Hard cider is having a moment. No longer relegated to the netherworld between beer and wine, it’s now considered a serious drink all its own, with prominent placement on wine lists at high-end restaurants across the United States. Serious cider bars have opened in recent years, too, including Wassail in New York, Capitol Cider in Seattle, and Bushwhacker Cider in Portland.
Some ciders are made from snacking varieties like McIntosh, but the vast majority are made from gnarly, knotty varieties that are truly terrible for eating. They’re grouped by the amount of sweetness, bitterness, and tannin present into categories that include bittersweet, sharp, and bittersharp.
The range of cider styles can be overwhelming. There are traditional scrumpys and perries from England and dry cidres bruts from France, funky and tart sidra from Spain, and rich, boozy ice cider from Canada. American ciders, meanwhile, run the gamut from cheap swiggers to wild-fermented, terroir-driven examples.
Here’s a guide to the most prominent cider styles throughout the world.
The type of cider most familiar to Americans comes in six-packs of twelve-ounce bottles and is sold in the beer aisle of the grocery store. It’s sparkling, often made from apple juice concentrate rather than fresh-pressed juice, and is typically sweet and moderately (around 5 percent ABV) alcoholic. It’s marketed as a direct competitor of, or sweet alternative to, beer and is sometimes even made by a beer company (Angry Orchard, for instance, is owned by the Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams, and Stella Artois now makes a “Cidre”). Mass-produced ciders like this range from dry and crisp to cloying and sugary, the latter being the wretched norm.
In terms of production, packaging, and approach, American farmstead ciders have more in common with estate-grown wines than mass-produced ciders. That is, they’re made on orchard grounds, often by the fruit growers themselves, then packaged, wine style, in 750-milliliter bottles. Many are from single-variety heirloom apples like Kingston Blacks and Dabinetts. Others are blends of gnarly, tannic apples balanced with sweeter varieties like Stayman and Graniwinkle. Key regions include New England, Virginia, Michigan, and the Pacific Northwest.
Wild ciders are made from foraged apples picked from abandoned orchards or feral apple trees. Many abandoned orchards date back to Prohibition, when hard-cider production was outlawed; the apples were lousy for eating (or anything else) and were thus left to grow wild. Those orchards are largely unkempt and overgrown, making harvesting a remote, difficult endeavor. Wild ciders typically contain a blend of many dozens of apple varieties, most of which are unknown to the cider-maker. They’re tannic and dry and fermented with wild yeasts, which lend a funky, lemony flavor.
The influence of craft beer is especially visible in the cider world, where producers have been adapting trends like dry-hopping and barrel-aging for their own ends. This has spawned an experimental wing of the cider industry and brought on many new cider converts—albeit ones who prefer hoppy or bourbon-barrel-aged ciders to more traditional farmstead varieties, both trends lamented by many cider purists. At their best, experimental ciders stand on their own as delicious, singular beverages. At their worst? An irreconcilable clash of ideas.
Modern English pub cider is similar to mass-produced American cider in that it’s sparkling, semi-sweet, and boozy. It wasn’t always that way, though, and a movement to reclaim traditional English cider in pubs—the Campaign for Real Cider—has gained some momentum recently. For now, many pub-goers are stuck with the typical mainstream varieties that are often best avoided.
Unlike modern pub cider, traditional English scrumpy was neither carbonated nor pasteurized and was usually made in small batches by fruit growers, not in factories or breweries. In the west of England, cider production is dominated by the counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire, where small producers use heirloom apples for single-variety ciders like GoldRush and Redstreak. They also blend bittersweet, sharp, and bittersharp apples for balanced ciders of considerable complexity.
Perry is produced in the same methods of cider production but uses pear fruit instead of apples. It’s common in the three counties listed above as well as parts of northwestern France, where it’s called poire. Just like cider, perry varies in flavor from the mass-produced sparkling stuff to terroir-driven farmstead fermentations.
Cider is called cidre in French, and its production is localized to Brittany and Normandy, cooler-climate regions of the country where grapes are difficult to cultivate but apples thrive. Cidre brut is dry and usually deep amber in color, with serious carbonation amid aromas of earth and funk and a crisp finish. Higher-end varieties are typically bottled like Champagne, in corked and caged 750-milliliter bottles, and usually drunk with food rather than on their own.
Demi-sec means semi-dry, where the sweetness is balanced by bitter and bittersharp apples that bring tannin and structure to the cider. These ciders are often lighter-bodied and more floral than brut ciders, with a lower (around 5 percent) ABV.
Doux (or “soft”) ciders are sweet and low in alcohol, generally less than 3 percent ABV. They’re typically less complex and much less dry than cidre brut and demi-sec and therefore fairly lousy for pairing with food.
Sidra is a tart, lemony cider from the Asturias region of Spain. It’s common in Spain’s many cider houses, or sidreria, where it’s “thrown” from a large wooden cask or a glass porron (pitcher) into mugs. This action aerates the cider and heightens its aromas. (Most Spanish ciders contain some residual effervescence rather than being full-on carbonated.) Sidra is a heartier, more robust cider than Basque-style ciders, making it particularly well suited for the region’s rich stews and meats.
Sagardo, sagardoa, and sagarnoa are the Basque names for cider (they literally mean “apple wine”). Basque cider is found in the region’s sagardotegi, or cider houses, where’s it’s traditionally paired with grilled steak and salt-cod omelettes. Basque tends to be zippier and drier than Asturan ciders, with loads of acidity, complexity, and funk. Like sidra, it’s almost always produced as a gently carbonated beverage. The cider-making practice also spills over into the French Basque region, which produces ciders very different from those of Normandy and Brittany.
Ice cider, called cidre de glace in French and invented in Quebec in the 1990s, is made from the juice of pressed frozen apples. That juice is a super-concentrated nectar that’s sweet and full of fermentable sugars, lending ice cider its double-digit ABV and saccharine but balanced flavor. There are two ways to freeze the fruit: either by picking it during regular late fall harvest and freezing it manually, or by leaving it on the trees and harvesting it frozen in January. The fermentation process is slow and long and often takes several years. A single bottle of ice cider may contain up to ten pounds of apples. Quebec is still the epicenter of ice-cider production, and there are a few producers in both Vermont and upstate New York.
Pommeau is an aperitif or digestif made by blending unfermented apple must with distilled apple brandy (usually Calvados or another apple-based eau-de-vie) and aging it in oak barrels for several years before bottling. In Normandy and Brittany, Pommeau is protected by AOC designation, but its production has also become popular outside the region, primarily in the northeast United States, where it’s made from local apple brandy. It’s typically around 17 percent ABV, with a smooth, rich taste redolent of vanilla, butterscotch, and hazelnuts.