Craft Cider, Like A Fine Wine

Written by: Aaron Menenberg

Winery or cidery? Second tank from the left, that’s a stainless steel tank with a cold wrap that enables cold fermentation or cold stabilization for its contents. It’s the frosty section. Same with the tank to its right. The tank to the right of that one, no cold wrap but a stainless tank nevertheless and for all you know it and the others are filled with Virginia Chardonnay. It’s the far left tank that would gain the attention of the trained eye. That one adds carbonation to its contents. Yes, it could make sparkling wine, but for the purist that’s accomplished by the Champagne method, which means conducting a second round of fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles. From talking to Shannon Showalter, Old Hill Cider’s cider maker, I get the impression he is a man who appreciates tradition – and also wants to avoid paying the “champagne tax” levied on beverages above a certain carbonation level. He makes craft cider, which is a product every wino should try. I did last week.

Cider is a polysemous term and Shannon takes the time with me to explain the different ways the word is used because a proper understanding of its multiple applications is critical to the success of his craft. First, there’s the non-alcoholic product that tastes like a fresh apple and is sold in some fraction of the gallon measurement. We know the stuff, many of us love the stuff, spice the stuff, spike the stuff. It’s great. Then there’s the cider with alcohol. It’s often confused with beer because it is packaged in green and brown beer bottles with beer-like labels with 4-5% alcohol by volume (ABV) in six-packs and found in the grocery store beer section. It’s usually super sweet, like someone took a gallon of unalch’d apple cider and added some vodka.

But my favorite kind of cider is the craft style, the kind of thing Shannon makes at Old Hill that has centuries of history in America, England and France. It requires many of the same processes and equipment as winemaking, hence the resemblance of Old Hill’s crush pad to that found at a winery. In Virginia, it even requires a winery registration, so technically Old Hill is a winery.

When we first arrived at Old Hill, we went straight to the tasting room where they poured us five of their ciders, four dry and one a sweet desert cider. Dry cider is just that – dry. We’re talking low if even perceptible residual sugar. And the nuance and subtly, man, the nuance and subtly!

Old Hill’s “Yesteryear” is modeled after traditional Virginia style that is over 200 years old. It’s aromatic and tart and reminded me of Virginia Petit Mensang in its lemon curd, subtle vanilla and banana. The acidity is refreshing and palate cleansing but the body is framed well enough to protect the flavors from being overwhelmed. The “Heritage” is a more sturdy cider reminiscent of the English style. It is creamy and would pair well with pork chops and smelly cheeses. The “Cidermaker’s Barrel” is the most complex, which is not hard to understand when you learn Shannon used native yeast for the fermentation. I would pair this with charcuterie. The “Betwixt” rounds out the dry ciders and is probably closest to what an uninitiated palate would expect from a hard cider. They call it their “front porch sipping cider” and it has a slight amount of residual sugar.

If you’re bewildered by these tasting notes coming from cider, go down to Safeway and pick up a pack of Angry Orchard and take some notes. I won’t be surprised if they include adjectives like “stupid sweet,” “generic” and “nondescript.” I dare you to find vanilla or lemon curd in a bottle of Woodchuck, or even “microciders” like Bold Rock. If you want the good stuff, you have to craft.

So why does craft cider taste so different? Two reasons: special apples and a special process. Your grocery store six pack cider is made with the same kind of apples you can buy in the produce section – the Gala and Fujis. Imagine what a wine made from grocery store grapes would taste like and you have a pretty good idea why Manischewitz is so awful. Just as the great wines of the world are made from the special wine-specific grapes of the vitis vinifera species like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah, great cider is made from specific kinds of apples that have specific chemical features requisite for a dry alcoholic drink. So forget Gala and Fuji, we’re talking bitter applies like Empire, Spy, Courtland, Gold Russet, Spitzenburg, Albremarle Pippen (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite), Stayman, and Old Virginia Winesap to name a few of the heritage varieties prized by craft cidermakres. Good luck finding those at your local grocer.

As Shannon discusses cider, terminology like “ph level,” “residual sugar” and “tannin” are used – the same used by winemakers. Even orchard management shares similarities to vineyard management. I asked Shannon about irrigation and he told me they irrigate as little as is necessary. Just as great wine is made from parched  vines, great cider is made from apples grown on minimally hydrated trees. (Similarly, grocery store grapes are hyper-hydrated to create a juicy “pop” in your mouth, as are apples to give you that big crispy “crunch” when you bite into them). This means low density planting. At Old Hill it’s roughly 350 trees per acres, which is practically nothing. To put it into perspective, your microciders and major ciders come from orchards often filled with over 1000 trees per acre. As for hang time, Shannon wants the apples to stay on the tree for as long as possible because, just like with wine, time means sugar and sugar means alcohol. The decision of when to pick is based on sugar content, ph level and the amount of tannin in the skin.

These are the justifiable reasons why a 750 ml bottle of Old Hill sells for $10.50-$15 per bottle, in the ballpark of the grocery store six pack of the Arbor Mist version of cider. That said, I’m a big quality-price ratio guy, and in that department Old Hill Cider ably competes with the best wines in that price range.

When we discuss the orchard, Shannon tells me that 20 of his 40 acres were under tree, enough to produce about 10,000 gallons annually, and he is in the process of watching a number of acres planted a few years ago mature. It takes three to five years after planting for production to start, and usually seven years before the apples produce a cider that can be sold. Harvest begins in early September and goes through the end of October, though because apples do preserve their qualities for quite a bit longer than grapes if kept in proper conditions, apples can be cold stored for a few months so production at Old Hill goes well into the Spring. Shannon aims for around 7% ABV in his cider, which means the nuance and character of his cider gets an ideal condition in which to present themselves.

Once the cider goes through pasteurization and fermentation it takes six to nine months to mature, after which it is ready to be drunk. Much like wines made in stainless, cider does not benefit from aging. I asked Shannon about pasteurization because I naively assumed it just had to have a negative impact. But it does not. Shannon has been playing around with pasteurization to reduce its impact. He uses flash pasteurization and has found a sweet spot in the temperature and cycle time that actually lowers the pectin in the juice. Pectin levels in apples are extraordinarily high and a force cidermakers must work against because of its high fiber that turns into a slimy pulp that affects the flavor and clogs the equipment if not broken down.

If my point isn’t abundantly clear, here it is as simply as I can make it: if you like good wine you should try craft cider because you will probably like and appreciate it. For someone like me who tries to build and manage a wine cellar offering a bottle or two each month that is at full maturity, finding an exciting bottle with nuance and personality that does not require at least a year or two laid its side is rare. At Old Hill I found just that, and it just happens to be made with apples instead of grapes.