Cider: The other sparkling alcoholic dinner beverage.
Seattle chef Tamara Murphy and her restaurant, Brasa, host The Northwest Cider Society's 2008 cider dinner on Feb. 7. Tickets are $75 and available here.
Ciders include western Washington's Red Barn Cider, Eaglemount, Vashon Winery and Wescott Bay Cider, and Walla Walla's Blue Mountain. Oregon ciders include Wandering Aengus.
Murphy's menu features oysters with cider ice; mussels in cider; glazed pork belly with lentils and root vegetable; glazed sable fish, fennel gratin, thyme and cider butter.
I enjoyed the Cider Society's 2005 dinner in Portland, where Heathman Hotel chef Philippe Boulot stuffed pork chops with Oregon-grown Pitmaston pine apples, glazed the chops in cider-cream reduction and paired them with semi-dry and medium-sweet ciders. His salad featured Jonagold, Cortland and Honeycrisp belle apples paired paired with sparkling and dry ciders. Calvados apple tart tatin was paired with sweet pommeau, an apple brandy blended with fresh apple juice.
Then I went home and made orange Jell-O shooters with Red Barn's aged-in-whiskey-barrels cider.
Click below to read my cider story from 2005.
BY ED MURRIETA
Originally published Nov. 30, 2005
in The News Tribune's SoundLife section
Surrounded by cidermakers at a cider-pairing luncheon, it was easy to spot the Frenchman. He ordered cabernet sauvignon.
"For us, cider is like water," said Marc Michelle.
This was no slap at his American hosts, which included members of the Northwest Cider Society, a small group of artisan cidermakers from Western Washington and Oregon who drank and dined last month at the Heathman Hotel in Portland.
"In France, everybody drinks cider," said Michelle, who imports the French stuff, a decidedly nonwatery beverage containing 5 percent alcohol or more. " Cider is a way of life, like a glass of red wine."
It wasn't just his accent that sounded foreign. Cider, which Michelle also drank with lunch, is oddly foreign in America, where mention of the fermented apple beverage conjures up images of cloudy juice and sparkling soft drinks in most people's minds.
"That's the problem," said Wade Bennett, an Enumclaw farmer who handcrafts hard cider, which is more robust than wine, less rustic than beer and about as widely drunk by Americans as coffee is drunk by Britons. "People ask, 'What's the difference between apple juice and apple cider?' In this country, nothing."
In Europe and Canada, cider is cider and apple juice is apple juice, just like wine is wine and grape juice is grape juice.
In the United States, where, prior to Prohibition, alcoholic cider was the most widely consumed drink in the land, cider means anything from farm-stand jug juice to Tree Top to Martinelli's.
"Most people think hard cider is just an industrial pop that's apple-flavored alcohol," said Drew Zimmerman, a Mount Vernon cidermaker. "They don't realize that it's a beverage that can be made with complexities."
PAIR IT ON
Whether bone-dry or treacly, cider pairs with food in much the same way as its complex cousin, wine. High-acidic cider complements seafood, pork, poultry and mild cheese. Sweet cider complements sharp and salty flavors.
"If you have a very dry cider, it goes with everything, like champagne goes with everything," said Heathman Hotel chef Philippe Boulot, who hails from Normandy, where cider-steamed mussels are a classic dish. "Yesterday we had a wild-game competition. I did my rabbit dish with cider sauce."
In his cider-pairing menu last month, Boulot stuffed pork chops with Oregon-grown Pitmaston pine apples; he glazed the chops in cider-cream reduction and paired them with semi-dry and medium-sweet ciders. Salad featuring Jonagold, Cortland and Honeycrisp belle apples was paired with sparkling and dry ciders. Calvados apple tart tatin was paired with sweet pommeau, an apple brandy blended with fresh apple juice.
" Cider won't stand up to rib roast or steak," said Zimmerman. "But barbecued pulled pork sandwiches? Right on."
Many ciders indeed resemble wine; poured side by side, some ciders are indistinguishable from sauvignon blanc or champagne. They're just not as potent, generally ranging from 5 percent to 8 percent alcohol by volume.
" Cider fills that other area for people who don't drink wine," said Ron Irvine, a Vashon Island cider- and winemaker and president of the Northwest Cider Society.
Olympia's Fish Brewing, which acquired the Spire Mountain brand from the Washington Wine and Beverage Company in Woodinville in January, pours apple and pear ciders at its brewpub.
"The people we see drinking cider are generally not beer fans," said Lyle Morse, Fish's president. "We see cider as a light, crisp, refreshing 'malternative,' an alternative to beer."
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
To produce cider for commercial sale, one must have a winery license. To purchase cider at retail, one must look in the beer cooler.
"I'd like cider to have more of an identity than it does," said Susan Anderson, who, with her husband, Richard, produces Westcott Bay Vintage Cider on San Juan Island. "It's not beer. It's not wine."
Even among cidermakers, there is a marketing rift. Spire and Westcott are bottled like beer, in 12- and 22-ounce bottles. Like the majority of other artisan ciders, Zimmerman's and Bennett's come in 750ml wine bottles.
"I'm actually trying to get away from that," Zimmerman said of beer-cooler positioning. "If you package it like beer, then you have to charge beer prices for it. As an artisan maker, I can't do that."
Zimmerman produces two ciders under the Red Barn label, a semisweet Jonagold cider made from Skagit Valley dessert apples, and Fire Barrel, made from bittersweet and bittersharp European varieties. The latter is aged in charred bourbon barrels, which impart an amber hue and heady spice. They sell for $9.50 and $10.50, respectively.
Zimmerman works with the WSU-Mount Vernon Research Station to identify varietals. The research station supplies Zimmerman and other artisan producers with many of the European apples it grows, including Kingston blacks, dubonnets, broad snouts, muscadets and heirloom apples like Ashmeads - apples that aren't pretty to look at and are even less appealing to eat but which are perfect for making cider and are ideally suited to Western Washington's climate.
"Most of those you don't want to eat fresh," said research station director Gary Moulton, a longtime Skagit Valley apple grower. "The English-style apples are dry and bold. The tannins give you a furry taste on your tongue."
But it's those acidic compounds that give dry ciders and wines their astringent edge, that prevent cider, at least the artisan varieties, from tasting like apple pie in a glass.
"The apples that we grow in Washington are great big balls of water," Zimmerman said. "They're crunchy, and they're a little bit sweet and they're a little bit tart. But you make a cider out of them, and there's just nothing there but water and a little acid and a little sugar. Cider apples have huge sugars; they'll get up to wine-grape levels."
Zimmerman called European cider apples "wooly," "cloyingly sweet" and "ungodly bitter." However, he said, "what you taste fresh doesn't happen when you ferment. Just like in wines. Nobody drinks a cabernet sauvignon and says, 'Wow, that's really grapey.' "
Since 2003, WSU Learning Center in Mount Vernon has offered cider-making classes. In December, renowned English cidermaker Peter Mitchell will conduct another five-day session.
Enumclaw farmer Wade Bennett has been making cider since he was a teenager - starting with Tree Top apple juice, bread yeast and "the quest to get drunk." He took Mitchell's class two years ago. He received his 1,000-gallon winery license about three months ago and just bottled his first commercial products, a sweet cider that's 6.5 percent alcohol and a "not sweet" berry-infused cider that's 12 percent.
Like Zimmerman, who also has studied under Mitchell in England and whose Red Barn cider contains 85 percent Jonagolds and 15 percent European sharps "for color and structure," Bennett said the key to good cider is variety, not solely varietals.
"Apples are not apples are not apples," said Bennett, who has 3,000 trees on 10 acres. "It's all in the blend. That's where a small, custom operation can really excel and the big guys just can't."
That's a parochial dig at the likes of wine giant Gallo, which produces Hornsby's, the leading six-pack cider brand in United States, as well as Wyder's of Canada and even the considerably smaller Spire Mountain, all of which start with apple concentrate.
America's cider tradition began in the 1600s, when colonists harvested their first apple crops. For the next two centuries, cider was the preferred beverage, as sources of drinkable water were scarce. Prohibition and the introduction of beer brewing into the United States virtually killed cider in America.
In the 1990s, cider enjoyed a renaissance but peaked in 2001 and has declined 25 percent in the past four years, according to Wine Spectator's Impacts 2005 Beer Edition.
While major brewers such as Molson, Stroh, Guinness and Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, have entered the six-pack cider market, artisan cidermakers, especially those who ferment cider from European-style apples, concede that theirs is a niche within a niche.
"I don't know what it would take to get cider beyond the idiosyncratic position it has now," said Alan Foster, a Newberg, Ore., apple grower who recently quit making cider after 16 years. "Until a grower could get enough money for his efforts for growing (European cider apples), I don't think there's going to be an increase."
Foster is considering converting his apple orchards to pinot grapes. He's currently selling apples to cidermakers like Zimmerman, but figures he can get $7,000 per acre for grapes versus $500 for apples.
"I'm kind of subsidizing their efforts," said Foster, whom other cidermakers regard as a Northwest cider pioneer, "which is all right for the time being."
BUY FARM-FRESH CIDER
Mount Vernon: Drew Zimmerman's Red Barn Jonagold and Fire Barrel ciders at Tulip Valley Vineyard and Orchard, Mount Vernon. For tasting room hours and information, call 360-428-6894.
Enumclaw: Wade Bennett's Northwest-style cider and Summer Berry Cider available at farmers markets. For information, call 360-825-1962.
Vashon Island: Ron Irvine's Vintage Ciders, Vashon Winery. For information, call 206-567-0055 or go online to www.vashonwinery.com.
A TASTE OF CIDER
Westcott Bay Vintage Cider, Friday Harbor. 6.8 percent alcohol by volume. Very dry. Green-apple tart. Musky.
Red Barn Jonagold Semi Dry, Mount Vernon. 7 percent alcohol by volume. Golden color. Light fruitiness. Snappy sweetness.
Red Barn Fire Barrel, Mount Vernon. 8 percent alcohol by volume. Boozy head from whiskey-barrel aging. Soft, dry finish.
Cidre Bouche Brut de NormandIe. 5.5 percent alcohol by volume. Crisp. Balanced. Strong apple scents.
Aspall Dry. 6.8 percent alcohol by volume. Dry and appley, a leading English cider. Sparkling with CO