As long as wild apples have grown on trees, people have been finding ways to capture their flavor, whether by sautéing, baking, pressing or fermenting them. But it's hard cider, the product of fermented apples, that's inspired the most feverish devotion.
Most often made from fermented apples and spices (a version made from pears is called perry), hard cider is usually associated with Normandy, Brittany, Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, northern Spain. Yet it has a little-known history in this country.
Up until the 1830s, hard cider was the favored drink of early Americans — gentry and farmers alike. All one needed to produce the fruity brew were a few apple trees and a rudimentary knowledge of fermentation. Not surprisingly, it was consumed like water in the days of our fledgling nation.
Cider fell from vogue largely because the grains used to brew beer were easier to grow and transport than the easily bruised fruit. Now, following in the wake of the microbrew revolution, America is developing a renewed interest in the fruity libation.
Cider, three ways
Cider comes in three styles: draft, farmhouse and French cidre. Draft-style macro-labels include Ace, Strongbow, and the ubiquitous Wyder's Pear Cider. But these don't even come close to showing what cider can do. Wyder's is the Pabst Blue Ribbon of the cider world: Don't expect it to be an adequate representation of the drink any more than you would allow PBR to be the national spokesbeer.
For that, you'll have to look to farmhouse cider or French cidre. That said, these haute ciders are not so easy to find; the second wave of cider euphoria is so new in the States that there are only a few quality crafters operating here, and only one — Massachusetts' West County Winery— makes both farmhouse and cidre in addition to draft.
• Draft — The most common style produced by American cidery-come-latelys and larger British manufacturers, draft was invented in England in the 1960s to compete with the lighter varieties of imported lager beer. It's very light and thin, with 4 percent to 7 percent alcohol, and goes down smooth. But it pays for that advantage with its medium-to-lackluster flavors and moderate-to-dull aromas. Wyder's, Ace and Strongbow dominate the market.
• Farmhouse — Cider enthusiasts in England want to re-popularize farmhouse, or real, cider. Rich in color and bustling with flavor, it's made from 100% apple juice without any additives, and at its best has knockout perfumes. This tipple is always still, not bubbly; it's fermented until very dry and clocks in at 7 to 11 percent alcohol. Unfortunately, finding farmhouse here is equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack. Let us know if you do.
• Cidre — Like a day at the spa for your palate, French cidre is ethereal and refreshing. Made still or effervescent, and with no additives, cidre is created by a unique process called keeving, in which the nutrients needed by the yeast to create high alcohol content are removed. The result is an incredibly flavorful libation as succulent as fresh fruit and with a reduced alcohol content (cidre cannot be more than 4 percent alcohol under French law). It's difficult to find outside of France, but one brand is making the rounds: Douche de Longueville's Clois Normand (see below).
Where to sip cider
Sampling some of these delectable apple ciders or perries is still a challenge, even in import-happy San Francisco. However, we've managed to track down a few bars and restaurants that are sure to have it (expect it on tap if it's draft cider, in bottles otherwise); retail sources for cider are provided in the sidebar.
• Cafe Bastille — This Francocentric spot carries only one kind — Douche de Longueville's Clois Normand, a cidre — but once you taste it, you won't want anything else.
• Jacks Elixir — Jacks is likely to have a few draft ciders, including Strongbow, Ace and Wyder's — plus a few others in season — on tap.
• O'Reilly's Irish Bar — Most patrons here will be hoisting Guinness and Harp, but O'Reilly's serves up Strongbow for the occasional cider enthusiast.
• South Park Cafe — Another très French spot, South Park makes room on its petite wine list for Clois Normand.
• Ti Couz — This Mission crepe joint features a good variety of American and French ciders (Woodchuck Amber, Two Rivers apple and cherry, Ace Pear, Clois Normand brut and deux), served in unique clay bowls and pitchers.
• Toronado — This Lower Haight haunt known for its huge selection of microbrews often has a domestic or English cider or two on tap, plus something more exotic that varies with the season.
• Zazie — Yet another Frenchy spot in town that provides Clois Normand for its cidre lovers.
The Lush Life, a column on wine, spirits and beer, is updated monthly.