Those first cool, crisp fall days are usually when people think to sip craft cider, often during an outing to an orchard. It makes perfect sense because the apple harvest in states that grow the fruit usually lasts from September to November. But keep in mind, this mainly applies to nonalcoholic cider. The hard stuff is a different story.
Though cider, at least at its simplest, is simply unfiltered apple juice, time plays an equally important role in the finished product. Ben Sandler, co-owner of cider-centric restaurant and bar Wassail in Manhattan, explained, “In reality, you don’t get cider the minute you pick the apples.” He elaborated by saying the entire process of storing, pressing, fermenting, and bottling can take many months, often resulting in releases that don’t occur until well after the snow’s melted. “If there’s any natural time for people to think of as the time for cider, it’s spring because that’s when the new releases come out,” he explained. Keep in mind, this is assuming cider is coming from producers who grow their own apples or get them from orchards extremely close.
Some cideries have worked their way around the difficulties of a limited season by getting their apples from multiple orchards, sometimes in multiple states. This is the case for Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis. Co-owner Jim Watkins said, “We have an annualized production model, so we source fruit and produce over the course of an entire year.”
Even still, Watkins said cider is a great option when it’s warmer outside. “The style we make, a lot of them can be very champagne-like,” he explained. “They’re bubbly. They’re tart. They’re refreshing, so they can be just fantastic on a hot summer day.”
Sandler tends to agree with this methodology, saying a decently acidic cider is a good option when it’s toasty, particularly varieties from northern Spain and Basque regions. But Sandler was also quick to mention nothing is off limits. “That’s not to say a still, American cider that’s earthy and mushroomy with a touch of farmhouse is going to be offputting,” he said. For the most part, stick with what sounds best to you. Since ciders tend toward the lower end of the ABV spectrum, most aren’t going to feel overly heavy anyways.
The real takeaway isn’t so much that cider is more suited to one particular season, but that it’s perfect any time of year. After all, some ciders are produced with fall and winter in mind. Watkins and his team make a few seasonals for when the weather gets cold, including a fall version with cranberries and a winter variety with mulling spices.
Because different styles can vary so much, cider is also fantastic to pair with food. And matching your meal to your drink isn’t as frightening as you might think. “If your palate sings and your mind says, ‘Wow, that worked really well together,” that’s the most important thing,” Sandler said. A lot of it will come down to trial and error on your part, but both Sandler and Watkins suggested a few methods to utilize when pairing beverages with food.
The first suggestion is to go for contrasting flavors that compliment one another. In terms of a practical example, Watkins said, “I think tart, dry ciders go really well with proteins and rich flavors.” He recommended barbecue, curries, and fried chicken, particularly the Nashville version slathered with a tongue-incinerating sauce.
Another way to approach pairing is to look for subtle flavors that occur in both the beverage and the food. The key is to pick one of the more nuanced flavors rather than getting too matchy-matchy. “If there’s sort of a hint of celery in the beverage, and just one little component of celery in the dish, that’s a very valid approach to food and beverage pairing,” Sandler said.
Lastly, you can look at what you drink as a way to fill in something that might be missing from a particular plate of food. Sandler used the example of a dish that has plenty of fat, earthiness, and a touch of acid that could benefit from a little bit of smokiness. “You don’t have to add the smoke by adding smoked paprika,” he said. “You could just serve it with a Basque cider, which is naturally a little bit smoky.”
As for serving, you can really get as esoteric as you like with glassware and temperature. Different cider producers have different recommendations, so you can always ask. If you’re entertaining, though, don’t sweat it. “It’s meant to be consumed with people whose company you enjoy over a period of time and you’re going to experience it at varying temperatures,” Sandler said. Watkins is similarly un-snobbish. “Drink it how you like it,” he said.
If you’re the type to throw summer cookouts, you might seriously want to consider picking up some craft cider. Again, most varieties play wonderfully with food. Maybe more importantly, cider is a lot more popular with folks than it was even a number of years ago. Sandler said it’s something he definitely saw firsthand at another restaurant he co-owns, The Queens Kickshaw. It’s not just a New York thing, either. Draft Magazine reported, if you were to group cider sales in with beer, it would be second only to IPAs as the most popular category in the U.S.
While there are a lot of different styles to choose from, both Sandler and Watkins said an off-dry cider with a decent amount of acidity will likely please everyone from craft beer drinkers to those who typically reach for wine. The most important thing is to go for quality. Watkins explained most of the mass-produced versions are made with juice concentrate and tend to be cloyingly sweet. Aside from that, you’ll do just fine by asking around a bit and picking something local. “If you want to have a barbecue, you don’t want people to have to think about it,” Sandler said.
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