Everything You Need to Know About Fancy Cider

hands pouring cider
Aleksey Boyko/Shutterstock
Aleksey Boyko/Shutterstock

Cider is seemingly everywhere these days, going well beyond its antiquated status as a tap option for the gluten-averse or people who say they don't like beer. Still, most people don’t think to order cider when out for a nice dinner, and that's a shame. Good ol’ fermented apple juice can be as complex (and expensive) as any craft beer or fine wine. The best stuff -- often “heritage cider,” made with cider-specific heirloom apple varieties and produced with traditional winemaking techniques -- is incredibly nuanced, with plenty of regional differences and unique flavors to go around.

Unfortunately, relatively few people have yet made this discovery because they’ve been turned off by the overly sweet concoctions masquerading as "hard" cider for years. 

“Folks naturally assume all cider is similar,” says Annie Bystryn, founder and CEO of Cider In Love, an online retailer of high end, Old-World-style American cider. “It’s not. The world of fine heritage cider is delightfully diverse. There are many dry ciders -- some bone dry -- with a range of different notes to experience, from citrus, to funk, to smoke.”

But why bother with cider when there’s so much delicious wine out there to drink?

“Cider's low alcohol content [typically around 8% ABV] makes it infinitely more sessionable than wine, but it still has all the great acidity and tannin,” explains Dan Pucci, co-founder of Wallabout Hospitality and former beverage manager of Wassail, New York City’s first cider bar. “Cider pairs well with a ton of different cuisines and ingredients that usually pose problems for wine, like asparagus or Thai food,” he points out.

Meanwhile, if you’re a craft beer drinker, the craftsmanship and artisanal qualities of small-batch, heritage cider will appeal to you. “Heritage cider takes great care and a long time to make -- so there’s a lot of technique to get excited about,” Bystryn explains. “These apples aren’t easy to grow. It can take 5 years for a new tree to bear fruit…. You’re supporting makers who believe in sustainable farming and take a long, thoughtful view about how they make cider.”

Sounds great, right? But as with wine, complexity can translate into confusion. Even if you’re already aware of cider’s range and advantages over wine and beer, the many regions, producers, and flavors might be a little bit overwhelming at first. So let’s walk through the steps to better understanding -- and, of course, order -- cider.

Blackduck Cidery Perry
Blackduck Cidery Perry | Astor Wines

Find a reputable retailer

“Shopping for cider can be really challenging, as many stores and bars have limited selections,” Pucci admits. “Cider labels can be useful, but often don’t give a full picture. First step is to find a trusted cider source that you can trust to curate a great selection of ciders.”

Most local craft beer bottle shops carry artisanal cider, too, and are staffed by  knowledgeable salespeople who can offer direct recommendations. But if this isn’t an option in your town, Pucci actually recommends purchasing online via Bystryn’s Cider In Love (as do we, or we wouldn’t have consulted her in the first place!). We can also suggest New York City’s Astor Wines, which ships an excellent selection of craft cider throughout most of the United States.

Farmstead Cider
Farmstead Cider | Millstone Cellars

Still or sparkling?

Once you’ve got a reliable cider retailer in mind, decide whether or not you want bubbles. Most heritage cider is sparkling (or at least slightly effervescent), but there are a few stand-out still ciders. For a fantastic introduction to still, try Millstone Sidra Americana, a tart, light, Basque-style cider that’s made in Maryland, but tastes like Spain. For a sophisticated, bone-dry sparkler, Bystryn loves South Hill Packbasket Sparkling. “It’s made from foraged wild apples and truly captures the terroir of the Finger Lakes, where it’s made,” she says, adding that “layers of orange blossom, leafy aromas and a wet minerality give it an elegant and nuanced character.”

Cidre Bouché
Cidre Bouché | Famille Dupont

Choose a level of sweetness

Next, “be honest with yourself about how dry you’d like your cider,” as Bystryn warns. Some drinkers – especially those used to commercial cider -- think they want “dry” (less than 0.5% residual sugar, with no discernible sweetness) when they’re actually looking for “off-dry” (1% to 2% residual sugar, with a touch more body and richer flavor).

Others confuse fruit flavors with sweetness, and are perplexed when their bone-dry cider still tastes like apples. Fortunately, many producers indicate relative sweetness on their labels, and Cider In Love even allows consumers to shop by dryness level, with a sweetness sliding scale on each product page. But for the perfect balance of sugar and acidity, you can’t go wrong with one of the all-time great French ciders from Famille Dupont – namely, their classic Cidre Bouché, widely available throughout the world.

Of course, if you're looking for something super sweet, there's also plenty of "hard cider" in cans and 12oz bottles. You don't need to go to a bottle shop for those, though. (Unless 7-11 counts as a bottle shop?)

Topwork dry cider
Topwork dry cider | Tilted Shed Ciderworks

Understand flavor profiles

Cider’s range is nearly as broad as (but quite different from) wine, so it helps to understand which flavors you want out of the beverage. Again, Cider in Love is quite useful here, providing a guide that makes cider recommendations based on wine preferences, which is especially handy for wine lovers. Consumers also have the ability to shop by tasting notes (e.g. the “earthy” category breaks down further into “grassy,” “mineral,” “mushroom,” and even “barnyard” options). Bystryn, in particular, likes “the smoky, savory feel” of Tilted Shed’s popular Topwork, the “crisp and zingy grapefruit notes” of Orchard Hill’s Verde, and the “kick of funk from the wild-fermented Carr’s Ciderhouse Bittersweet Blend.

Orchard Hill Hard Cider
Orchard Hill Hard Cider

Pay attention to apple variety and provenance

Finally, Dan Pucci recommends that we “understand what apples are in the cider, and where the cider comes from.” Common culinary apples (e.g. Northern Spy or Rhode Island Green) have medium acid, low tannin, and plenty of fruity flavor. Pucci suggests Orchard Hill’s Gold Label as a great example. Meanwhile, cider-specific varieties are bitter, high-tannin apples that lend complexity, texture, and savory qualities to the cider.

“Apples like Dabinett and Kingston Black come from a long line of European cider traditions…. Seek out a bottle of UK cider like Oliver's Bittersweet Funk or Ross on Wye for a taste of the old country,” Pucci advises.

As with wine, terroir matters, too – so “if you love high acid ciders, than you might enjoy cider from New York's Finger Lakes Like Redbyrd,” he continues. “If you're more into full-bodied and rich cider, than a cider made from English bitter apples by Snowdrift in Eastern Washington might be a better option.”

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Ethan Fixell is a freelance beverage writer and the US executive director of Kerrang! Magazine. For more info, visit EthanFixell.com or follow him on Instagram: @EthanFixell.