Despite its decline in the 19th century and the ever-surging tidal wave of craft beer in America, cider now continues to make gains in popularity thanks to a modern atmosphere of experimentation. What’s old is new again, and cider is no exception.
What makes cider so exciting? Perhaps it’s the endless ways in which the humble apple can be transformed. Sweet or dry; still or sparkling; bittersweet or bittersharp, today’s ciders run wild with possibility. Many craft ciders display characteristics similar to beer, utilizing techniques like dry-hopping and barrel-aging, but also boast gluten-free benefits. With the opportunity for experimentation constantly expanding, American cider makers are testing the core possibilities of the apple. Now it’s time to taste some of the exhilarating results, from barbecue-smoked batches to wild-fermented sparklers these hard cider brands are pushing the limits of what you think of when you think of cider.
ABV: 8% Hails from: Sonoma County, California
Meet the Franken-apple experiment gone right from this small West Coast cidery. Tilted Shed owners Scott Heath and Ellen Cavalli discovered the smoky secret to success with their lightly carbonated January Barbecue. The adventurous cider is made by smoking a handful of apples over oak, pear and apple wood, then fermenting and aging them with a blend of pressed cider and heirloom apples. The result? A complex dry cider with a mellow smoky finish that glows and fades like a slow-burning campfire. Unsurprisingly, this smouldering bottle pairs well with smoked and grilled meats.
ABV: 6.7% Hails from: Portland, Oregon
Hop heads, rejoice! There’s an exceptional cider for craft beer lovers. Produced by (online) ordained minister, Rev. Nat West, the award-winning Hallelujah Hopricot is a Belgian wit-style cider that’s steeped with spices, fermented with Belgian saison ale yeast, brightened with apricot juice and finished with Cascade and Amarillo hops. It’s available year-round, but the best time to seize this bottle is during the annual hop harvest. That limited release is made with field-fresh hops and results in a powerfully aromatic, grassy version of the regular Hopricot. How to find it? Look for bottles emblazoned with a green “fresh hops!” sticker.
Don’t miss the other seasonal releases from this connoisseur of off-kilter apples. Equally appealing are the Sacrilege Sour Cherry (spiked with lactobacillus and akin to a kreik lambic), the Br’er Rabbit (sweetened with pressed, overwintered carrots) and the Bourbon Barrel–Aged Raspberry Newtown Pippin (matured in local bourbon barrels).
ABV: 9% Hails from: Austin, Texas
Texas doesn’t usually spring to mind when considering apple orchards, but the brutally hot climate just might be what makes these hardy apples stand out. What makes Argus Cidery stand out is its complete devotion to Texas-grown fruit. The Malus Opus is produced from local Gala, Cameo and Jonagold apples and undergoes wild fermentation by harnessing the fruit’s natural yeast. Then, it’s aged on toasted French oak and untoasted American oak to produce a European-style cider that’s dry and sparkling—legions away from overly sweet pub-style sorts. Fruit-forward and pleasantly acidic, this surprising cider will appeal to sour beer and sparkling wine fans alike.
ABV: 6.8% Hails from: Port Townsend, Washington
Named after the beguiling Greek sea goddess who charmed Odysseus, this semi-sweet cider is crafted with heirloom apples and fermented with fresh blackberries from a local farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Those qualities make it enticing enough, but it’s also aged in rum barrels from a Portland distiller and bottle-conditioned to add subtle carbonation and character. Bursting with juicy berry aroma, Calypso sings like its goddess namesake with notes of baked apple and blackberry. Oh, and it’s produced by Washington’s very first organic cidery, which means you can feel even better about downing a bottle.
ABV: 19% Hails from: Ithaca, New York
Not snowshoeing to the Finger Lakes anytime soon? Channel the terroir by picking up a petite 375mL bottle of Pommeau from self-described “apple-hunter, cidermaker and nurseryman” Steve Selin. The richly-hued Pommeau (roughly inspired by the traditional version from Northern France) is an aged blend of eau de vie and unfermented, unfiltered apple cider. While the two mature together over the course of a few months, the liquid self-clarifies. The result is a glassy golden elixir bearing hints of clove and sweet butterscotch, best served as an apéritif due to its hefty ABV percentage.
ABV: 6.8% Hails from: Spring Lake, Michigan
Toasted pecans. Cinnamon. Vanilla. These ingredients could be the building blocks of a sugar-shellacked pie, but for Vander Mill, they’re the components of a winning cider. More than four pounds of cinnamon-roasted pecans flavor each batch of Totally Roasted cider, adding full-bodied texture and nutty depth. Yet the aroma of fresh apple still shines through, giving the cider a crispness that balances the undertones of sweet vanilla and pecans. Totally Roasted was originally served in 750mL bottles, but Vander Mill switched to cans for customer ease when the cider quickly proved itself a core product.
ABV: 6.5% Hails from: Denver, Colorado
Floral and herbal notes abound in this bottle made with Colorado-grown Granny Smith apples. Pome Mel is actually a cyser, a fermented combination of honey and apple juice classified as a type of mead, and blooms with over 300 pounds of local wildflower honey in each batch. So far, there’s nothing too out of the ordinary—but a brief fling with lavender flowers and crushed rosemary enhances the tart cider base with even more botanical flavor. The light floral and pine aroma leads into earthy flavors of apple and straw with a crisp, dry finish.