One of the fastest-growing beverage categories in America is hard cider, light, usually bubbly wine made from apples.

Impact Databank says that the top 10 cider brands in the U.S. market increased sales by 63 percent to 9.6 million 2.25-gallon cases in 2012.

The boom is a return to the past. In early America, cider was the beverage of choice. It remains immensely popular in Normandy in France, Asturias and the Basque regions of Spain and, of course, in England.

Early immigrants brought apple seedlings (the seeds don’t produce fruit like their parents) and planted them to produce the popular beverage. It was a healthy alternative to water that might be tainted, and also was tasty.

The early pioneers consumed an average of 35 gallons a year, stistics show.

And, yes, there really was a Johnny Appleseed. John Chapman was a pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and planted seedlings that produced cider.

Immigrants from what is now Germany and the Czech Republic brought a love of beer with them, however, and barley was easier to grow and keep than apples.

Soon beer overtook cider in popularity, and during Prohibition, the name was applied to unfermented apple juice, a tradition that remains today. The filtered version is often simply called apple juice.

Hence we now call the alcoholic version “hard” cider, but for this article, I will use “cider” to refer to the hard version.

Like apple wine

Cider is produced by fermenting apple juice — ideally from crushed and pressed fresh apples — much like wine. Apples contain less sugar than wine grapes, however, so cider is typically closer to beer in alcohol, 4 to 7 percent, than wine.

It can be dry or retain some sugar (or have sugar or apple concentrate added), and still or sparkling, either naturally or by carbonation.

A similar beverage made from pears is called perry, though some producers call pear-flavored apple cider perry.

In the 1970s, the apple wine called Boone’s Farm was immensely popular, and was a similar pear wine called Ripple.

They were famous for hangovers; fermenting the pectins found in many fruits produces a small amount of toxic methanol or wood alcohol. Fortunately, the percentage is low and shouldn’t affect anyone who doesn’t binge.

As with wine or beer, the industry is split between industrial and artisan producers. One obvious distinction: making cider from apples or making it from concentrate, much of which comes from China.

The difference between cider made from fresh apples and those from apple concentrate is the reason some ciders taste fresh and clean, others slightly cooked. (Imagine wine made from concentrate!)

And if you’re worried about salmonella from cider made from fresh apples, as has happened with fresh apple juice, you don’t need to worry. Human pathogens can’t live in alcohol.

A boom in Sonoma

Artisanal producers have sprung up in areas where apples were traditionally grown, like the Northeast and Washington state, and especially Sonoma County.

Sonoma was traditionally home of vast Gravenstein apple orchards, Gravenstein being one of the best apples for making cider. Ace Cider was a pioneer in resurrecting Gravenstein cider.

Unlike popular eating and baking varieties, cider apples are tart and tannic; again, imagine the taste of a cabernet grape compared with a Thompson seedless.

Sadly, many of those orchards in Sonoma have been replaced by vineyards, though they do produce excellent pinot noir, which is some consolation.

Perhaps the popularity of hard cider will save some of the orchards, just as white zinfandel saved many vines that now once again produce red versions.

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Making cider from fresh apples is more expensive than buying Chinese concentrate, however, and you can process concentrate year-round, unlike fresh apples, though they store pretty well.

Many basic ciders I tried — a Crispin Cider from Colfax, Ace Cider from Sonoma and Stella Artois cider from France aren’t pure cider. They list hard cider as the first ingredient, then comes water with apple concentrate next as a sweetener.

Aside from land prices, Napa is generally too warm for cider apples, though at least one entrepreneur started  growing them here but abandoned the effort.

Flavored ciders abound

One inevitable side effect of cider’s popularity has been the rise of beverages based on cider. These include heavily sweetened versions and some flavored with other fruits and spices.

I tried some ciders I could buy locally at supermarkets. Most have small selections. The ciders that just listed hard cider as the only ingredient were better than the others, but that didn’t necessarily seem to be true.

Ace Cider in Sebastopol produces Ace Apple Cider, Apple Honey Cider, Berry Cider, Perry Cider, Pumpkin Cider and a dry cider it calls Ace Joker Cider. Some are seasonal.

The Ace Joker seems bone dry. I don’t know what the sweetener listed is adding. It would be a good accompaniment with food where you’d drink sauvignon blanc. The other Ace ciders might be better on their own. They seem to be 6.9 percent alcohol.

The Stella tastes clean and is slightly off dry. It’s the best I found to drink on its own but would be good with pork dishes and chicken. It’s only 4.5 percent — Budweiser territory. I could happily drink it when I go out instead of the overpriced wines local bars serve by the glass.

The Crispin I had was light and thin. You might as well drink club soda, although it’s 6.9 percent alcohol. Crispin has a number of varieties, however, but they are hard to find.

Woodchuck Amber Hard Cider, its original flavor, is apple-y and off dry. It’s 5 percent alcohol. It’s pleasant alone.  

The Angry Orchard Crisp Apple has a cherry flavor that you also find in some apples. It was 5 percent alcohol, and very dry, too.

None tasted “cooked” like some mass-produced brands do.

Sonoma Beverage Works in Healdsburg makes Sonoma Cider apple cider as well as pear-flavored and even bourbon-flavored cider. The company brags that its ciders are made from fresh apples, however.

Devoto Orchards in Sebastopol recently released its first cider.

Dieters take notice

If you’re concerned about calories, one nice thing about cider (compared with wine) is that 12 ounces typically has 135 to 235 calories, in those I tried. So if you pour 6-ounce servings, which is nice to keep them cold, you can drink two glasses of cider for each glass of wine and consume the same number of calories.

The popular ciders are also reasonable in cost. Six bottles are typically less than $10, sometimes closer to $5.

Most ciders sold are made by big companies, including leading beer producers and marketers. Some wine companies have sold cider brands recently, including Gallo selling Hornsby and Constellation dumping its U.K. brands, though it just added Somersby Apple Cider made by Carlsberg in Denmark. Stella Artois is from Anheuser-Busch.

Cider can also be distilled to produce Calvados or apple brandy, traditionally called applejack in the U.S. and made by freezing cider and removing part of the ice — the alcohol doesn’t freeze at reasonable temperatures. This can concentrate unwanted alcohols like methanol and other products, however. Those are generally discarded in distilling as they evaporate before the ethanol (beverage alcohol) does.

When I lived in New Hampshire, we’d get gallons of freshly pressed cider, then enjoy it as it became hard and bubbly from fermentation by natural yeasts. It was delicious.

After a few weeks, it would became vinegar, not that it ever lasted that long. If I were there now, I know how to stop that degradation to vinegar. Simply add an air lock to exclude bacteria and oxygen.

In general, dry, or slightly sweet bubbly cider is a delight with lighter food as well as sipping. It probably is a most appropriate beverage for a holiday feast, historically and tastewise.

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