Hard cider popularity on the rise — and it's about time!
Joe Green, Grafton Village Cheese Company’s cheesemonger.

Hard cider popularity on the rise — and it's about time!

Like wine, cider can be still or effervescent, dry or sweet, and everything in between. The range of flavor profiles is limited only to the imagination and skill of the cider maker.

Ask the average person around the region “What's the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic-beverage market?” and you'd probably expect to hear “craft beer.”

Makes sense, right? The growth of beer from small-scale breweries in the United States has indeed been phenomenal, but in the last few years, sort of under the radar, sales of another traditional American brew have tripled.

And that's cider - or, as we Americans call it, hard cider.

Long a staple in the United Kingdom and Europe, consumption of hard cider is on the rise on this side of the pond, but in reality it's a drink as American as, well, apple pie.

Fermented apple juice was the beverage of choice for the colonists, as drinking water was sketchy and the growing conditions made apple orchards not only possible but also viable. Heck, those hearty colonials even gave hard cider to their children!

Due in large part to both the temperance movement and the arrival of German immigrants who brought with them a taste for beer, hard cider fell by the wayside. But orchardists persevered in making cider and, in recent years, this all-American favorite has experienced a resurgence all across the country, with New England leading the way.

And in my opinion, it's about time!

Today, Vermont has no fewer than 16 cideries producing dozens of brands of apple and other fruit ciders. You're probably familiar with the largest - Woodchuck - produced by the Vermont Hard Cider Company, which began in a two-car garage in Proctorsville in 1990 and was sold to a Dublin-based interest in 2012 for $305 million (!).

Cider in the United States currently represents 1 percent of the alcoholic beverage market, but the category is expanding rapidly. It's clear that there's something big “brewing” behind this hard-cider renaissance.

Hard cider is, in fact, fermented, not brewed, and requires only yeast and sugar, both of which are naturally occurring in nearly every raw food. Cider has 4 to 8 percent alcohol by volume. Compare that to beer with 3 to 10 percent and wine with 8 to 14 percent.

Yet cider has a distinct advantage... it's gluten free, and for those with gluten sensitivity, that makes it an attractive alternative to beer and wine.

Like wine, cider can be still or effervescent, dry or sweet, and everything in between. The range of flavor profiles is limited only to the imagination and skill of the cider maker.

At Franklin County CiderDays, the oldest United States cider event (an annual early November happening in Franklin County, Massachusetts), visitors in 2014 could taste nearly 100 individual brands of cider from 38 producers spanning all corners of the U.S., Canada, England, Spain, France, and even New Zealand.

Based on the CiderDays model, other cider festivals are springing up all around the country. And restaurants, bars, and grocery stores (or other liquor outlets) are increasingly coming on board with hard cider offerings.

* * *

I selflessly journeyed to Brattleboro to obtain some of the local hard cider offerings. Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it...

My first stop was the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Now, I'll generally use any excuse to visit the Co-op, but as there's a decent hard cider selection, this time my trip was dedicated to “research.”

While there, I picked out a few bottles: two from Champlain Orchards in Shoreham (Pruner's Pride and Pruner's Promise) and two from Citizen Cider, the hip cidery based in Burlington (with mainstay Unified Press, and Full Nelson).

As my husband and I can attest, all four were quite good.

As I prefer an apple mouthfeel, I favored the Pruner's Pride, a so-called “working man's cider” with a refreshing and crisp blend of apples (including McIntosh and Empire) and a touch of Vermont honey.

My hubby preferred the taste of Citizen's Full Nelson, a cider that's dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops. The good folks at Citizen describe it this way: “Imagine an IPA, a bubbly champagne, and a hard cider sharing a totally awesome three-way high-five.”

I took a couple of sips, and while I'm not sure I'd go that far, it was definitely worth a try, especially if you're a fan of IPA.

* * *

Next, I ventured north of town on Route 30 (just past the Brattleboro Retreat) to Grafton Village Cheese Company. A terrific store that offers much more than Grafton's cheeses, it's a specialty food shop with a terrific, knowledgable staff.

There, I met up with cheesemonger and ciderhead Joe Green, a Certified Cheese Professional with the American Cheese Society. He pointed me toward a couple of bottles from Whetstone Ciderworks, an artisanal producer based in Marlboro.

One of the terrific things about hard cider is how well it pairs with food, so as Green is a cheesemonger, we spoke specifically about that.

Green told me that with an an effervescent cider like Whetstone's Orchard King, he likes to pair a triple-crème or double-crème Brie.

“The cheese will coat your mouth, and the cider will add a little tartness and sweetness,” he told me.

For a still cider, Green likes to pair it with a mild washed-rind cheese, like the one from Twig Farm (in West Cornwall). As the cheese ages, they wash the rind in a brine made with lees (sediment) from hard cider and whey. I bought some of this cheese and it was to die for.

Another pairing Green really likes is a sweet cider (even commercial ciders like Angry Orchard) with a fresh chèvre. (“It takes the intense sweet edge off and creates a really happy mouthfeel,” he says.)

He also suggested that a great pairing for any cider is a medium-bodied cheddar, either a younger block cheddar or a nice clothbound cheddar. Apples and cheddar are classic!

I learned a lot at Grafton, talking to Green and sampling cider and cheese. If you're curious about hard cider, go over to Grafton and ask for him. Or drop in to your local bar or pub, ask what cider is on tap or in bottles, and taste the goodness for yourself.

Whatever you do, enjoy this early American/modern American favorite.

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