Are you getting bored with IPAs? Tired of sours and barrel-aged stouts? Just can’t love lagers? The Beer Doctor recommends the next new thing — a craft cider.
If your first thought is, “Cider? That sticky sweet, fruit-flavored, low alcohol stuff? Uggh. I’d rather drink a wine cooler,” then think again. Think dry cider. Drier than most wines, with an ABV comparable to an IPA (5 – 7%) dry ciders pair well with food, and have the complexity you expect in a good wine. It is a sophisticated, adult beverage that most beer lovers are likely to appreciate if they give it a chance.
Cider is made from juice pressed from fresh apples. It is fermented–not brewed–using either commercial yeast, or the wild yeast of the apples themselves. Flavor complexity is achieved by combining the flavor of the apple varietal with other factors including the length of time it remains in contact with pressed skin lees, the strain of yeast, secondary lacto or malic fermentation, and barrel aging.
While many American ciders rely on sugar and added fruit syrups to produce that sticky sweet, fruity stuff–because their customers expect it–the newer craft ciders are made using more traditional European styles produced by experienced cidermakers, using local farm-fresh produce, without the addition of sugars or syrups. If you have ever had the pleasure of enjoying a bowl of moule-frites in Normandy, you were probably served a pitcher of the regional cider to go along with it. It was mellow, dry, with just a hint of fruit, and a slight mustiness–a perfect match to the food that was served with it. That’s what I mean by a good cider.
Recently I had the opportunity to taste a full spectrum of craft ciders when I visited Virtue Cider in Saugatuck, Michigan. Virtue is located in the apple country of southwestern Michigan, with a climate similar to the traditional cider regions of France, England and Spain. It is a traditional farmhouse cidery, which uses old-world, environmentally friendly methods to press, ferment, and barrel age the ciders. And true to form, it is set on a small but working farm, complete with free-range chickens, pigs, sheep, vegetable beds and, of course, apple orchards.
Greg Hall, formerly the brewmaster of Goose Island Beer Company for 20 years, and co-founder Stephen Schmakel, began this cidery in 2011. InBev acquired a majority stake in Virtue in 2015, allowing them to affiliate with Goose Island‘s Chicago brewery for bottling, kegging and increased distribution. The cider continues to be produced at the farmhouse, about 150 miles away, using only Michigan apples raised on small family farms.
I was given a tour of the farm and cidery by long-time friend Melissa “Missy” Corey, the Culinary Director, and her partner, Ryan Beck, the Agricultural Director. (See figure 2) The cidermaker, Steve Boeve-Head, and much of the staff were on vacation, since there are no fresh apples to press in July. Missy and Ryan are minding the farm–literally. They are managing the pigs, chickens and sheep, tending the vegetable garden and landscaping, and overseeing the Thursday night market.
Missy and Ryan are not your typical farmers. Missy has an impressive culinary background including training in Portland, Maryland with James Beard Award winners Sam Hayward (Fore Street) and Rob Evans (Hugo’s/Duckfat), and she is a winner of Food Network’s “Chopped.” Missy left her previous position as Chef de Cuisine at Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats and joined Virtue, where she is developing her program of sustainable farm practices, seasonal cuisine and whole animal “nose to tail” cooking.
Ryan Beck grew up on a farm, but his true profession is urban gardening. Now back to his farming roots at Virtue Cider, Ryan is pursuing his passion for native plants and intensive vegetable farming, planning sustainability and education on herbaceous and edible plants.
Our cider tasting began with Michigan Brut, the flagship drink. It is made from heirloom apples, French and wild yeasts, and seasoned in French oak. It pours crystal clear and golden, with a mellow apple nose. It is crisp and delightfully tart, with a slight oaky finish. At ABV 6.7%, it’s a good everyday cider that I drink with food
Next, we tried the Lapinette, ABV 6.8%, a Norman style “cidre brut” similar to what I drank with my moules-frites in France. It is unfiltered, with a bit of funky farm, barrel, and oak taste. It has a dry, mineral finish. It is recommended to pair with chicken or fresh vegetables — and to that I would add seafood.
The Percheron, ABV 5.5%, is named for the big grey workhorses of the Normandy farms. It is made with early-season apples, with fermentation based on wild yeasts, French cider yeast, and a Brettomyces; the resulting strong finish is softened by the addition of fresh-pressed juice. The resulting beverage is gentle and tart, with a great apple taste and a barnyard funkiness. Pair this with strong food, such as smelly aged cheeses or hearty stews.
Next, we went on to the Orchard Series. These were my favorites as they were made from the apples of a single orchard, relying only on the wild yeasts on the apples themselves. Like single origin wines, they present their local terroir. First we tasted Spirit Springs Farms (ABV6%), a blend of three varietals producing a rich, smokey and tannic flavor–this was my pick for the afternoon’s tasting. We also tasted the delightful Overheiser Orchard (ABV 6.7%) which blends 20 different varietals from the farm of the same name, giving a classic cider with a pronounced apple aroma.
The Mitten, and its sister Cherry Mitten, are unique in that they are aged a full year in bourbon barrels, after fermentation with American and British cider yeasts. If you are familiar with bourbon-aged beer, you will know that this process imparts notes of sweetness, vanilla and oak. The extreme tartness of year-old aged cider is then mellowed by the addition of fresh fruit juice. Food pairing? Holiday rich or sweet foods (baked ham, roast beef), or sipped in front of the fireplace.
There were more ciders left to taste, but my palate was exhausted. Time for lunch. If you are ever taken to lunch by a Chef de Cuisine, you can be sure that the unpretentious diner where you are taken is no ordinary restaurant. The Southerner, on the banks of the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan, is run by Chef Matthew Millar, himself a James Beard semi-finalist. His menu combines Southern styles with locally sourced fish, fowl and produce with specialty items from the South, including bacon from Tennessee and grits from South Carolina. Everything is cooked from scratch, and barbecue is made on site, smoked over local fruitwood. This could be the best fried chicken–or biscuits –or shrimp and grits–or yogurt pancakes–or fresh eggs–that you’ll ever have!
Returning to the farm, we toured the rest of the grounds. We met the pigs in their wooded free-range enclosure, watch timid black sheep as they watched us, and chase the chickens. Returning to the cidery store, we stocked up on bottles of our favorites. Time to go home after a delightful summer day in the Apple Coast of Michigan.
In addition to her fascinating essays on a variety of topics to be found @ 3 Quarks Daily, also available from Dr. Westbrook: