Style Profile: Hard Apple Cider

There’s no shortage of information on the history of beer, and for good reason. Beer can be traced back for as long as civilization has been around, and some say that we can even thank that on our want for beer.Hard apple cider, while not as popular as beer, has helped to shape more recent history. Whether you’re looking at larger mass-marketed brands or small, local, independent cider houses…you’d be hard-pressed to fnd something not to love about hard apple cider

In The Beginning…

Don’t think for a minute that the early settlers were all teetotalers. Looking back to the frst English settlers on our shores, the need for booze was just as real to them as it is to you and me. While early farmers had issues getting barley and hops to grow in New England, they did notice how well apples grew, and while most the apples they found not exactly edible, they showed the settlers that when it came to their booze, apples were the way to go.

This was such the case that one of the frst major supply requests from the settlers was a shipment of apple seeds from England as to aid in the growth of edible (and drinkable) apples.

After their frst harvest cider became the drink of choice for settlers young and old, even including a weaker alcoholic drink for the kiddies called ciderkin. Sadly, this wasn’t so the kids slept better at night; the fermented beverage was a clean source of water, too.

“Harrison & Tyler” campaign emblem

There are beers named for many of our Founding Fathers today, but in truth many of them enjoyed cider just as much. Take for example our second President John Adams, who was said to drink a tankard of hard cider with breakfast each morning. Cider was far from exclusive to the rich, as the average resident of Massachusetts at the time drank around 35 gallons of hard cider per year.

From Thomas Jeferson and the South Orchard at Monticello to Benjamin Franklin, to William Henry Harrison…cider was never far from our Founding Fathers and early Presidents.

While many orchards were planted solely for cider making, many ciders were made with leftover apples, which allowed all the harvest to be used since hard cider would last much longer than apple juice or fresh apples.

Cider was such a part of colonial life that at times it was used like money, helping colonists to pay bills and barter for services. It was the original “I’ll give ya a case of beer if you help me move” situation.

Cider started to fall out of style as the booze of choice in the US for a few reasons. The shift started with the infux of German immigrants and continued as the US spread west, opening up fertile land that was perfect for growing the ingredients needed to make beer. Add to this the shuttering of many orchards in favor of urban sprawl and you have the perfect recipe for the end of cider as it was known.

Thankfully, with the focus on craft-made beverages and a want for new (to us, anyway) and interesting drinks, cider is back and better than ever. While cider will likely never overtake beer to be the drink of choice for our nation again, but with a love of all things handmade, it’s spot in history and on shelves around the country isn’t going anywhere soon.

Cider: How It’s Made

When it comes to making hard apple cider, the basics are pretty simple. Get yourself some fresh apple juice, add yeast, and ferment. While it seems easy, it’s a little more difcult than that to say the least. While many ciders today are made from common eating apples like McIntosh or Granny Smith apples, there is a growing trend towards utilizing cider apples for making cider. Cider apples are very bitter and are not what you’d want to eat. It’s this bitterness and inherent tannins in cider apples that help ciders made from them to have sharp, complex favors that craft ciders have today.

Retired Cider press at Hamptonne in New Jersey

To make a truly handcrafted cider, the frst step is to crush fresh apples in a press. Next, the fresh juice is placed into fermentation tanks where yeast is added. The yeast eats some of the sugars in the apple juice and in return creates alcohol and CO2, just like the fermentation process with beer and from here the ciders can be fltered. The remaining steps difer based on who is making the cider and what they’re making it for. The hard cider can be bottled, canned, or kegged at this point and chilled, ready for drinking. This cider can also now be blended with other ciders or batches of the same cider to give a specifc favor profle. This step can also include the addition of any other favors including ginger, pumpkin spice, cinnamon, and even hops.

Types of Hard Cider

Much like beer, there are a variety of hard ciders, making cider much more versatile than it gets credit for. Generally speaking, hard apple ciders ft into two main categories: dry and sweet. Sweet ciders, as their name suggests, are high in sugars. These are easy-drinking hard ciders that can be similar in taste to non-alcoholic apple cider. Sweet ciders can range in favors from super sweet to just a little sugary, but overall these are sweet and are a perfect foundation for many of the favors apple ciders on the market.

Dry ciders on the other hand are not sweet at all. These tend to have more champagne and wine-like characteristics that aford them very broad favor profles. These types of ciders are often the style made by craft cider houses and for good reason, they require more attention than sweet ciders and mistakes in fermentation are more evident in the fnished product.

Beyond dry and sweet, there are a number of non-apple hard ciders available today as well. Cider can be made from basically any fruit, so craft cider makers often experiment with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and more. The line between cider and wine is blurred at this point, making the exact specifcation of these somewhat hazy and often based on state laws. The important thing to know is that there’s more to cider than sweet and dry, and anything you fnd outside those two designations deserves a try.

Hard Cider in Pittsburgh

The number of cider houses in and around Pittsburgh is growing every year. Arsenal Cider, which started in their original location in Lawrenceville has grown to multiple locations in and around Pittsburgh. Along with apple ciders like their Pickett Bone Dry, the cider house/winery features ciders made from a variety of fruits, and even makes a pumpkin cider for the fall season.

On Pittsburgh’s North Side, Threadbare Cider opened their doors in October down the street from their sister location, Wigle Whiskey’s Barrel House. Owned and operated by the same folks that brought whiskey back to Pittsburgh, Threadbare Cider built their love of cider around the legend of Johnny Appleseed, or John Champan as he was better known. Chapman was a real person who called Pittsburgh home in the late 1700’s, and helped to plant thousands of cider apple trees across the state as well as the burgeoning nation. With a focus on this history, Threadbare Cider features a handful of ciders now, with plans on a major barrel program to come.

Threadbare Cider in Pittsburgh’s North Side

There are more than 40 cider producers in Pennsylvania, with other local cider makers near us including Apis Mead & Winery, Allegheny Cellars Winery, and some not so local PA cideries like Jack’s Hard Cider, Lancaster County Cider, and Wyndridge Farm Crafty Cider.

Cider isn’t just a local trend, either. Major cider producers with national distribution include Cidergeist, Woodchuck Hard Cider, Original Sin Hard Cider, Smith & Forge, Angry Orchard, Crispin, Strongbow, and even ciders form some major breweries like Cidre from Stella Artois and Sick Cider from Dogfsh Head.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to cider than you probably thought, so next time you’re looking to try something diferent, grab yourself a hard apple cider and see if the whole “keeps the doctor away” thing works when the apple’s been juiced.

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