It was 2015, at the grand opening party of a talked-about cider bar in New York City, and Scott Hocker, a food writer acquaintance, was holding court in the back room, double-fisting glasses of wild-yeast sidre from France, describing the taste of traditional cider for his pals.
“This one,” he said, gesturing to the glass in his right hand, “reminds me of sweaty balls, but this other one is more like taint sweat.” I also had a glass of the Château du Taint. It was delicious, with a near sherry-like caramel vibe, yet only a touch sweet. Underneath the layers of burnt oak and roasted apple, there was a certain something, a suggestion of damp, fecund soil that, as I probed deeper with my nose, did indeed exhibit an undeniable whiff of country grundle. I ordered a second glass before I drained my first.
I’m telling you this story today to make two things clear. First, that cider nerds are often a delightfully different breed than beer or wine people. Second, that some of the best cider you can drink is as funky and wild as a 1970s Berlin bathhouse, and it’s well worth your time. These are the sourdough of ciders, fermented with wild yeast and made with minimal intervention. And these days, they’re just as likely to come from an American maker as from Europe.
Ten years ago, if a bar carried cider at all, it was principally to offer a low-alcohol, gluten-free option to people who aren’t wild about beer. The cider itself was light, sweet, carbonated, and inoffensive. But American cider makers were patient. Now, a deluge of cider-apple trees planted years ago are literally bearing fruit, giving producers new materials and flavors to work with. These apples have arrived during a surging demand for natural wines and sour beers, which have laid the groundwork for ciders with a lot more character—even if they don’t always veer into taint sweat territory.
For Olivia Maki and Mike Reis, co-owners of Redfield Cider Bar in Oakland (currently shipping its juice anywhere in California), it’s the absence of a longstanding American cider tradition that’s given domestic producers room to make natural cider something special. “In Basque Country and Asturias,” Maki says, referencing Spain’s historic cider regions, “cider-making is a huge part of the culture. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We don’t have something like that in the US. The drinking culture here is more fluid and trend-driven, so it makes sense for there to be a lot more variation in the category.”
Traditional natural ciders from Spain are bone dry and bracingly tart, with an almost vinegar intensity and barnyard bloom. French versions may have more sweetness or a touch of smoke. But in overly broad American drinker terms, the categories are fairly narrow, informed by long-standing traditions and rigid ways of doing things.
By contrast, Maki explains that much of the growth in the American natural cider industry, especially on the West Coast, comes from novel cross-pollination between natural winemakers and cider makers. “There are some ciders here that I’d describe as very wine-like,” she says, “with a higher ABV and delicate aromatics meant to be enjoyed chilled in a wine glass.” Like wine, many natural ciders are totally still or mildly effervescent. “It’s exciting to see people with tons of natural winemaking experience go into cider, because it’s basically the same process.”
Some of Maki’s favorite natural ciders are actually hybrid beverages: grape and apple pomace wild-fermented together, or natural wines and ciders made separately and combined in the same bottle. On the other hand, she’s also seen lots of single-variety natural ciders styled after wine varietals. Nearly all European natural ciders are blends, sometimes with dozens of apple varieties mixed together. These single-variety American ciders give makers a chance to home in on a specific character, such as the olive-oil bitterness of a Golden Russet apple, while giving drinkers a way to educate their palates on the taste of cider apples too sour and tannic to ever use for pie, but that are perfect for cider production.
The funny irony of this natural cider boom is the way it mimics a much older form of American drinking. While industrial beer-brewing grew to commercial dominance in the late 1800s, cider was the everyday drink for many people in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the heirloom apple varieties used in those drinks have all but disappeared, but Maki is particularly excited about a resurgence of natural cider made from foraged wild apples, which act as a kind of time warp in a glass that may help guide the future of the cider business. “Some of these trees are hundreds of years old. They don’t have names or identities. But you already know they grow well in their regions; they haven’t died of pests or disease and they’re managing to handle climate change.”
Reis has taken to cataloguing the wild apples he and Maki encounter on their walks around the Bay Area, to build a block-by-block map of the local apple landscape. Other cider nuts I’ve known have attempted the same where they live. So if you see someone inspecting some gnarly crabapple tree in your neighborhood, take comfort in the possibility that they may be working on a better drunken tomorrow for us all.
Olivia Maki’s 6 American natural ciders to look for
Electric Mayhem by CO Cellars: A collaboration from Zafa Wines and Shacksbury Cider, this is a canned and carbonated wine-and-cider hybrid made for summer vibes and all-day drinking, from three components: La Crescent natural wine, both fresh and barrel-aged, and natural cider from foraged Vermont apples.
Ru & Lou Volume 2 by Tanuki Cider: Also canned, but in this case all apple, this is a blend of multiple apple varieties and separate wild fermentations, resulting in a balanced cider that’s crisp and dry yet rounded out by a subtle funky sweetness.
Floréal Cider III by Hiyu Wine Farm: This is what happens when an Oregon biodynamic farm and vineyard collaborates with a family-run biodynamic orchard. It’s cloudy and punched up with a year of barrel-aging, full of floral aromas and a weightiness that mass market ciders could only dream of.
2017 Little Apples by Art + Science: A bottle-conditioned sparkling cider made entirely from foraged Oregon crabapples, fermented using the wild yeast of French white wine barrels. These tiny apples are crazy sour, which translates to a high-acid cider with a perfumed aroma and solid tannic backbone.
2019 Emanation by Fable Farm: A Vermont sparkler made using the ancestral method for natural bubbles, with a blend of foraged and cultivated cider apples. Tart and complex and perfect with a funky country ham.
Sagardo by Son of Man: Where most American natural cider makers veer away from European cider traditions, this earnest attempt at replicating Basque sagardo (cider) is a worthy exception. Even by Spanish standards, Basque-style cider is acidic and barnyardy. This is a great hair-of-the-dog cider and would go well with a classic Basque steak or salt cod tortilla.
Top photo by Max Falkowitz.