In this 3-part series, Levi Danielson, a Portland Oregon cider enthusiast and apprentice cidermaker at Dragon’s Head Cider in Vashon WA, explores cider’s roots across the world and how it’s thriving in Portland, Oregon.
Read Part 1: The American History of Cider
Apples originated in central Asia and were originally cultivated in places like Azerbaijan and Turkey. Through trade and migration, apples spread across the globe. For cider, the result has led to only a handful of regions known for their top-quality cider. It’s likely that any area growing apples also fermented them at some point in time.
Today, regions that maintain a strong tradition of fermenting apples into cider are Northern Spain, Northern France, and Southwestern England. Why the majority of the world’s cider is produced in these areas is a mystery lost in history. The strong cider cultures in these areas moved forward from necessity leaving us with a beverage that was assembled and refined over centuries.
Flavor profiles in cider start with the apple and break down largely into three categories; bitterness, sweetness, and acidity. The apples themselves are categorized according to these properties with slight differences in the regions the apples are produced. You’ll notice these same properties mirror wine and beer. For beer, the bittering comes from hops and through higher levels of malt roasting. With wine and cider, the bitterness comes from tannins, the majority of which is coming from the fruit skin.
“Bitter” isn’t a common wine term so use it wisely, or don’t use it if you’re in unfamiliar territory. Tannins by themselves taste like petrified wood, licking a leather jacket, or chewing on tree bark. They’ll make your mouth pucker and give the sensation that your tongue is coated by some substance. Sounds awful, but if you add sweetness and acidity to that you have a nicely balanced drink that’s pleasing and sippable. The bitter apple varieties are also called “spitters” because they’re not nice to eat. Most people haven’t heard of these types of apples and you won’t find them in grocery stores. Apple varieties in the store are often a balance of sweetness and acidity.
The sharp flavors in apples are acids. They are sour and they are common in grocery stores, notably Granny Smith! There are a few different sours that come into play with cider. One comes from the apples and the other can come from fermentation. The apple acid is reminiscent of fruit, it will be tart and that flavor in a cider reminds you of what an apple tastes like – appley. Other sours come from fermentation. Northern Spanish ciders tend to emphasize additional acid from fermentation and they can be a surprise to an unfamiliar tongue. They can come in an almost-vinegar flavor.
Lastly, there’s sweetness – the sugar. Sweet apples help balance out a drink and provide the power to make a boozy cider. Typical apples we’re used to at the market are some version of the sweeter apple varieties. They also look good on a shelf, color-wise, size and shape are consistent, and they have a texture that is really nice to chomp through… little of which is actually important when you ferment them. If you were to ferment such an apple so the sugar disappears and turns into alcohol, you’d have a drink with alcohol, maybe a bit of acid, and a drink that’s not very interesting. It’s like making the Bud Light of apples with one of the most expensive apples you can find. Bud Light has its place, and people tend to like recognizable apple varieties, but liking something in a store and making a good fermented beverage are two very different things. Go make wine out of your favorite concord grape at the grocery store and see how that works out.
Spain, France, and England have perfected their own versions of cider, each with their own lean on what cider is like. These descriptions are not comprehensive, but they offer a general idea of what to expect from certain regions and they’ll get you one step closer toward reaching for the right bottle during your next standoff with a retail cider fridge.
Breaking it down by region;
Northern French Cider – In France, cidre comes in a few different varieties but generally is balanced and tends to have more bitter and tannic components compared to other cider varieties. Broad categories would be sec which is dry, demi-sec which is semi-dry, doux which is sweet, and bouche. Bouche is some sort of special option as it has a cork, which means it’s also bubbly. Brut is a common term in French cider, it is typically bubbly and on the dryer side of cider.
French cider typically is not completely dry. The traditional method is to produce a lower alcohol cider with some sweetness through a process called keeving. Typically cider stops fermentation when it runs out of sugar. If all the sugar is consumed, you’ve got yourself a dry cider. Keeving is a traditional (read: before a lot of chemical additives/techniques) method of starving yeast of other nutrients before all the sugar is consumed, resulting in some residual sweetness.
Spanish Cider – Northern Spain – The sourest of the sour. Poured in portions, so that your glass won’t oxidize into something too flat tasting. It’s sometimes sprayed from a barrel into your glass. Other times it could be poured from a height, called escanciar, with the pourer holding the bottle overhead with an outstretched arm into a glass about waist height. Spanish ciders, called sidras, are easy to spot from a mile away as they’ll typically have one of these three characteristics just from the look.
1. Bright green bottle that can look radioactive under the light of a cooler.
2. That bright green bottle is 700 ml with a flat bottom and an appealing shape that might remind you of a liquor bottle.
3. The font and names on the bottles are unique as the culture and language in Northern Spain is very unique and has a rich history.
English Cider – Predominantly SW England is where cider dominates. Many of these ciders are fermented cold and slow over winter. More often than French and Spanish cider, English cider can be exceptionally dry and they’re not ashamed to put more oak in it than other regions. Cider makers have truly perfected their craft and have a number of festivals to celebrate that fact.
How about the Pacific Northwest? In the last part of this series, we’ll cover the local cider movement, where it has come in the last ten years, where it might go, and where to get a great cider in the Pacific NW…
Read Part 3: Cider in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest
If you’ve ever been on one of our Portland food tours, you know we are passionate about the food and drink we serve. You probably even heard your tour guide say the dish was “the best thing on the menu” or their “favorite food in all of Portland!” So we’ve compiled some of our favorite recipes from our tour right here, plus a boozy extra, for you to try at home!
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