The big apple 

Hard cider production is alive and well domestically. Taste what’s brewing.

Often overlooked among the plethora of craft beer choices in the beverage aisles and tap lists are the delicious and refreshing ciders.

Made from fermented juice (usually apple), ciders have slowly increased in popularity over the years as a nice alternative to beer or wine. With alcohol levels roughly the same as most beers, they offer a unique take on adult beverages.

Ciders range from very dry to very sweet, but should never be bitter or vinegar-like. Usually clear, with varying levels of carbonation, ciders have a mouth-feel similar to that of white wine. There are a number of makers of cider around the world, many of them in the United Kingdom, where cider enjoys wide popularity. British brands like Woodpecker, Strongbow, and Blackthorn are well-known in the United States. But be sure to try some of the following American ciders, too.

Woodchuck, the Vermont cidery, is the oldest in the U.S., having bottled its first batch in 1991. Starting as a side project of a small winery in Proctorsville, Vt., Woodchuck is now the top-selling cider in the United States. Its year-round offerings of Amber and Dark & Dry hard cider are consistently good, and the seasonal offerings always impress.

I first fell in love with the Dark & Dry in the mid-’90s, and have enjoyed Woodchuck’s pumpkin and fall specialty runs. The winter seasonal is particularly nice as well, aged with French and American Oak and a hint of vanilla. Woodchuck ciders are available just about everywhere.

Ace Cider, based in Sebastapol, Calif., offers five varieties. The award-winning cidery opened in Sonoma County 15 years ago, and the proprietors pride themselves on only using “eating” apples in their cider-making. My favorite is the 2010 World Beer Championship Silver Medal-winning Joker Dry Hard Cider. It has a champagne quality, with a bit more carbonation than many others. It’s a beautiful light gold color, with flavors of tart green apple and almost a bit of wine, and the 8 percent ABV is well-hidden. Most of the Ace Ciders are available in any store that has a good beer selection.

Angry Orchard Cider Company is a subsidiary of Boston Beer Co., the folks behind Sam Adams. Based in a facility in Ohio, Angry Orchard produces a line of great ciders using select culinary and bittersweet apples from Europe (primarily the Alps regions of France and Italy). My favorite of the lineup, which includes three year-round varieties and a couple of seasonals, is the Crisp Apple. It pours a crystal-clear orange-gold color, with a small fizzy head that dies quickly. The nose is fresh apples, with a mild tartness. The flavor is similar, with bright fresh apples balanced just right between sweet and tart. It is a crisp, refreshing, widely available cider that can be enjoyed any time and comes in at a modest 5 percent ABV.

The same Cigar City that brings us the much-loved Jai Alai and Maduro beers is making cider now. In late 2012, Joey Redner and company expanded into the market with its Cigar City Cider and Mead brand. Plans to build a separate cider house are underway, but in the meantime the ciders are made from concentrate, and currently only two are available on draft at the brewery (growler fills allowed). The Hard Cider and the Toppel Cider are both excellent, with brilliant clarity and a light effervescence that is refreshing. The Toppel is my favorite of the two. I am very excited to see what the future holds for Cigar City Cider and Mead.

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