Thursday, October 04, 2007

Cider: We have a problem!

"We've got a problem."

It was several years ago and I had coordinated a beer dinner at a downtown D.C. French-fare restaurant. Then, only a few days beforehand, the manager was calling me to complain about one of the beers. Well, it wasn't actually a beer, but a cidre - a vintage-dated cider of elegant finesse, produced in France. The remaining beers were from French-speaking Wallonia, the southern division of Belgium.

The manager explained the problem: The restaurant's owner hailed from Paris. The cidre was from Normandy. That was an untenable situation, and the cidre would not be allowed in the front door.

Even after the passage of more than a thousand years, the Viking invasion of northern France still rankled.

Fast forward to this year.

Some of the younger warehouse/packaging staff were relaxing after a long day, out back on the loading dock of Clipper City Brewing Company. I overheard one to say, "I don't like beer as much as cider." That piqued my interest - after all he was working at a brewery!

But more so, because I had once been involved in the cider business, at least tangentially. For a brief time in 2003, a Maryland wholesaler, for whom I worked, had been distributing fresh cider imported from the U.K.

The cider may have been packaged in grungy brown plastic polypins, but the liquid inside was different - almost in kind rather than simply degree - from what we call cider in the US. It was unfiltered, 8% alcohol, complexly flavored, and even chewey.


Real cider is the product of fermenting fresh apple juice. The amount of apple juice which went into the final product must be between 85 and 100% and should be clearly stated on the container it is sold in or dispensed from. No artificial sweeteners, flavourings or colourings are permitted. ( For real perry, substitute pear juice.)
Ah, well you see, it's a bit like this: It's a lot easier to define what it isn't rather than what it is.

Industrialised cider
is ... made out of a limited amount of apple concentrate to which corn syrup or other cheap ingredients are added, to provide a high alcohol long drink, marketed as an alternative to "lager" and with a nearly neutral taste and lots of fizz. Served out of pressurized kegs in pubs or large plastic bottles in supermarkets and off-licenses, it is clearly aimed at the youth and "cheap alcohol" markets.

But those of us brought up in the west country know this isn't the real thing at all. Old rural traditions in Devon, Herefordshire, Dorset and Somerset made farm cider the local tipple, rather than beer. In fact, cider production owes more to wine making than it does to brewing, and the apple orchards tended to be planted in Northern Europe where vine growing is problematic.

From UK Cider

French cidre can occasionally be found here in the US. I was fortunate enough to sample some on tap last week at Aromas Wine Bar in Athens, GA. Delicious, tart, like drinking a liquid apple-skin.

But you'll have to visit the UK for its real cider, because that is no longer exported to the US.

Those boys on the Clipper City dock were, of course, discussing US (and even some Brit imports) fizzy alco-pop. Check the label: it's flavoring and juice.

But there is something creative to be done with such cider. Check out this video of local bartender Bill Arthur. He tends to his taps and his customers at one of my favorite bars in the area: Galaxy Hut. Low-key, friendly, unpretentious, and very supportive to local music acts.

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