Cider is as American as apple pie—with which it shares a common ingredient. To enjoy autumn without buying a jug at any local orchard would be a heresy.
In the days when it was possible to easily buy the unpasteurized version, I would stop at Milburn Orchards just west of Newark to buy a couple of gallons of unfiltered cider for my father-in-law in West Virginia during our Thanksgiving visit. He lived to 100, by the way. He would smile, put the jugs in his private refrigerator in his workshop and wait a few days for it to become “hard cider”—a mildly alcoholic, tangy drink made possible by native yeasts at work on the murky apple pulp.
“People still ask for unpasteurized cider,” says Matt Smith, one of three brothers who runs T.S. Smith & Sons Farm in Bridgeville, “but after the E. coli problems on the West Coast a few years ago, the warning labels on the jugs are worse than those on cigarette cartons. So we stopped carrying it.”
Whether “sweet” and nonalcoholic, hard or sparkling, Americans are rediscovering what was once America’s drink of choice. According to researchers at Impact Databank, cider sales in the United States rose last year by 23 percent to 5.7 million cases.
Choices of both regional ciders, such as Woodchuck in Vermont, and big business ciders like Heineken’s Strongbow and MillerCoors’ Crispin, can be found in most wine shops. And now we have our own regional alcoholic cider made in Maryland, but using Delaware apples.
Last year T.S. Smith began providing its Black Twig apples to Great Shoals Winery in Mount Vernon, Md., where Matt Cimino makes several ciders and wines. The result is Black Twig Delaware Hard Apple Cider, which has 8 percent alcohol—about halfway between light beer potency and that of most table wines. (greatshoalswinery.com)
“Traditional ciders usually have less than 6 percent alcohol,” Cimino says. Apple wines, still or sparkling, are filtered and in the table wine range of 10-14 percent alcohol. Great Shoals makes those, too. It does not make applejack, which is apple brandy.
Fanatics are discovering ciders from traditional European regions like the British Isles, Germany and northern Spain. I was surprised a few years ago on a tapas crawl on Laurel Street in old town Logroño—the middle of Spain’s Rioja wine country—to see many of the locals drinking traditional ciders made a few minutes away in Basque country.
There are not many local cider mills. These have special equipment to grind apples—generally the tart, tangy varieties— into juice and pulp.
“Most of us local orchards get our ciders made at Lohr’s Orchard, just across the state line in Churchville,” says Smith. “Andy Lohr is a cider genius.”
Don’t be surprised if there are more cider mills and more wineries making alcoholic ciders locally. Stay tuned.