An Apple A Day: Food Writing for Chronogram

I’m a longtime educational food writer. My favorite food stories are the quirky ones, like this piece for Albany-based Chronogram.


An Apple a Day
The user’s guide to hard cider
By Robin Catalano

Imagine yourself in Colonial America. You’ve risen before the sun to start a fire, milk the cows, and tend the fields. As light filters into the morning sky, you sit down to a breakfast of porridge and hard cider. You look out the window….

Wait. Hard cider? As in alcoholic cider? As it turns out, hard cider, a traditional beverage passed on from centuries’ worth of English ancestors, was taken with every meal, including breakfast, in the earliest days of the colonies. During this period, sometimes referred to as the “cider age,” due to the abundance and low cost of the drink, the thought of drinking something else, like water, was considered positively uncivilized (not to mention unhealthy, as contaminated water was a common problem).

Hard cider has been made in Europe from the beginning of recorded history, and probably even earlier. It’s no wonder that the fermented juice of the common apple has long been a popular drink throughout England, France, and Spain, or that it has begotten the ubiquitous “cider pubs” of the British Isles, where you can partake of traditional tavern food and dozens of ciders. Or that, by some accounts, when the revolutionaries of 1773 New England spied three English ships anchored in Boston Harbor and discovered tea and hard cider among the cargo, they instinctively knew which beverage to toss overboard in protest of import taxes, and which to savor with dinner.

Despite being one of the oldest drinks in the world, hard cider has changed little over the centuries. Whereas apple juice is pasteurized, clarified, and heat-stabilized for long shelf life, cider is, in the words of John Vittore, co-owner of Hilltop Orchards in Richmond, Massachusetts, “the juice from apples with nothing added and nothing taken away.” It is made by grinding apples into a “must” and then fermenting it, generally for about six weeks. The juice is pressed out and aged in oak for several months. During the process, the naturally occurring sugars are converted to alcohol, around six percent. Thus hard cider, like the fermented juice of any fruit, is technically classified as a wine (though the alcohol content of grape wine is higher, about 12 percent). A recent study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that cider contains up to four times more polyphenols, a group of antioxidant plant compounds, than apple juice, making it a healthier alternative to juice or that other revered brew, beer.

Vittore has been making alcoholic cider at Hilltop Orchards with his sister, Julie, for 25 years, and sells their wares today under the label Johnny Mash Hard Cider. “We wanted to make an American hard cider,” he explains. “A lot of companies try to make a French-style cider. Other companies have started to plant English varieties of apples. We use native varieties like Macintosh and Northern Spy. Johnny Mash tastes different from European ciders because of the apples we use, and because we age it in American oak from Missouri, but it’s made in almost the same way.”

Hard cider is similar in its fruitiness to sweet cider, but has the grown-up kick of alcohol to temper the sweetness. French-style cidres tend to be drier, with a toasted-vanilla flavor imparted by the type of oak used in aging. In general, American brands are crisper, with a lingering finish, though they can also vary from very sweet to dry, and from dark and cloudy in appearance to light golden. Johnny Mash, for example, is a dry, sparkling cider with a medium color, natural sweetness, and lack of astringency that makes it friendlier to the palate than many wines. Johnny Mash is so highly regarded that it’s now served on tap at Berkshire fine-dining restaurants Firefly (Lenox), the Red Lion Inn (Stockbridge), and Chez Nous (Lee), as well as at traditional Welsh tavern Peint O Gwrw in Chatham, New York.

Sue Miller, owner of Goold Orchards in Castleton, New York, and maker, with husband Ed, of Brookview Station Whistle Stop apple wine, comments, “Cider and apple wine are both very versatile. Hard cider tastes more like sweet or fresh cider; apple wine [which differs from hard cider in its production—sugar is added to the apple must to produce a higher alcohol content] is almost like a young Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc. I’m a red wine drinker, and I’m really surprised by how much I like the apple wine. It’s perfect for people who don’t like overly dry or astringent wines.” Perhaps these favorable associations are what led Whistle Stop to be named the Best of the Hudson Valley, over numerous grape wines, in the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association’s 2007 tasting contest.

So why aren’t hard cider and apple wine featured on restaurant menus all over the United States, as they are in the UK? Vittore’s theory: 200 years ago, beer became more widespread because apples were grown only in certain parts of the country, while malt and barley were more common, easier to grow, and could be shipped long-distance. The lower cost of making beer—largely because of its high water content—and the post–Civil War influx of German immigrants, for whom beer was a national beverage, also contributed to its increased profile over cider.

Miller offers a more hard-nosed explanation. “The distributor is the key to restaurants these days. If I’m a restaurateur, I don’t want to go to five purveyors to buy things; I want one distributor to bring me everything. The problem is that most distributors don’t want to take a chance on hard cider or apple wine.” She’d like to see Hudson Valley producers, whom she considers too fragmented, work as a team to get their products out to the public. “There are too many organizations—there’s the Dutchess and Shawangunk wine trails, and the Beverage Trail in Cooperstown. We need one trail for all of the Hudson Valley. This is one of the richest agricultural regions in the country, but yet it’s largely untapped by the agritourism business.”

Nevertheless, hard cider saw a resurgence in the early 1990s, when the microbrew movement introduced audiences to a larger variety of beverages. One of the first American-style ciders to hit the market was Woodchuck Draft Cider, a Vermont brand that rode the coattails of the microbrew industry to success and is still one of the best-known of all US-made hard ciders. “There is definitely a market of people who were in their twenties in the 1990s, who became serious cider drinkers,” says Vittore. “For those who don’t like beer or care for hard liquor, cider is the drink for them.”

Thomas Hope, owner of Peint O Gwrw, agrees. “It’s fairly popular. I’ve put Johnny Mash on tap here, and I sell about a half keg per month. It goes down way too easy,” he laughs.

If straight cider is too easy for you, try one of Peint O Gwrw’s signature drinks: the Snakebite, half hard cider and half Guinness Stout, served with a spoon floating on top. “It sounds unusual, but people love it,” says Hope. He’s a great fan of Johnny Mash, and hankers for more local varieties to showcase. “I’d really like to see something more like a scrumpy—a local English farmer’s brew with lots of solids. It’s cloudy, pithy, strong, and made in gallon jugs. Definitely not for those who like their ciders sweet.”

Pricewise, cider is comparable to beer—you can get a $4 pint at Peint O Gwrw. It’s also just as versatile when paired with food. Although Hope insists, “There’s a sweet finish—there’s no way around it,” he also finds it a great complement to a porterhouse or to bratwurst with sauerkraut. Vittore adds, “The obvious pairings are with pork and pizza, but cider goes well with all sorts of foods. It also makes an interesting marinade for grilled chicken.”

For Miller, whose wine is served at Kozel’s Restaurant in Ghent, New York, apple ciders and wines are a natural with hors d’oeuvres and a cheese plate. If she had her druthers, diners would be forgoing some of the lesser-quality but über-popular wines for finer artisan apple ciders and wines. “People are used to wines that are sugared to death. [A turnaround] is going to happen here in New York state, but this business that we have to drink California or Australia or anywhere else—it’s distribution, it’s numbers of bottles produced. When you’re talking about Yellow Tail, which produces millions of bottles of wine, they will do almost anything to sell it. They really give it away. With cider, you’re talking about a better-quality, artisan product.”

Miller believes that the only way to go is to seek out ciders and apple wines from your local orchard or producer. “Sure, it’s more work, but it’s well worth the effort,” she says. And there’s no better time than fall harvest season. So try following in the footsteps of forefathers John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams, who was known to drink hard cider with most meals, and downed a tankard first thing every morning to “brace for the day.” Maybe that’s what they mean by an apple a day. Adams lived to be 90.


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