Hard ciders seem to be everywhere lately, and while I admit to being more of an IPA fan, ciders have gotten my attention. Not only does New England (Massachusetts and Rhode Island, to be exact) have a deep-rooted history of making hard apple cider, it’s healthier than most beers and gluten-free. It’s fermented like beer (although Redd’s Apple Ale is actually a brewed ale and not fermented), and there are a million variables and regional differences that affect the taste. Additionally, hard cider is pretty cool to use in cocktails.
I am always wary of unnecessary sugars and the more I’ve looked into the specifics, my preconceived notions were pretty wrong. I compared Strongbow Hard Cider and Woodchuck Amber Hard Cider to Narragansett Lager, Foolproof Backyahd IPA and GreySail’s Flying Jenny, all in 12 oz increments according to myfitnesspal.com and various websites (so it’s ballpark but useful), just to know how this all fits into my world of constantly comparing sugar, sodium and alcohol content:
- Strongbow Hard Cider is 4.5% ABV, 140 calories, 30g carbs, 10mg sodium, and 12g sugar.
- Woodchuck Amber Hard Cider is 5% ABV, 200 calories, 21g carbs, 15mg sodium, and 21g sugar.
- Narragansett Lager is 5% ABV, 330 calories, 38g carbs, 0mg sodium, and 8g sugar.
- Foolproof Backyahd IPA is 6% ABV, 110 calories, 20g carbs, 0mg sodium and 14g sugar.
- Greysail Flying Jenny Extra Pale Ale is 6% ABV, 120 calories, 31g carbs, 0mg sodium, and 29g sugar.
Takeaway: it’s not all that different from beers, but has a little more sodium. There is also something to be said for naturally occurring sugars instead of added ones.
Lets get some things straight: there is hard cider (fermented alcoholic cider), sweet cider (just pressed apples), apple juice (which is usually much sweeter, heavily filtered and, from my experience, way too sugary) and sparkling cider (a direct result of prohibition; just carbonated apple juice). Looking into the history of cider and homebrewing methods, I found an appealing thing called “applejack,” a higher alcohol content, more concentrated version of hard cider that can be made by leaving a barrel of hard cider outside over the winter and removing the frozen water. The alcohol concentration is raised to 20 – 30% ABV. I think that sounds like quite a happy accident. Any variety of apple (or pear if you are making perry) can be used, but cider apples are the best. Cider apples are different from “cookers” or “eaters” because they don’t taste all that great, and are marked by their bitterness and dryness of flavor. They also have a higher sugar level, which is important in the fermentation process and increases alcohol content and tannins, which add depth to the flavor. There are “sharps” which are high in acidity and low in tannins, “bittersweets” which are low in acidity and high in tannin, and “bittersharps” which are high in both acidity and tannin. The yeast used in the process also greatly affects the end product.
When the Mayflower was crossing the ocean, it was almost cracked in half during a storm, and the ever-resourceful pilgrims used “the great iron screw” from a cider press to brace the main beam and continue on to the New World. Nine days after landing in Plymouth, William Blackstone planted the first apple tree. By 1622 they figured out that they needed some honeybees to pollinate their apple trees, and started shipping these non-native insects over to America. The earliest known successful orchard was in Boston, and the oldest known apple varieties come from Massachusetts Bay Colony (Roxbury Russet in 1634), Plymouth Colony (Hightop Sweet, 1630) and Providence Plantations (Rhode Island Greening, 1650). Beer and cider were purportedly safer to drink than the water, and I love the visual of all these bawdy early settlers: In 1676, Nicholas Spencer, secretary of the Virginia House of Burgesses, blamed their two years of riots on cider and is recorded as saying, “All plantations flowing with syder, soe unripe drank by our licentious inhabitants, that they allow no tyme for its fermentation but in their braines.” Also, as a side note, brewing was traditionally a female-dominated field, largely considered a by-product of gathering and thus part of baking.
For this article, I decided to not go on a cider bender, but instead found out that my boss is a cider connoisseur! Her words of wisdom are: Sonoma Cider is amazing, specifically the pear one. Apple and bourbon flavored ones are good, absinthe flavor and vanilla not as much. Of course personal tastes do vary. Far From the Tree is made in Salem, Massachusetts and is very good. Citizens Cider out of Burlington, Vermont, is a favorite, and they offer a “Wit’s Up” that has no sugar or sulfites. Downeast Cider is sweet and tastes just like apples; AS220 has it on tap and I loved it. Harpoon Cider has no preservatives, not very much sugar and tastes pretty good. Angry Orchard is very available but not as good as a lot of the more local ciders. Magners is OK. Also, my younger sister swears by Strongbow, from when she lived in London.
Try it out: ciders are not all as sweet as you’d think, are an art to create, and are part of our local tradition.