How ‘Bout Them Apples?

Once upon a time, I considered cider the obligatory (non-alcoholic) beverage of the kids table at Thanksgiving.  It never occurred to me that cider could be a complex, food-friendly, adult beverage.  Happily, though, over the last few years, I’ve been converted to Team Cider!

The October #WineStudio focused on Virginia Cider, a topic of great importance to me since I live in Virginia, and . . . I’m a cider convert.

For the uninitiated, #WineStudio is a live, 4-week long, wine tasting and education series that takes place each Tuesday evening from 9-10pm EST on Twitter.  It’s hosted by Protocol Wine Studio, and usually focuses on a singular theme, but wines and/or wineries change each week. Please join in the conversation!

Sidebar:  Virginia Cider Week is November 14-23.  I’m not sure why they’re calling it a week when it’s really 9 days — but hey, bonus time!  For sure, I’ll be taking a few field trips to Virginia cideries within striking distance of Casa Armchair Sommelier.

Our four-week cider study brought together six of the finest cider makers in Virginia:

I’ve long thought Virginia should sell t-shirts that say, Virginia is for Viognier.  But after this Virginia Cider #WineStudio series, I think Virginia needs to expand that product line to include Virginia is for Cider t-shirts.

Here are ten things I learned about cider during last month’s #WineStudio cider study:

1.  Eating apples make terrible cider, and cider apples make terrible eating.

There are over 30 different varieties of apples used to make cider in Virginia, and none of them make for good eating.  Cider apples are bitter, and some are downright ugly — if picked one and took a bite, you probably wouldn’t do it again.  Before last month’s #winestudio, I would have thought Hewes Crab was a type of crustacean, not a cider apple.  And now I know not to eat one.

2.  Cider apples have acid and tannin, just like wine grapes.

Cider apples are sometimes called spitters — because they are too bitter to eat.  Cider apples have more acid and tannin than culinary (eating) apples, which is what gives finished cider its structure.  Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider says, “cider is a 3-legged stool with a balance of acid, tannin and fruit.”

Cider apples can be classified into 4 types:

  • Sweets = low acid, low tannin
  • Sharps = high acid, low tannin
  • Bittersweets = low acid, high tannin
  • Bittersharps = high acid, high tannin

3.  Cider was a wildly popular drink during the founding years of our nation.

Thomas Jefferson made his own cider at Monticello, and served cider as his “table drink” with most meals.  Jefferson’s close friend, John Adams, reportedly drank a tankard (think lidded German beer stein) of cider to start each morning.  Benjamin Franklin was a huge cider fan as well, once saying, “It’s indeed bad to eat apples, it’s better to turn them all into cider.”  These guys probably never had to go to the doctor.

4.  Cider is fermented not brewed.

Cider is made from fermented apples.  And, like wine, great cider starts with great fruit.  It takes 36 apples to make one gallon of cider.  But unlike wine, apples have to be ground before they can be pressed — the ground apple pulp is called pomace.  The best ciders are made from blending apples from different orchards.  Huh.  That sounds familiar.

Incidentally, America is the only country (that I know of) that calls alcoholic cider hard cider.  In England it’s just cider.  Stephen Schuurman of Winchester Cider Works says, “Our aim is to drop the word hard through education.”  Stephen is English, btw.

5.  Cider is a new frontier.

American cider makers are experimenting, and styles of cider can and do vary wildly.  My brain needed some basic cider styles to process all of this, so I distilled down to this:

Dry Cider — less than 0.5% residual sugar.  Tannic and acidic, often aged in barrels.
Off-Dry Cider — 1-2% residual sugar.
Semi-Dry and Semi-Sweet Ciders — anything above 2% sugar.
Farmhouse Cider — often made with native yeasts and a higher ABV — up to 12%.

The notion of sweetness in cider befuddles me.  How can I tell from looking at a bottle of cider if it’s dry, off-dry or semi-dry?  I asked Anne Shelton of Albemarle Cider Works if the cider world had a dryness scale, similar to the Riesling IRF scale.  According to Ann, “Levels of dryness in the cider community vary.  We have no confirmed scale yet.”  I read that as hope for a future dryness scale.

At the end of the day, I’m still a little unsure about the many different styles of cider.  But I’ve decided not to over-think it — after all, as Protocol Wine Studio pointed out, “Cider is a kaleidoscope, there are so many flavorful facets.”

6.  Cider is remarkably similar in texture to Champagne.

This is the one dramatic takeaway for me — I couldn’t believe the texture and mouthfeel of these ciders.  A good, dry cider mimics Champagne.  I didn’t say it is Champagne, or even that it competes with Champagne.  But cider is the Champagne of apples.

7.  Dessert Cider.  That’s a Thing.

I know some cider is sweeter in style than other ciders, but I had no idea there was such thing as dessert cider.  Enter Old Hill Cider’s Season’s Finish dessert cider.  It kind of reminded me of a Sherry.  Unbelievable complexity.  I paired mine with a package of almonds and walnuts and . . . Wow!

They’re blue!

8.  You can’t make cider without bees.

Bees have a very important job in cider making — without pollination, there’s no fruit.  And without fruit, there’s no cider.  So, all hail bees!  In fact, Blue Bee Cider is named after the blue orchard bee.  Courtney Mailey told us, “a honey bee sets 60 fruit in a day.  A blue bee sets 2000.  They’re more productive.”  And busy!

9.  Prohibition almost rendered cider apples extinct.

Good grief, Prohibition was a pain in the arse.  Prohibitionists burned cider apple orchards (many containing heirloom varieties dating back to colonial times) to the ground and replanted them with sweet, eating apples.  After Prohibition was repealed, it took years to convert the orchards back to cider apples, a conversion that’s ongoing even today.  With cider enjoying a renaissance in America, the demand for cider is increasing, but orchards can’t keep up with demand.

10.  Cider is having a moment.  A BIG one.

Cider is experiencing a revival in the United States, and Virginia has a front row seat.  Anne Shelton of Albemarle Cider Works gave us this great statistic:  “In the last five years, Virginia cideries have grown from 2 to 11!”  And according to VA Cider Week, “hard apple cider is the fastest growing segment in the alcohol business, with over 60% growth in 2012.”  That’s a lot of demand . . .

Grow orchards, grow.


Blue Orchard Bee Photo Credit (Creative Commons License)


  1. My oldest son loves cider. We traveled in the UK and at every pub stop he tried the local cider on tap. I eventually joined him and have to say that. I grew fond of it. A nice break from the hops. Your pits has sent me off to my local to get some.


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