Experimentation and innovation are the norm in today's craft-beer scene. It's tough to find a brewer out there who isn't doing something at least a little off-center, and this spirit of creativity is beginning to spill over into the world of beer's closest cousin: hard cider.
Cider often gets lumped in with beer, despite the fact that it's really closer to sparkling wine. It's a carbonated, fruit-based drink that often has no other flavor additives like even the most basic beer (hops). But that's changing rapidly, and modern craft ciders are starting to look more and more like their barley-based relatives.
A perfect example is Doc's Draft Dry-Hopped Cider from Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery in New York. It's literally what the name suggests — a cider that has been dry-hopped (hops added post-fermentation to enhance the aromatic qualities of the finished product) with Chinook and Centennial hops, two popular varieties commonly used in American pale ales. The end result is a semi-sweet cider with an interesting nose that's reminiscent of spiced tea.
Other ciders, like Woodchuck Barrel Select Private Reserve, exploit an aging technique that's all the rage in American craft beer right now: Bourbon barrel-aging. The result is a complex, earthy cider with strong vanilla, cherry and sweet oak/Bourbon notes.
A similar cider (and personal favorite) is Stagger Lee from Crispin, a seasonally-available cider that's aged in rye whiskey barrels. Crispin is a cidermaker from Colfax, Calif., that has been blurring the line between cider and beer from the start. Its Artisanal Reserve series features ciders containing various adjuncts commonly used in beers and fermented using beer yeast.
The Saint is one of these — an extremely pale, smoothly effervescent cider made from unfiltered apple cider blended with maple syrup and fermented with a yeast strain used in Belgian Trappist ales. It's a very sweet cider with distinct pepper notes resulting from the Trappist yeast fermentation.
Beermakers are also paying close attention to the recent boom in the cider market. Last year, MillerCoors purchased Crispin, while Boston Beer Company — makers of Samuel Adams — rolled out its Angry Orchard line of hard ciders. Among the latter are ciders flavored with elderflower and ginger, which the company encourages using as an ingredient in a variety of cocktails, including many featuring — you guessed it — Samuel Adams beers.
Some beermakers are entering the cider game directly, as Belgium's Stella Artois has done with its newly-released Stella Cidre. This is a more European-style cider: very dry, with a fruit/berry nose and a clean, fresh finish. Market research by Stella Artois' parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, shows that roughly 75 percent of the demographic for this cider will be wine and spirits drinkers, rather than beer drinkers, effectively making it an alternative to sparkling white wine. As it happens, the apples used in Stella Cidre come from a wine grape-growing region, so they might be on to something.
Of course, the undisputed home of European ciders is in the U.K., where cider is consumed by 60 percent of the adult population (70 percent consume beer). There's still plenty here that beer drinkers can appreciate, such as the excellent organic cider from Samuel Smith's, Yorkshire's oldest brewery, as well as Green Goblin Cider from Thatcher's Cider Company.
The latter is a cider made from U.K.-grown Somerset and Redstreak apples that's subsequently aged in 100-year-old oak vats. The cider is semi-sweet, with light oak notes. It's densely carbonated and somewhat yeasty from further conditioning in the bottle. It contains some mild phenolic (medicinal) flavors that are usually considered off-flavors in beer but that are actually pleasant in this drink. This is likely due to the presence of wild yeasts in those old oak vats, an occurrence that closely mirrors one of the hottest trends in craft beer right now — sour, or "wild" beers.
The U.S. is still nowhere near the U.K. — or even other parts of Europe — when it comes to cider consumption, but with the consistent growth and innovation in the cider world, both domestically and abroad, don't be surprised to see plenty of interesting things happening with cider in the future.