Thursday, June 18, 2015

Portland Cider Summit: an Interactive Seminar for the Palate

This weekend, Portland is host to the rotating Cider Summit (San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago also play annual host), and it is one of the very best ways to go from zero to sixty in your cider knowledge and appreciation. Each year the fest has come to town, it has had a better line-up, and that's true again this year. The year-by-year improvement tracks very closely with the explosion of quality in cider-making, which has enjoyed a sophistication curve that would make craft beer blush. Now you can spend a few hours under blue Portland skies and really get a sense of the wide range of different ciders available.

The harvest at Farnum Hill.

Most people are still attracted to ciders with exotic additives, and I don't want to dissuade them from those tipples. Cider makers have gotten a lot more skilled and blending fruits and spices into a harmonious drink. But don't overlook some of the more traditional ciders, either. This is where the real advances are taking place--both because makers have become more adept in their craft, and also because each year more acres of good fruit come online.

Traditional Ciders
At this point, a lot of cider makers have at least one product made from interesting fruit. (Interesting fruit can be anything from European cider varieties to heirloom American or even wild seedling varieties.) What does "interesting fruit" give you? Well, consider grocery-store apples. They're bred to be crisp and sweet. Those are the twin virtues customers are seeking. But apples may have a lot of other stuff in them--aromatics, tannins, acids, color, and unique flavors. Mostly people don't want those in their eating apples, but they're great in cider apples. Like wine grapes, varieties will give wholly different character to a cider--think of the distance between a delicate pinot gris and meaty Cabernet. What you begin to appreciate as you taste your way through these kinds of ciders is how wonderfully variable apples are.

Traditional ciders are also often made in interesting ways. Usually this means with spontaneous fermentation (EZ Orchards, Baird & Dewar are two local examples), though even that doesn't tell the whole story. Are they made in the French manner, with lots of residual sugar, or the English way, bone dry and still? This is another entire dimension to consider. Approach these products the way you would wine. Everything coming out of the glass will come from either apples or fermentation. Study them and see if you like those made with wine yeasts or naturally fermented. Begin to identify tannins (it's that bitter, astringent quality you can feel on your tongue--like over-steeped black tea) and notice whether they're "hard" or "soft." Are they spicy or seed-like? Acids come in a dazzling range, too--think of the way lemon and yogurt differ. Different sour apple varieties do the same thing. Some cider-makers prefer acidic ciders (Farnum Hill, Wandering Aengus), while others tilt toward the tannic (EZ Orchards, Finnegan's).

A few of the ciders to look out for in this category:
  • 101 SoCal Scrumpy
  • Baird & Dewar Farmhouse
  • EZ Orchards Cidre
  • Farnum Hill Dooryard and Extra Dry (Try the Dooryard first)
  • Finnegan's Dry 
  • Hedgerow Blue Butterfly
  • JK's Scrumpy - Organic Scrumpy
  • Sea Cider Wild English
  • Tieton Cidermaker's Reserve
  • Wandering Aengus (any of them)
  • Wildcraft Ciders (any of them)

Other Ciders to Note
I'm not so far gone that I can't appreciate a good American cider fulla cherries or hops. Building a good cider from eating apples is a hard thing to do, and those that do it well, like Reverend Nat's and Cider Riot!, demonstrate impressive skill. (Plus their ciders are just flat-out tasty.) Those shift enough that I haven't tried enough to offer strong recommendations. However, scanning the list, I see a few ciders I think you should consider trying:
  • Traditions (2 Towns) Pommeau. This is a French preparation, traditionally made with Calvados and fresh juice. 2 Town's isn't exactly like those, but it's interesting.
  • Apple Outlaw. This Southern Oregon cidery has been getting tons of attention since it debuted last year, so see what all the fuss is about.
  • Cider Riot! I think Abram Goldman-Armstrong is one of the most talented cider makers working today. What he gets out of meh fruit is truly amazing.
  • Crispin Venus Reigns. It's a wine-barrel aged cider that packs a huge flavor (and booze) punch.
  • Eden Ice Cider. An amazing product made from frozen fruity you simply must try.
  • Worleys, Manoir du Parc, Sheppy's, Fanjul, and Riestra. European ciders--not a one that I've tried (or seen).
Have fun!

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