THE POWER OF THE PRESS
For a number of local makers, cider rules
If you’d rather drink your apples than bite into them, you’re in luck: Hard cider is having a resurgence.
The drink, which in America dates back to the Founding Fathers (and helps explain the popularity of 18th-century nurseryman Johnny Appleseed, who spread seeds from Pennsylvania to Illinois, providing rural folk a perpetual supply of homemade hard stuff), is classified as a wine by the federal government and is made much the same way: Apples are crushed into juice, yeast is added, the mixture is fermented and then it’s bottled.
Like wine, cider gets its distinctive flavors from the mix of fruit varieties used. Some makers use the apples we’re all familiar with: Jonathans, Galas, Jonagolds, Pink Ladies, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious. But there are also varieties (like the Kingston Black) that are known as “cider apples”: Often tannic and bitter, they’re not exactly the kind of sweet, juicy fruit you’d want to put into your kid’s lunchbox—but they make a great hard drink.
“For traditional types of cider, the apples are more like wine grapes; they have a lot of tannins and different flavors that make it through fermentation,” says Brad Page, co-founder of Colorado Cider Company. “Apples that grow for the dessert market, for their sweetness, have a lot of sugar in them but not a lot of structure. It’s like table grapes versus wine grapes. You wouldn’t really make a very good wine with table grapes, but just sitting around in the summer, you wouldn’t want to eat wine grapes, either.”
Stem Ciders cofounder Eric Foster says his company gets many of its apples from Washington, Oregon and Michigan, but also uses Colorado apples for high-end specialty ciders. “The fruit is unique here,” he says. “We have one really unusual product available year-round called Crabby Neighbor, a crabapple and Granny Smith blend. And about six months ago, we released a Colorado Heritage cider that’s all Colorado fruit.”
Some cider makers, such as Clear Fork Cider, focus almost exclusively on using heirloom apples, including varieties brought to Colorado by homesteaders. “The best time to look for old, neglected apple trees is in the spring, when they’re in bloom,” says Jay Kenney, co-founder of Clear Fork, which began making commercial cider in spring 2016 and bottled its first batch this past spring (it currently makes three types of cider). “To find trees, you look along roadways, fence lines or sometimes deep in the forest where people once farmed.” He and his business partner, Karl Kister, found a 100-year-old orchard near Cortez where the apples—one bitter but sweet, another mildly acidic—were so perfect they cloned them to use in their ciders. Another old Colorado orchard was about to be torn up to make way for a housing development, so Clear Fork got permission to take grafts from the trees to propagate a similar orchard.
“There’s something magical about working in an orchard that old,” Kenney says. “It’s hard physical work—lifting and carrying, cleaning and sanitizing. But it’s extraordinary. I love blending different apples and figuring out what’s going to taste good. Cider is still a relatively small part of the market, compared to beer and wine, but it’s had a huge increase in the last five years.”
Hard cider today is roughly where craft beer was 25 years ago: “In the U.S. now, cider’s about 1 percent of the market,” says Page, whose Colorado Cider taproom has 16 ciders on tap, and about 10 varieties sold statewide in liquor stores and bars. “In the early days of craft beer, people were saying, ‘Can we get to 2 percent of the market?’ Now it’s like 15 percent or more. Cider is sort of the last piece of the puzzle as far as traditional beverages go—a way of drinking something wine-like but with a lower alcohol level.”
Adds Foster, whose company regularly distributes eight ciders and has 10 to 15 ciders available in its RiNo taproom: “People have learned that cider is a viable drinking option. It has a lower alcohol content than wine (roughly 4 to 9 percent) and is very refreshing. Cider’s high in acid, so it cuts through really burly plates—like pork or fatty foods—the way wine does, but it’s a little more approachable.
He says craft beer drinkers tend to be on the lookout for new options, not just to drink but also to pair with food. But that doesn’t mean every customer is eager to try cider—particularly guys. “Every day, I see a woman dragging her husband or boyfriend into the taproom to drink cider, with him swearing that he doesn’t like it,” Foster says. “Then he takes a sample and suddenly says, ‘Wow, I guess I do like cider.’ That’s because the cider these guys have had in the past was mass-produced, with lots of sugar added; they’ve never had dry, craft cider, and a whole new world opens up. It’s like going from a wine cooler to a nice cabernet.”
WHICH APPLE WHEN?
A guide to 8 common Colorado apples
Photos by Mark Seetin, U.S. Apple Association
Physiognomy: Yellow-skinned with an orange blush and red stripes
Provenance: Discovered in 1952 in New Zealand, possibly a cross between Lady Hamilton and Granny Smith
Top notes: Both sweet and tart, with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon
Best for: Pies and tarts, as it holds its juice
Fun fact: Whipping up a fruit salad? Cut or sliced Braeburns don’t brown as fast as other varieties.
Physiognomy: Large, with pink speckles over a red-golden background
Provenance: Developed in Japan in the 1930s, a cross between Red Delicious and Ralls Janet, the apple came to the U.S. in the 1980s.
Top notes: Very sweet and ultra-crisp
Best for: Eating fresh
Fun fact: Fujis account for 70 percent of China’s apple production.
Physiognomy: Mottled or striped, orange-y in color
Provenance: Developed in the 1930s in New Zealand, a mix of Golden Delicious and Kidd’s Orange Red
Top notes: Both sweet and tart, with a vanilla touch that tastes almost tropical
Best for: Snacking or baking
Fun fact: Don’t even think about insulting the Gala; it’s thinner-skinned than most apples.
Physiognomy: Pale green to yellow, often with darker speckles
Provenance: Discovered by chance in the early 1900s in West Virginia; unrelated to the red delicious
Top notes: Very sweet, with a honey flavor
Best for: Great fresh for snacking; acidic enough for baking, too
Fun fact: This apple, the state fruit of West Virginia, is very sensitive to bruising.
Physiognomy: Honeycrisps tend to be large and heavy, one of many reasons farmers find them hard to grow.
Provenance: The University of Minnesota (which may be why the apple is cold-hardy)
Top notes: Very sweet, with a really strong “snap”
Best for: Snacking
Fun fact: The Honeycrisp’s cells are much larger than most apples’, which explains those famously big, juicy bites.
Physiognomy: Large apples with a brindled red blush over a green-fading-to-yellow skin.
Provenance: Created in 1953 at Cornell University as a cross between Jonathans and Golden Delicious
Top notes: Both tart (from Jonathans) and-sweet (from Golden Delicious parent), with a honey-like flavor
Best for: Snacking
Fun fact: Jonagolds have a short growing season.
Physiognomy: Small to medium in size, bright red brushed with green, sometimes with lighter freckles
Provenance: Discovered in 1811 on the Canadian land of a farmer whose last name was McIntosh
Top notes: Very tart
Best for: Baking if mixed with firmer apples, as well as eating off the tree
Fun fact: This cultivar, which likes to grow in cool temperatures, is the national apple of Canada
Physiognomy: Shiny, red, elongated fruit with five-pointed calyx
Provenance: 1870s in Iowa; once named the Hawkeye
Top notes: Blandly sweet
Best for: Snacking
Fun fact: Once the most-produced apple in the nation (because of its glistening skin, ruby-red color and classic good looks), the Red Delicious has fallen a bit out of favor and is now fading in popularity