DRAFT PICKS: Apple brews growing in popularity

My best friend in the world suggested I stray from the norm a bit, and offer a few words on cider — a beverage with a lot of history and growing in popularity today.

Almost everyone knows about Woodchuck ciders  produced in Vermont. I’d guess many folks kind of consider them a drink not unlike the Mike’s Hard Lemonade selections.

It’s not the same thing. Neither Woodchuck not any other real hard cider is a flavored malt beverage ...or an alcohol-based Kool-Aid!

Cider is cider. The real stuff is great. The other stuff is ... um ... not great!

Let’s talk terminology. As I discuss cider in this article, I am not talking about the wonderful refreshing jugs of light brown nectar produced all around the state during the autumn season. The beverage we will be discussing here is what is known in the U.S. as “hard cider.”

Cider is produced in any part of the world where apples are grown. There also are a variety of pear, peach and other fruit ciders.

Hard ciders are generally slow fermented, and fermentation is most often stopped before all the sugars in the batch are used up. Those who better understand the process than do I, claim the slow fermentation leads to less loss of aroma.

In most serious slow-fermentation processes, cider is properly aged and ready for drinking after about 3-4 months. Some really good cider producers (usually in the UK) leave their batches to “work” for up to three years.

Ciders often are blended to make them more marketable. Just as there are different tasting apples, so too the cider from those apples have different qualities.

Some ciders have a touch of sugar kicked in just prior to bottling in order to bump up the sharpness and bubbling.

Back in the day, there used to be cider festivals all over the cider making world. In Great Britain, there are still Octoberfest-style celebrations held, but with cider as the main merry-making ingredient.

In the U.S., any cider festivals held are decidedly local.

Hard cider was a very important commodity in the colonial period. Because water, and specifically any sort of municipal water, was so bad, fermented cider was the main drink on many family tables.

Before the Prohibition period, the word “cider” almost always referred to what is today called hard cider. Anything else was simply called “apple juice.”

With Prohibition, folks began calling apple juice “cider.”

Today, most official classifications refer to the beverage by its alcohol content. Hard cider contains alcohol, soft cider does not. If sugar is added during the process, some states require the batch be classified as apple wine.

My grandpa from Big Rapids used to make stuff he called Applejack.

Truth be known, I don’t have a clear remembrance of his methods but I was interested in one stage of the process.

He used to let the apple cider batch ferment in these huge corked bottles in the garage.

This stuff would “work” until there was snow on the ground. When it got really cold out, the ol’ geezer would pour the cider into huge, galvanized washtub-like containers.

He’d let the whole lot freeze solid. Then he and my uncle would use blowtorches to heat iron rods red and even white hot; whip the pokers out of the flame, and in one fell swoop, shove them into the frozen cider.

The claim was that this sudden change of temperature produced some cathartic chemical reaction, and the alcohol content would increase dramatically.

I always believed this was true, but in later years (like today!) I kinda think the effort might well have been some old tradition that got folks excited and involved, but really didn’t do anything but make for a dramatic show.

Grandpa’s hard cider was poured into big jugs and buried in a corner of the garage for storage.

Truth be known, he probably could have saved his breath and energy with the digging and burying part of the process. I don’t think any of the hooch lasted around the ol’ Big Rapids homestead for too long! My grandma made him stop making the stuff when I was still little.

I never tasted this version of cider. I don’t know if this was because of the alcohol content, or if my mom was simply afraid grandpa would poison us all (His production process wasn’t exactly ...um ...er ...clean).

Anyway ... cider production in the U.S. has become much more mainstream over the past couple decades or so.

Here are some of the best produced in the U.S. and Canada as rated by RateBeer subscribers.

● Archibald Orchards Spiced Winter Apple, Archibald Orchards and Estate Winery, Bowmanville, Ontario

● Sea Cider Rumrunner, Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, Central Saanich, British Columbia

● J.K.’s Cuvée Winterruption Farmhouse Hard Cider, Almar Orchards, Flushing, Michigan

● Flag Hill Farm Vermont Sparkling Hard Cyder, Flag Hill Farm, Vershire, Vermont

● Cidrerie Léo Boutin Pomelle; Cidrerie Léo Boutin, Mont-St-Gregoire, Quebec

● Woodchuck Private Reserve Barrel Select Cider, Vermont Hard Cider Company, LLC, Middlebury, Vermont

● Crispin Stagger Lee, Crispin Cider Company (Tenth and Blake Beer Co. — MillerCoors), Minneapolis, Minnesota

● Verger du Minot Crémant de Glace, Verger du Minot, Hemmingford, Quebec

● ÆppelTreow Sparrow Spiced Cider, ÆppelTreow Winery, Burlington, Wisconsin

● Furnace Brook Winery French Cider Special Reserve, Furnace Brook Winery, Richmond, Massachusetts.

And found above are a few locally available, and locally tasted. (I have stuck to my beer tasting standards for reviewing these ciders.)

I enjoyed this little foray into the world of cider, but truth be known ... I’ll stick with beer!

Woodchuck Amber Draft Cider

Vermont Hard Cider Company, LLC

Middlebury, Vt.

Woodchuck’s Amber Draft Cider is five-percent alcohol by volume. It pours a sparkling gold color with a limited head of rich off-white or very light beige foam.

This is cider. There is no doubt about it. To start waffling about searching for hidden scents and tastes is simply a waste of time.

There is a rich apple scent with cinnamon and pie-style spice highlights.

This Woodchuck’s is slightly sweet, and mildly tart in the apple-sense of the word. Not bitter or sour, just a touch tart.

One thing is certain, this is a crisp and very refreshing drink.

For a person who is not a regular cider drinker, (me!), this was a bit of a surprise. It’s good! I understand why people are such big fans of the Woodchuck line.

I suppose some might think this is simply apple juice with alcohol.

It is not.

A different genre? For sure. What some snobs call “alcopop”?

Not at all.

Woodchuck’s Amber Draft version is well balanced. Not too complex, not too simple. Not too sweet, not too biting.

This brew can best be described as honest.

I’d suggest it might be a good base for a mulled cider, but Woodchuck is just as refreshing straight up.

This drink, and other ciders for that matter, certainly need to be either decently chilled or mulled.

My guess is that drinking this, (and others), at room temperature is simply asking for a classic headbanger.

Angry Orchard Hard Cider (Crisp Apple)

Angry Orchard (Boston Beer Co.) Cincinnati.

I drank this cider on a cold, cold winter’s evening and have to admit that even though it was chilled, (not mulled), it was a very nice drink.

Angry Orchard poured what I would suppose is a pretty typical orange-brown color — drifting a little toward the yellow tones.

There was a nice head of rich, bubbly foam that transmitted the wonderful apple aroma very well. There is a distinct sweetness to this cider’s scent. You certainly know what you’re getting into.

I’m not a huge fan of apples, but my Dearly Beloved eats bags of green apples every week. We have them around the house. I found the taste of this cider leaning toward the green apples more than the red, although as noted it is distinctly sweet rather than tart.

There is a lightness to Angry Orchard that is much appreciated. There is little ‘bite’ and the sweetness that is ever so present is not overwhelming.

Really, this is a very well balanced cider.

Very, very straight forward and not at all pretentious.

Angry Orchard was crisp while still being gentle on the palate. There wasn’t anything aggressive, but it still wasn’t too sissified as to make it off-putting for most beer drinkers looking for a change of pace.

There was an odd finish. It was quite sweet, and then pretty abruptly disappeared into nothingness.

Hmmmm ...

All in all, I appreciated this offering in the genre.