Cider was the predominant alcoholic beverage in America for a very long time. Apples grew well in most of the colonies, and as settlers moved westward, they brought apple trees with them. The legend of Johnny Appleseed – which is true, by the way – is one of planting apple trees across what was then the western frontier. Nearly every farm would have apple trees, and these apples were not modern varieties that could last very long once picked, even had they had refrigeration back then (which they did not). Most of the apples were pressed into cider that was fermented and put up in barrels for later consumption.
As America transitioned from a primarily agrarian society to a more industrial one, with more and more people moving to cities, beer would take the place of cider as the nation’s after-work tipple. Breweries could produce at scale, and take advantage of the prodigious amount of grain being grown in the Midwest. Cider simply couldn’t compete, plus waves of immigrants from northern Europe brought a thirst for beer.
We like Cider at Gotahold. It has about the same alcoholic strength as beer, so can be consumed by the pint, and it can be made from local ingredients; apples grow well here. It’s a nice contrast to beer in that the base and balance are distinctly different: most beer sets a malty body and sweetness against a balancing bitterness drawn from hops. Cider, by contrast, at least traditionally has neither of these elements. Apple sugars are 100% fermentable, so traditional farmhouse ciders like our First Temptation are dry, and of course since there is no boiling or hops, bitterness is also absent. What then gives a great cider a sense of balance and intrigue on the palette?
Most cidermakers deal with the relatively uninteresting hard cider that can be made from commercial apple juice or pressed eating apples by two methods: (1) backsweetening, and (2) flavoring. Backsweetening is a process of adding sugar to the final cider so it is not so dry, and has a bit more body and a rounder feel. Flavoring can take many methods, but the basic idea is to add other things to the cider (other fruit, spices, even in some cases hops) so that is has a more characteristic flavor profile, creating a number of different beverages from a blander base cider.
There are other paths to a more interesting cider. Traditional cider apples, for instance, are different than the eating apples that can be found in the supermarket produce aisle in that they bring either tannic bite or acidity to the cider, and in some cases characteristic aromas or flavors. Sharps are apples that are higher in acidity. Often crabapples, small, super acidic apples that grow wildly, can be incorporated into a good cider to bring sharpness. Bitters are apples that bring tannins to cider. Tannins can come across as astringent or even bitter (hence the name), and on their own these apples are nearly inedible. But properly blended into a mix of apples for a cider press, these apples can bring a balancing roundness to the final product.
Bittersharp apples bring both tannins and acidity and are the rare apple that can make a great cider on their own.
We were proud to partner with A & A Orchards of Berryville for the 2020 vintage of our cider, which we’re calling First Temptation. John Aselage and his team gave us the most interesting mix of apples they had available, which yeilded a beautifully fragrant, apple aroma when pressed. We conducted a mixed fermentation, which boosted the acidity of the cider through lactic fermentation. We also aged the cider for 6 months in a new oak foeder, which added a soft tannic mouthfeel to the cider, as well as light oaky notes that greatly compliment the overall cider. We finished it with a very light carbonation, which helped meld and brighten the flavors.