Bittersweet Cider

photo by Dennis Wilkinson
photo by Dennis Wilkinson

Before German immigrants brought their rich brewing culture to American shores in the mid-1800s, another alcoholic drink was the choice of the middle class: hard cider.

But with the rise of beer, hard cider in America slowly but surely disappeared, even though apples continued to be a chief crop here. Instead of cider, the fruits turned into applesauce and sliced snacks for children. Meanwhile, the masses switched to their new drink made from barley and hops.

And now cider has returned as an alternative drink to beer, favored by those who eschew beer’s bitterness or want to get their buzz on without any gluten involved. In fact, in case you forgot, New York is smack dab in the middle of Cider Week, which is telling in itself of how much cider has rebounded.

The problem is that most of the new brands are light and sweet. How much of a resemblance do they have to the ciders of old? Probably not much.

Why? Because much of the cider we find today in sports bars and trendy night clubs come from apples meant more for eating than fermenting. Two hundred years ago, American settlers used apples that were probably too bitter for most people to eat. So, the colonial fermented apple juice probably puckered some lips – at least far more than that sweet stuff your roommate drinks.

When done more traditionally, a hard cider can be similar to a dry white wine, bringing more tartness than sweetness to the palate.

Unfortunately, Prohibition ultimately killed cider – while many breweries managed to survive by making soft drinks or selling ice, cider apples were suddenly rendered useless, causing many orchard owners to burn their orchards and start over. When Prohibition was repealed, they would have needed years to re-plant and refocus.

But in the last couple of decades, cider has been making a comeback in part because it’s easier to import apples best used for cider. Unfortunately, many of these apples – from Dabinett to Tramlett’s Bitter – simply don’t grow well in many American climates.

According to “Bittersweet apples impart the characteristic flavour of English ciders; as the name implies they are low in acid and high in tannin. The latter is responsible for two sensations on the palate - astringency and bitterness. In the bittersweet apple, there is a whole range of combinations of these two characteristics, varying from little astringency coupled with intense bitterness to very marked astringency coupled with mild bitterness.”

Doesn’t sound like Woodchuck Cider, does it?

But tannic bittersweet apples – also known as “spitters” – have become a coveted product, and varieties can grow in the U.S. But most of the commercial cider producers don’t use these, which would more accurately produce ciders that harken back to 19th century French and English ciders. In fact, back in June, a reported shortage according to a Reuters story was considered a threat to the cider resurgence.

bittersweet cider apples, photo by Mark Shirley
bittersweet cider apples, photo by Mark Shirley

But the Reuters report noted that to plant large numbers of these trees requires a huge, long-term commitment. Will the cider surge continue? If cider producers aren’t willing to invest, can it possibly last?

Interestingly, several brands are moving in the direction of the bittersweet – Strongbow released a new branding campaign this year to take advantage of the bittersweet tradition. And Crispin, which is a popular light cider brand, makes an English cider called Browns Lane that is made with traditional English bittersweet cider apples.

What this could mean is that perhaps a bigger focus on imported cider brands and specialty ciders touting bittersweet apples will help keep the cider surge moving forward, and with more traditional, full-flavored ciders finding their way to American palates. Perhaps this will help fuel a ground swell of U.S. producers to help bring back the bittersweets to our shores.