I consider myself a sophisticated drinker these days, but I have to confess it wasn't always the case. University nights were once spent adding blackcurrant cordial to Diamond White - an inexpensive, high-alcohol cider - in order to get drunk for as little money as possible. Out in pubs, fellow students would order a 'snakebite,' half a pint of lager and half a pint of cider banned in many establishments for good reason. (A 'snakebite and black' also had blackcurrant cordial added to it.)
Today, I shudder at the thought of those drinks. Worse, they put me off cider which I too readily associated with cheap booze. But just as with any beverage, there's the cheap stuff and there's the good stuff. The success of the craft movement for both beer and spirits has led to an increased interest in proper cider - the stuff that tastes like it's been made on a farm rather than by a heavy-duty machine. The success of cider is seen in the recent purchase of an historic UK cider producer, Aspall, by brewery giant Molston Coors.
In Europe, there are a number of regions historically known for cider production, including south-west England, Normandy and Britanny in north-west France (which has lots in common with south-west England), and another region with a Celtic culture, Asturias in northern Spain, as well as nearby Basque Country. The Celts probably spread the production of cider across Europe; the fact that they settled in Atlantic regions too cold for grapes but with the perfect temperature to grow apple trees may explain why they liked cider so much.
In the US, there are many apple orchards along the west coast, particularly in Washington. Here in Sonoma, many of those orchards are being replaced by grape vines making access to high-quality apples difficult. Confusingly, apple juice is often called cider while actual cider is called hard cider.
Astonishingly, there are over 7,000 types of apple, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Just thinking of popular eating apples, such as Golden Delicious and Fuji, gives an idea of just how different each variety tastes. Those good for eating don't necessarily make good cider (with, apparently, the exception of Granny Smith), while those you don't want to eat do. These have pronounced characteristics, such as acidity, tannin, and sugar, which may feel extreme and unpleasant when eating them, but which lead to a complex drink. This also makes blending important, achieving a balance between the different apples' qualities.
There are two differing ways of categorising apples, as, unsurprisingly, the English and the French view apples in different ways. The English define apples as bittersweet (low acidity, high tannin), bittersharp (high acidity, high tannin), sharp (high acidity, low tannin), and sweet (low acidity, low tannin). The French system places greater emphasis on the sugar content of the apple within the following categories: sweet (high acidity, low tannin, high sugar), bittersweet (low acidity, high tannin, high sugar), bitter (high tannin, low acidity, low sugar), and acidic (high acidity, low tannin, low sugar). Whichever categorisation you prefer, they both show how blending different varieties of apples together can create a more complex cider than one made from a single variety.
Over Christmas, I visited a young cider producer in Chico, California who's making some fantastic stuff, and it piqued my interest in the drink. Ben Nielsen started selling cider professionally in September 2016, and his ciders are already distributed across northern California. The name Lassen comes from a nearby volcano, Mt. Lassen (still active, it last erupted in 1917), emphasising the local character to his ciders. His approach is to do as little as possible: no sulphites, no filtration or fining, and no added sugar - just a little bit of fresh apple juice added when bottling to provide a small amount of carbonation. The juice is fermented and aged for three months in old red wine barrels, giving them a creaminess and an extra tannic texture.
Already his most popular cider is the Dry Farmhouse Cider ($14; ✪✪✪✪), a dry, slightly sour cider with a refreshing, almost tart acidity. Like all the Lassen ciders, it's vintage (I tasted both the 2015 and 2016), made from several different apple varieties sourced from across northern California. The predominant component is King David, with Arkansas Black, Jonathan, Winesap, and Newtown Pippin, all native to the US. King David is a sweet apple which produces aromatic cider; it's probably related to Arkansas Black, which is slightly more acidic, and Jonathan, the ciders from which are more wine-like. Also made are two single-varietal ciders: Winesap ($14; not tasted), which is aromatic, acidic, and again has wine-like qualities, and Newtown Pippin ($14; ✪✪✪✪✪), a classic variety of apple cultivated by Thomas Jefferson which has rich, creamy, tart tropical aromas of pineapple.
Cider isn’t beer (there are no hops or grains) and it's not wine (there are, obviously, no grapes and alcohol is lower). Instead, it lies somewhere in between, yet completely it's own thing - a dry, complex representation of apples. I'll definitely be trying more cider in the near future.