By Larry Sterner
Even for seasoned wine experts, choosing a universally appropriate bottle to pair with holiday meals is a challenge. That’s why instead of making such a recommendation this year I’ll instead urge you to take a closer look at hard cider, now enjoying a renaissance among millennial drinkers.
Given its range of flavors, yes, there are sweet ciders, but there are also semi-sweet, off-dry, and dry ciders, this beverage pairs as beautifully with food as wine does but has a lower alcohol content that is closer to beer’s. However, unlike beer brewing, cider-making is controlled by terroir, or the soil condition, climate, and production techniques used from start to finish. Grapes are to wine as apples are to cider, both are made through the fermentation of their fruits and both have acidity and tannins.
Indeed, for holiday meals with turkey and dressing, roast goose, ham, and the like, cider can actually be a better fit than wine. Cider also naturally pairs with pork, in all of its forms, including ham and bacon. Not to mention all the apples everywhere: Apple pies, apples in stuffing, apples with cheese on the appetizer platter or mixed in a vegetable dish.
Cider’s very natural at Thanksgiving and Christmas, says Greg Hall, founder and owner of Virtue Cider in Michigan. We’re right in the heart of apple season, and we have the fresh cider coming right out of the small cider houses, sort of like the Beaujolais Nouveau of cider.
“We are biased, but we generally think cider is the most food-friendly beverage,” says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM). “Cider has high acid content, and the acid and residual sugars, depending on how dry the cider is, make really nice pairing components with food.”
A good pairing is not necessarily about matching proverbial apples to apples, it’s about contrasting flavors. For example, Cider Craft magazine recommends drinking a sour cider with sweet potatoes. It’s also about not over-burderning the palate. Everyone’s going to be eating too much at these feasts, so you need a beverage that’s light but complex refreshing and not too big and heavy. Opt for a cider that has good acid, good fruit, and a decent amount of tannins to cut through all those rich and fatty hams and roasts and mashed potatoes, but which will also leave you with enough room for some dessert afterwards.
Here’s a basic breakdown of cider types:
Semi-Sweet or Semi-Dry Cider: A pleasant balance of tart and sweet, packing more residual sugar than off-dry and dry. Expect an upfront, crisp apple flavor.
Off-Dry or Dry Cider: Contains the least amount of residual sugar, making them the driest varieties. A subtler apple flavor and stronger acidity reminiscent of dry white wine.
Ice Cider: Typically served with dessert; has more residual sugar than other varieties. You’ll find an ultra-concentrated apple flavor and a higher ABV.
Finding Great Ciders
The best place to find quality, artisanal ciders is your local craft beer store, wine shop, or alcohol retailer such as Total Wine & More. Laws vary by state, but some cideries will also ship straight to you. If possible, stick to those made with fresh apples instead of apple juice or concentrate, as they will pack the most flavor, be it funk, tartness, or sweetness. Here are some regional ciders I sampled at Philly Cider Week, which are worth seeking out (I’ve used quotes where the tasting notes come from the bottles):
This fourth-generation cider maker located in apple-rich Adams County sources its fruit from local orchards. These ciders can be found in Philadelphia at DiBruno Bros., Bella Vista Beverage and Springfield Beverage.
Dry, made from a blend of varietals. 8.5% ABV
Made from the titular varietal, fermented spontaneously with no yeast added and aged for 8 months. Excellent and interesting. 6.9% ABV
Eve’s Cidery produces naturally fermented ciders from organically grown and wild-foraged apples and pears in the hills of Van Etten, located at the intersection of the Finger Lakes and the Northern Appalachian Plateau in upstate New York. These are gastronomy ciders: complex, textural, and savory, they transcend their raw materials to become something else. Yes, they taste like apple or pear, but their flavors are a tapestry of fruit and flower, herb and nut. Tasting them, I imagine landscape, weather, light through trees, the place they come from. They only ship direct from the Cidery, to Pennsylvania but not New Jersey.
2018 Beckhorn Hollow
A fragrance of red cherry and carnations with a taste and finish of ripe fruit and citrus peel
2018 Darling Creek
Bottled before primary fermentation with no added sugars or yeast it yields a ripe, sweet nose with aromas of red cherry, persimmon and vanilla. The firm, smooth finish goes on forever with toffee bar, and buttered pastry flavors.
This ice cider was a revelation to me. Moderately sweet but not in the way of sweet apple cider, more like a fine sweet wine or Tawny port. Perfect for dipping biscotti. Scents of fried apples, sage, and brown butter, supported by hints of herbs de Provence. On the palate, salted caramel and lemon. The finish is a lingering hint of apple butter, acidity, and summer savory.
Self-taught orchardist Maria Kretschmann grew up on her family farm in Rochester, PA (north of Pittsburgh). She left home to live in Philadelphia where she worked as an artist and bartender. When her father started to speak of retirement Maria was drawn back to the farm where, as a longtime fan of cider, she began to convert their 4 acres over to cider apples. After the Fall’s first two ciders have been released this autumn though first year production is quite small (2500 bottles). You can buy them directly from the farm or at Fishtown Social.
This slightly off-dry blend of early season apples has a light flavor and comes in at 7% ABV. Very tasty and is a good starter cider for people new to the category.
This bone-dry cider is notably smooth while being complex in its flavors. It would, in my opinion, be excellent with food. It is fermented from Gold Rush and Dabinett apple varieties and contains 8% alcohol.
These local ciders are produced in a Cidery/Taproom just off of South Street (at 7th). They source all of the apples from Pennsylvania (largely Adams County).
“Blended with ginger and local alfalfa honey post-fermentation, balanced with a little kick, dry.” Low alcohol. Excellent with food. 6.5%
“Fermented with cranberries and local maple syrup, tart and aromatic, off-dry.” Slightly fruity, delicious. Could be paired with desserts. 6.0%