Alexander Dumas reminds us not just that the Normans took cider as “the true nectar of the masters of Olympus” but also that “To the inhabitants of countries where the vine prospers it is a barely translucent insipid beverage”. Nonetheless, cider seems all the rage these days in Northern California with rave openings of cider houses offering sundry local cidereal inspirations alongside artisanal ciders from around the globe.
Cider has always held an important place in the traditional rural American kitchen. In colonial days when clean water was not always an option, nearly every pantry was stocked with a couple barrels of hard cider for emergencies both real and imagined. After all, when it comes to lightly alcoholic beverages its always best to err on the side of excess.
In Sonoma County, home of some of the worlds best apples, the idea expressed above by Dumas that cider’s local reputation and quality is related to competition from the local grape market proved quite true for some time. During the last century untold acres of orchards were uprooted in order to make way for the more lucrative grape harvest. But today, with this new market for high-end ciders blossoming to life, apple orchards in the area are again a highly-prized and productive resource.
Though its still predominantly at good bars, cider houses or restaurants that you’ll find the craft ciders, good ciders are also finally appearing on the shelves of the large grocery outlets. This is quite a change since, up until quite recently, the bulk of the mass-produced and thus easily accessible ciders were abominable affairs, typically made with apple concentrate imported from China, the world’s largest apple producer. They also usually add sugar to the drink (something that would horrify a craft-cider maker) in order to boost the alcohol content during fermentation.
Today the modern American craft-brewing movement that began with beer has now moved to cider engendering a wealth of wonderful craft ciders offer an array of bright fruit notes and nuances. These dry and subtle ciders remind us that the beverage particularly suitable to salty and smoky foods and thus always makes a popular appearance at a barbecue.
One such example of top-flight cider-craft is Sebastapol’s Devoto Gardens. The company produces Apple Sauced, a single-varietal cider made with dry-farmed Gravenstein apples. Using champagne yeast, it is quick-fermented to preserve the zesty, tangy flavor of the fruit. And this is remarkable fruit indeed as the climate where the orchards are located in Sebastapol are an ideal location to dry-farm apples. The fog that rolls in every night helps keep the fruit crisp and allows it to ripen slowly. Just as with grapes, this slow-ripening process is the real key to developing subtlety and complexity in fermented fruit beverages.