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Moving Beyond Green Apples — Learning Cider, or, The Wonderful World of Pork and Cider

Tastes like green apples’ is the description that appears most often in the cider section of the Moleskin that I use to chronicle my tasting experiences.  I can hear the collective groan and palm-to-forehead slap of my friends in the cider profession hearing this.  I am a man of many weaknesses and discerning the sensory nuances of cider is certainly one of them.   What I lack in cider knowledge and palate ability I make up for with enthusiasm for the subject.

A few weeks ago wifey and I invited a few friends over — including wine writer Jim Raper and his wife Deborah, and cider maker Courtney Mailey (on Twitter: @Cider Apprentice)  — for an afternoon of cider tasting.   Hard apple cider, that is.

Our tasting lineup included 16 hard apple ciders:

In addition to learning more about the sensory nuances of cider as a standalone beverage, I’m keen to learn about how food changes the sensory components of hard apple cider.  Given my lack of cider and food pairing knowledge, I turned to the experts for pairing advice:  first from one of the best-known cider makers in the U.S., Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider in southwestern, VA, as well as from Courtney, and finally from a friend and cider-head living in the United Kingdom (the Brits do love their cider).

Based on these recommendations we split the ciders in to three groups — dry, off dry, and sweet — and paired them with different small bites.  Brie and two cheddar cheeses were paired with the dry ciders, butternut squash soup was paired with the off-dry group, and pork bbq sliders with vinegar-based sauce were also paired with the off dry and the sweet ciders.

As we were getting started — about the same time I spit my first mouthful of cider in to the designated spit bucket — I learned a valuable piece of cider tasting-room etiquette.  Courtney noted that although spitting is common in winery tasting rooms, this practice is not so common and often frowned upon, in cider tasting rooms.  This is/was new to me and may explain the strange looks I’ve received during visits to cider tasting rooms.  Lesson learned — no spitting.

We started the tasting with Brie paired with the Foggy Ridge Serious Cider, Farnum Hill Kingston Black, Castle Hill Terrestrial, and the Albemarle Cider Works Jupiter’s Legacy.  The mushroom funky goodness of the Brie seemed to fight with the ciders. Lesson learned #2 —Brie and dry apple cider does not a good pairing make!  I retired the Brie from any further pairings and revisited later in the evening — not surprising, the Brie didn’t pair well with any of the other ciders.  Thankfully Courtney brought two cheddar cheeses that seemed better matches for the cider.

The second round included butternut squash soup and the off-dry ciders.  My desire to taste the ciders and take notes quickly superseded my desire to keep the tasting neatly organized so this round included the dry ciders from the previous round as well.  The butternut squash soup paired nicely with all of them.

At some point before or during the off-dry cider round — my recollection is fuzzy here — preserved lemons were introduced in to the tasting.  Often called country lemons in these parts, preserved lemons are generally used as a tart condiment. Courtney brought the lemons as a pairing experiment.  Though I like a little preserved lemon every now and again, the pungent sour and saltiness were like cider kryptonite, killing the aromatics and flavor of the ciders.  Lesson Learned #3 — continue to enjoy preserved lemons as a condiment, but never pair with hard apple cider!

The last round included pork BBQ sliders with a vinegar-based sauce expertly prepared by my amazing wife.  The sliders were paired with all bottles with ‘cider’ on the label, and fit in perfectly.  Cider tasting Lesson Learned #4 — pork BBQ sliders make for an ideal cider pairing.

Though I enjoyed most of the ciders we tasted, one of my personal favorites of the tasting was the Albemarle Cider Works Virginia Hewes Crab.  As the name suggests this cider is made from the Virginia Crab apple, also known as Hewe’s Crab, one of the four apples Thomas Jefferson concentrated on at Monticello (Taliaferro, Newton Pippin and Esopus Spitzenburg being the other three). The Hewe’s crab is a small, nearly round apple with dull red skin with green-yellow streaks (or vice versa depending on how one looks at the apple) and was the most important horticultural cultivar in eighteenth-century Virginia according to Monticello.org.

“No wonder that these small and high-colored apples are thought to make the best cider. Loudon quotes from the Herefordshire Report that ‘Apples of a small size are always, if equal in quality, to be preferred to those of a larger size, in order that the rind and kernel may bear the greatest proportion to the pulp’….”  ~ Henry David Thoreau, Wild Fruits, 1859

The other standout of the tasting for me was the Foggy Ridge First Fruit, which, I should admit, has been my favorite cider since I first took up cider learnin’ about a year and a half ago.  Foggy Ridge’s First Fruit — a blend of early season American heirloom apples — is fresh and crisp with pear and green apple candy throughout.

Of the three Farnum Hill Ciders included in the tasting, I really liked the Farmhouse Cider.  A light cider, in terms of mouthfeel, with sour green apple candy and tart citrus throughout, this cider would be a great alternative to a crisp, steely Sauvignon Blanc on a very hot day.

Of the three Castle Hill Ciders, I much preferred the Celestial.  A fine cider with notable structure, the Celestial showed melon and spice on the nose and in the mouth I picked up pear and spice.  My least favorite was the Castle Hill Gravity, which is a still apple cider (i.e. – without bubbles).  Though I’ve only tried three or four still ciders, I’m of the opinion that apple cider needs some fizz.  Lesson learned — fizzy cider (for lack of a more educated term) is more refreshing and palette pleasing to me.

My cider takeaways:

  • Spitting is not generally accepted as proper cider tasting room etiquette.
  • Pork bbq with vinegar-based sauce pairs well with all ciders — A near perfect pairing.
  • I am not a fan of still hard apple cider.
  • Preserved lemons are like palate kryptonite for me and kill the aromatics and flavor of cider (for me).
  • Cider pairs well with breakfast the day after a cider tasting.
  • An apple tree takes five to seven years to mature and bear cider quality fruit.
  • Cider is like wine in that both are infinite subjects — the more you learn, the less you realize you know.

The very best way to learn about cider is to visit the cidery and taste through all of their ciders.  Here in Virginia, there are currently three hard apple cider producers currently open for tastings – Foggy Ridge Cider, Albemarle Cider Works and Castle Hill Cider – with two or three more set to open in 2012.  The cider industry here is reminiscent of the Virginia wine industry just two decades ago – filled with passionate visionaries determined to put Virginia on the global cider map.

In terms of cider education, I feel as if I’ve now graduated from the ‘tastes like green apple‘ class, but still have a long way to go before fully appreciating (and identifying) the nuances of quality hard apple cider.   Thank you Diane and Courtney for your help in better understanding the fascinating world of cider!

A few days after this tasting, the results of the Governor’s Cup Virginia Wine Competition were announced.  A new addition for this year’s Governor’s Cup was the Virginia cider category.  Congratulations to these Virginia ciders that took home some hardware:

  • Silver Medal — Foggy Ridge Sweet Stagmore
  • Silver Medal — Foggy Ridge Serious Cider
  • Silver Medal — Albemarle Cider Works Ragged Mountain
  • Bronze Medal — Albemarle Cider Works Old Virginia Wine Sap
  • Bronze Medal — Albemarle Cider Works Virginia Hewes Crab
  • Bronze Medal — Albemarle Cider Works Royal Pippin
  • Bronze Medal — Foggy Ridge First Fruit
  • Bronze Medal — Foggy Ridge Handmade
  • Bronze Medal — Castle Hill Terrestrial

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