Cider Is Coming On Hard
It’s too early for cideries here, but their products are landing.
Stephen Laborde, general manager of The Trappist, talks hard cider with patrons.
Photo by Lori Eanes
For centuries in colonial and early America, cider—not that unfiltered syrupy apple juice you knew in childhood, but hard cider, fermented from bitter apples—was the dominant adult beverage, more popular than beer or wine. But starting in the late 19th century—thanks first to beer-loving German immigrants, then Prohibition—cider abruptly fell from grace.
Since then we’ve suffered collective amnesia that hard cider ever existed.
But the last two years have seen a sudden renaissance in cider’s popularity, with artisanal and microbrew cideries popping up across the country and bars here and beyond serving the tangy elixir, re-energizing an industry that for nearly a century was completely moribund.
“Hundreds of new cider companies are now rushing to keep up with an explosion of public interest in cider,” marveled Alan Shapiro, who organized last April’s Cider Summit Berkeley, an outdoor downtown tasting event that overflowed with a new generation of cider aficionados. Shapiro stages similar events from Seattle to Chicago, while East Coast cities enjoy their own series of “Cider Weeks.”
The market is now suddenly flooded with an intoxicating array of ciders, ranging from the traditional (Tilted Shed, made in Sonoma) to the experimental (Reverend Nat’s Hallelujah Hopricot, made with coriander, hop, and apricots), and from the sublime (Julian Hard Cider’s Harvest Apple, which is almost indistinguishable from fine champagne) to the frankly atrocious (Hornsby’s Hard Crisp Cider, reminiscent of artificially flavored apple soda). While hard cider was once difficult to find in Bay Area bars and stores, now the problem is choice overload: too many ciders to choose from, but no signposts to help you find the gems.
“I prefer spontaneously fermented ciders,” says Stephen Laborde, general manager of Oakland’s The Trappist. His favorite brands from Normandy and Spain “have almost a cheesy aroma and a lot of complexity. English ciders tend to be a little cleaner, but European ciders let the funk happen.”
Authentic cider was never made from familiar supermarket apples (technically known as “dessert apples”) like Gravenstein, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith. Instead, cider was traditionally fermented only from specific varieties dubbed “cider apples” which are too bitter and tart for eating fresh, sporting names like Kington Black and Dabinett. Yet almost all the cider apple orchards in United States had died off or been uprooted long ago, so 21st-century cider startups for the most part had to use the juice from too-sweet dessert apples. That is starting to change as newly planted cider apple trees are starting to bear fruit.
As the East Bay isn’t apple country, there are almost no commercial cideries here, but you can find some of the nation’s best new ciders in local stores such as Berkeley’s Northbrae Bottle Shop and the Albany Taproom. BevMo, for all its corporateness, boasts burgeoning cider selections.
Cider on tap is still an extreme rarity in the East Bay, but this summer Sebastopol’s Devoto Orchards launched a new keg line, Golden State Cider. It’s now on tap at Cafe Underwood in Oakland, with several more East Bay venues soon to follow.