Hard Cider, 7%, Jefferson, Maryland
Another Maryland producer! This one is made in the style of the northern Spanish Sidra and named for Maryland’s South Mountain. It’s absolutely still and has a clear pale gold. It’s second fermentation is malolactic, which means the sharp malic acid is converted to the creamy lactic acid.
Aroma: It smells almost like a Spanish white wine, like a cross between Godello and Verdejo: a little minerally, a little fruity, and full of mineral and apple (naturally).
Taste: Surprise! It tastes like an apple! It’s less intense and concentrated, quite dry but not tart, with little hints of flowers and a creamy texture. Immediately makes me want shellfish—like oysters or mussels.
Sam Smith Organic Cider, 5%, UK
Good ol’ Sammy Smith is like a reliable old friend and I picked it up simply to preach its gospel. It’s organic, fizzy like a beer, and has a bright golden straw color.
Aroma: It smells a lot like…apples. It smells like a cold, crisp, sweet-tart apple.
Taste: I used to think this was a really dry cider, because it’s definitely dry compared to most of the big production brands. But after the series of ciders I’ve tasted, it seems quite sugary sweet, which is surprising. It’s also the fizziest of the bunch and has a flavor akin to a Honeycrisp apple with a light, yeasty finish. It’s a pleasant, less serious, quaffable bottle.