CHARLTON - Hard cider is here, but it hasn't arrived.
True, pubs and supermarkets have been stocking big brand hard ciders like Hornsby's and Woodchuck for years, increasing the popularity of the alcoholic older sibling to sweet cider. But, hard cider makers say, what's generally available does not even approach the variety of hard ciders that are being brewed - even just within New England.
"There's a lot of room for my cider and West County and Highland in the same bar," says Nate Benjamin, owner of the Obadiah McIntyre Farm Winery here, referring to a couple of fellow Massachusetts hard cider makers. "The diversity of hard ciders is immense, but the choice is very limited in public places."
Indeed, despite its rising popularity, hard cider remains somewhat of a monolith to consumers. But just as beer comes in ales, lagers, bocks, and stouts, hard cider also has its variations - still, sparkling, dry, sweet, French, and farmhouse - and comes in flavors as different as the brewers behind them. But to explore the wild world of cider, the curious should skip the supermarkets and head straight to the source.
Hard cider was once a very common drink in America. In colonial times, along with beer, cider was consumed in place of water, which was often disease-ridden, and sweet cider, which didn't keep. The alcohol in hard cider killed bacteria and made it a safe thirst quencher. Even kids drank it. With pasteurization and a 19th-century influx of German immigrants who popularized beer, hard cider became a forgotten drink.
"The function of fermentation was preservation," says Christie Higginbottom, chief horticulturalist at Old Sturbridge Village. The most popular apples used by settlers and still used today include Harrison, Roxbury Russet, and Virginia Crab. Cider apples generally have about half the sugar of grapes, are bitter and high in tannins, which Higginbottom says give the apples the taste of oak bark. Most ciders are blends, although some apples have the right balance of components to produce what are called single-apple ciders. One bushel of apples yields 2 1/2 to 3 gallons of hard cider, Benjamin says.
Benjamin, who also produces several apple and other fruit wines, says he is somewhat of a "renegade," using the same blend of apples that he uses for his sweet cider. Five apple varieties - Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Cortland, and Macoun - constitute most of his mix, the rest comes from 10 to 15 other "interchangeable" varieties with similar flavors.
At West County Cider in Colrain, Judith and Terry Maloney favor English cider apples such as Cox's Orange Pippin, Chisel Jersey, and Bramley, which are "bitter sharp," as well as "bitter sweet" French cider apples such as Clavelle Blanc, Reine De Pomme, and Dabinett. The Maloneys blend these European varieties with American apples for a selection of seven to 10 ciders every year.
After they are picked, the apples sit for several days, allowing their skins to loosen before they go into a hammer-mill, which pulverizes the fruit into a pulp called pomace. The pomace then goes directly into a cider press that squeezes the juice out. Bigger cider makers tend to use hydraulic presses; Benjamin uses a bladder press, which is slower. "The pomace that comes out is dry to the touch," says Benjamin, who presses about 300 gallons per week.
The juice then goes into fermentation tanks, where the sugar becomes alcohol. Most hard cider makers add commercial yeast, although some just use the wild yeast on the apples. To increase the alcohol content, brewers can add sugar or honey, or let the juice ferment longer. Benjamin lets his juice ferment six to eight weeks, resulting in a cider with about 6 percent alcohol content, while Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Farm Cyder in Vershire, Vt., ferments his juice for two years, resulting in a 9.5 percent alcohol content. Neither adds sugar.
Benjamin began making hard cider commercially in 2002, but used bitter apples in pursuit of an English style flavor. "I was making it traditional. It was dry. It was a little bit sharp," Benjamin says. "Most people didn't like it." Redemption came two years later in the form of a visiting Englishman, who told Benjamin his fellow Americans like things sweet. "He said I was another Yank trying to make Brit cider," says Benjamin. He listened, and the semi-sweet result, Nate's Hard Cider, earned him Best of Class at Indiana's Indy International Wine Competition in 2005. Benjamin's other cider, Razzy Apple, includes a 5 to 10 percent blend of raspberry juice.
Benjamin is worried that unless supermarkets and pubs start viewing hard cider more like beer and recognize the different styles, its popularity could wane as it did almost 200 years ago. "Cider is just approaching the top of the bell curve, and I hope that it can be sustained," he says.