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Hard Cider Is Hot

September 03, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I first had hard cider in a north Dublin pub. No sooner had I dipped my beak into it and noticed how little it resembled sweet cider--it was more like an off-dry, apple-scented wine--than I heard the fateful words "Tell my man he's wrong here, will you?" from a complete stranger two stools away, and I was drawn into the brilliant cascade of words that is Irish bar chat.

So maybe I don't remember much about the rest of that evening, but I'd discovered hard cider. It turned out to be available at just about every Irish pub, and I stuck with it for the rest of my trip.

At the time, hard cider was a regular but not quite fashionable drink in Ireland and England, apart from Devonshire, where there has always been a fierce loyalty to a very dry local cider called scrumpie. In this country, it was all but extinct outside apple-growing regions.

All that has changed in the last 15 years. Cider now accounts for 10% of English pub sales, and it has absolutely exploded in this country. About 115,000 cases were sold here in 1990. In 1994, that figure was already 335,000, and there are estimates that this year we Americans will go through 2 million cases.

The English brand Bulmer's Woodpecker--made by the largest cider company in the world; it has a storage tank that can hold a million gallons--is now being sold here in six-packs. If you need another sign that cider is big time, two years ago E & J Gallo introduced a brand of hard cider, George Hornsby's Premium Draft.

The present cider explosion is actually a revival, as everybody in the cider game likes to point out. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, cider was the favorite American beverage; cider-drinking was one of the obvious things that distinguished Brother Jonathan (as the British liked to call us) from the ale drinkers of old England. Beer only became the main American tipple after the Civil War, largely due to the fashionability of the German-style beer garden.

Of course, we drink cider for different reasons than our ancestors. They drank it because they had more apples than they knew what to do with. Cider appeals today when people want something more elegant than beer but a little less alcoholic than wine. The slight sweetness of cider also appeals to those who find wine coolers too sweet and many wines too dry.

A lot of the new cider drinkers are women, but it should be pointed out that cider is a man's drink too. Ernest Hemingway's favorite drink on safari was Bulmer's.

*

Cider is a simple beverage, just sweet apple juice (usually from concentrate) fermented dry. When the fermentation is over, a little more apple juice is usually added to bring the alcohol content down (cider is sold at anything between 4% and 6.5% alcohol) and contribute a little sweetness. Bottled ciders are often slightly carbonated.

Here at The Times Test Kitchen, we have tasted every cider we could get our hands on. We found a surprising amount of variety.

FIRST PLACE

Woodchuck Draft Cider Dark and Dry, Joseph Cerniglia Winery, Cavendish, Vt.; 12 ounces, 5% alcohol. Like all the Woodchuck ciders, it had a strong apple aroma, but our tasters liked it best because of the appealing taste, off-dry with a bite. Other comments: "Nicely balanced." "Feisty."

SECOND PLACE

Bulmer's Woodpecker, Bulmer, Hereford, England; 33.8 ounces, 4.2% alcohol. Tasters liked the balance of sweet and dry, the dry finish and the smoky, winy, mealy-apple aroma.

Ace Fermented Apple Cider, California Cider Company, Graton, Calif.; 22 ounces, 6.5% alcohol. The consensus was that this drank like a fairly crisp white wine, off-dry and with good acid. It was less carbonated than the others. Unlike most ciders, Ace is made from fresh apples, not juice concentrate.

THIRD PLACE

Grant's Apple Honey Ale, Yakima Brewing and Malting Co., Yakima. Wash.; 12 ounces, no alcohol percentage given. True to its name, this tasted rather like a yeasty home-brewed beer--it even contains hops. "Smells like apples, tastes like beer," was one comment. It was petillant, rather than carbonated. This brand stresses that it is all natural, made with apples, honey and no preservatives.

Dry Blackthorn Fermented Cider, Taunton Cider Co., Norton Fitzwarren, Somerset, England; 33.8 ounces, 5.8% alcohol. Also rather like beer, though some said a flat, bitterish beer; the apple flavor appears on the palate rather late. Made by the second-largest English cider company and a very big seller in this country, accounting at times for a third of all U.S. cider sales.

THE REST

Woodchuck Draft Cider Amber, Joseph Cerniglia Winery, Cavendish, Vt.; 12 ounces, 5% alcohol. Sweet and apple-like, the closest to sweet cider of this tasting, though some thought the apple flavor was a little faint.

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