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.
June 5, 2019 – Part 1: The History of Cider
Last year, I decided to take a step outside of my career and started living out my hobby. Since making that decision, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve cider to people around the world and understand the varying preferences and opinions about this fermented drink. Throughout this journey, I’ve gained a good understanding of what people in North America expect from a cider, often coined as “hard cider,” and what European purists prefer to drink.
America has a strong history with cider. The tradition and trees were brought over by European immigrants. At that time, cider was a safe, accessible, and common drink when water sanitation wasn’t where it is today. Cider was at one time as American as apple pie and made from apple varieties that are nothing like what we buy today in the grocery store (and are still not readily accessible).
The commercial style apples that we find at the local grocer are different because of the qualities consumers look for. In the store we look for texture, sweetness, and acidity. To make a good and interesting cider, sweetness and acidity are still important, but what builds complexity and texture to a cider are tannins and aromatics from the apple skins that can be quite offensive when eating a raw apple. Bitter cider apples have been and still are referred to as “spitters.”
Part of the reason these apples are hard to find is that prohibition annihilated the alcohol industry in the United States, and there was no market for apples that taste like leather jackets and willow baskets. Since prohibition, beer came back with a boom while apples were left in the backseat since it was much easier and cheaper to grow the grains necessary for beer. When beer came back, big breweries were the fashion. Interestingly, wine had a resurgence decades ago and is still rapidly expanding in the United States.
There are many comparisons between cider and wine, both being produced by a whole fruit, yet cider still lags behind other alcohol varieties. Pick up almost any drink menu and you’ll see the titles; Spirits, Wine, and Beer. Maybe in a flight of luck cider will achieve a “/cider” after beer. Craft beer came back with a trickle in the 1980s and then hit a major boom after the turn of the century. On the coattails of the craft beer wave, cider finally got more traction.
After the craft beer wave started, paying attention to the different flavors in beverages became more mainstream. This sense for flavor and texture of beverages hit a synthesis with the food movement that emphasized food quality, ingredients, and production ethics. Now you see the sort of language appealing to that movement all over the place in marketing; “craft,” “handmade,” “local,” “organic,” “biodynamic,” “natural,” the list is seemingly endless. Cider fits well in that bag of goods since it’s made from the humble apple that is grown in orchards and backyards across the US. There are many apple varieties with their unique character, and cider occupies territory between beer and wine so it can collect all of the titles like “craft” from the beer world, and “natural” and “biodynamic” from wine.
Over the last few decades America has been offered a brand of cider that is an alternative to beer, and is typically too sweet. Unfortunately, that type of cider has become what many people in North America associate with cider, but the beverage has so much more to offer. In its nature and in its price point, it lives somewhere between beer and wine. It’s a fermented whole fruit and for that reason, it’s difficult to be as cheap as beer which is fermented from grains. It’s not as sophisticated as wine, although it could one day be.
Cider can be anything but sweet. There’s a whole world of ‘dry’ cider out there with a lot of variety that are oakey, aromatic, floral, and with hints of almost anything you can imagine. Much of it packs a punch too! Ciders fermented dry can easily reach 7% abv. Dry cider can be downright juicy and refreshing without completely overwhelming your palate or stomach with sweetness. Ciders won’t scrape your tongue with the IBUs IPAs compete for, but hops can be thrown in there too if that’s what you crave. Like most things, you’ll need at least three sips to get into the drink and bounce around between styles and regions to see what fits your palate.
Cider in the states still occupies a strange place in the evolving food scene. Cideries are popping up like mad, ahead of the supply of quality cider apple varieties. Many places are making cider out of dessert apples or quasi-dessert apples that simply do not have the complexity that the drink deserves. Some varieties that cross the boundary of edible apples and great cider apples would include, Macintosh, Newtown Pippin, even the ol’ Granny Smith. Apple trees take a while to grow, depending on the variety and size. Because of this, apples needed for cider are hard to find in North America.
Meanwhile, cider overseas is swimming in its long tradition of local, fresh and seasonal success. The go-to countries being France, Spain and England, and that’s exactly where we’ll explore in the next part of this series…
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