Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider

There is cider and there is cider.

Most mass-market ciders available in this country are sweet-ish, juice drinks made from concentrate or from culinary apples. This is true even for most of the “better” brands. To make really good cider you need the balance and flavor provided by different types of heirloom cider apples. Not for eating, these apples give sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and tannins that together create ciders of real depth and complexity. The problem is, most of these cider apple trees in this country were ripped out during prohibition. Not too many orchards still grow them.

There are a few. Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, New Hampshire is one of them. Over half of their acreage in two different locations is given over to these odd-tasting fruits. They are the biggest grower of cider apples in the U.S.

The folks at Poverty Lane use the juice from these apples to make Farnum Hill Ciders. They take cider seriously. As their website states, “On Farnum Hill, we use the word ‘cider’ to mean an alcoholic beverage fermented from particular apples, just as ‘wine’ is fermented from particular grapes.” Also like wine, the idea of “terroir” come into play, as the same variety of apples grown in different places will exhibit different characteristics. Farnum Hill ciders embrace the idea of regional cider.

Farnum Hill produces a number of different ciders. I have only seen three in the local market – Semi-Dry, Extra Dry, and Dooryard. I discussed the Extra Dry and Dooryard ciders last May in my Star Tribune column. These do not seem to be currently available. [I’m told that Extra Dry and Dooryard are available. I just haven’t seen them in a while.] Semi-Dry is in stores now. I tried it last night.

Here’s my notes:

Farnum Hill Semi DryFarnum Hill Semi Dry
Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Cider, Lebanon, New Hampshire
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
7.4% ABV

Aroma: Minerals. Red apple skin. Pears and pineapples. So much fruit. There is even a hint of banana in the background. A suggestion of sweetness come in soft whiffs of honey and light brown sugar.

Appearance: Medium gold and brilliant. Low (nearly no) white head with no retention.

Flavor: Same slate/mineral note from the aroma. The fruit also carries over – Tart red apple. Pear. Peaches. Pineapple. Lemon juice and lemon zest. Very low green banana. Like the aroma, so much fruit. Low sweetness – honey. Medium bitterness. Very dry finish. Moderately high tannins grab the edges of the tongue after swallowing. Mouthwatering acidity – saliva floods the mouth.

Mouthfeel: Medium light body. Low carbonation (petilent). Moderate astringency.

Overall Impression: So good! “Semi-dry” is a bit misleading. There is very little that is “sweet” about this cider. It is dry, dry, dry. The tannins and acidity are high. Any perception of sweetness comes from the abundance of fruity notes that balance the bitter. As the website says, “On Farnum Hill, that much-abused word ‘dry’ is taken literally…”

Kings & Spies from Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse

Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse in Saanichton, British Columbia has become my latest obsession. This small, artisanal cider-maker is certified organic. They press their own heritage apples using the traditional rack and cloth method and ferment them with champagne yeast for a delicate sparkle. In their orchards they grow old-school cider apples – not the eating apples you get in the store – with names like Bill’s Red flesh, Brown Snout, and Winter Banana. They make awesome cider!

Really. This is some of the best cider I’ve ever had.

Four varieties are currently available in the Twin Cities – Prohibition, Pippins, Wild English, and Kings & Spies. Wild English uses a wild yeast fermentation for an earthy, funky profile. Pippins is light, bright, and tart. Rum-barrel-aged Prohibition is a strong cider with deep brown sugar and rum notes. You can read my notes for Pippins and Prohibition here.

Kings & Spies is the last of the bunch for me to try. It’s made primarily from Kings and Northern Spies apple varieties that the bottle says yield “a fruit-forward, Italian-style sparkling cider.” Making it even better, proceeds from this cider support Lifecycles, a Victoria organization that promotes local food security.

Here’s my notes.

Kings & SpiesKings & Spies
Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, Saanichton, British Columbia
Style: Off-dry, Sparkling Apple Cider
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: A fruity nose full of red and green apples and hints of pineapple. It’s light and bright, but darker notes of raisin and brown sugar provide a suggestion of something deeper. I even get a skosh of oak, although I don’t know that this cider ever sees a barrel.

Appearance: Brilliant clarity with a light golden color.  Forms a foamy, white cap when poured, but it dissipates immediately. Small bubbles rise in the glass.

Flavor: A juicy sweetness up front that dries up in the finish, leaving behind a lingering tartness. Fresh red and green apple flavor, but with a wild edge, like the crab apples I used to eat off the tree as a kid. Lots of interesting fruity highlights – oranges and lemons, pears. The fruit finds a contrast in tones of earth and herb. Vague hints of brown sugar and raisin.

Mouthfeel: Light body with moderates bubbles.

Overall Impression: Another OMG-good cider from Sea Ciderhouse. A delight to drink from the start to the end of the bottle. Light enough for patio sipping in the summer, but deep enough to satisfy me on a cold January night.

Angry Orchard Iceman

I’ve been getting into cider lately. Is it beer burnout? I’m not ashamed to admit that I feel that on occasion. Or maybe it’s because a whole new breed of ciders are becoming more common on store shelves these days. In something similar to the craft beer movement, the bland, overly-sweet juice drinks that people in this country have come to know as “cider” are beginning to see competition from more adventurous drinks.

In the Twin Cities it started with Crispin. While the blue label stuff that came first is not so interesting, at the time it was still better than most of the ciders that were available. The yeast experiments and barrel-aged ciders of the big-bottle, Artisanal Series pushed things to another level. Think what you will about Crispin, I still enjoy those. And the big-bottle, pear ciders from Crispin affiliate Fox Barrel are fantastic.

But others have begun to hit the market now. The newest kid on the block is Angry Orchard, a subsidiary of Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams. Like Crispin, Angry Orchard has big-bottle and small-bottle offerings. The small-bottle ciders – Crisp Apple, Traditional Dry, and Apple Ginger – are good enough; better than most and quite drinkable. Again like Crispin, the big-bottle offerings – Iceman and Strawman – take cider to another level.

Last night I finally got around to tasting the first of two bottles that have been sitting in my fridge for some time now. According to the maker, Iceman is inspired by the traditional ice ciders of Quebec. The juice from a blend of bittersweet and culinary apples is frozen during the process. Not sure what that does, unless they are concentrating the juice using something like the freeze-distillation process that is used to make ice beers. I’m going to have to look into that. The juice is fermented with wine yeast and then barrel aged.

Here’s my notes:

Angry Orchard Cider Company, Cincinnati, Ohio
Style: Ice Cider
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: The lead off is gooey toffee, sweet honey, and concentrated apple juice. Red apple skin is in there too. Spirituous alcoholic vapors swirl around, cutting the apple and caramel-candy sweetness, making it vaguely cognac-like rather than “cidery”. Faint hints of cinnamon, earth and flowers fill in the empty places.

Appearance: Light amber/orange color. Crystal clear. No bubbles.

Flavor: A mingling of cooked and fresh apples enveloped in honey, toffee, butter, and vanilla. Light acidity balances the sweetness. It grabs your cheeks and makes you pucker, but then there’s that sweetness again. Rum and raisins. Cinnamon makes an appearance. Alcohol enhances the whole. Earthy notes form a subtle background. The finish lingers on toffee; caramelicious goodness.

Mouthfeel: Still. Medium-full body. Warming.

Overall Impression: This is a delightful sipper. Read a book, sit by the fireplace, contemplate lofty ideas, and take it in slow and easy. Let the deep flavors sink in on their own time. Enjoy this with crème caramel or some other caramel desert. A grilled pork chop would suit this cider just fine, stay light on the seasoning though. Kale! Porketta! Maple bacon.