(NYTIMES) OVID (New York) — Mr John Reynolds had just finished feeding his pigs and was now pouring his funky, eccentric ciders into glasses inside the worn wooden barn that serves as the fermentation room, tasting room and shop for his Blackduck Cidery.
His first love is perry, the traditional name for pear cider, and that is what he began with that day — a hazy, unfiltered 2014 vintage that showed a surprising balance of piercing acidity and creaminess, along with wine-like tannins. “For me, perry is always a more complex drink than apple cider,” he said.
But Mr Reynolds, who previously worked nearby in the horticulture department of Cornell University as a plant-breeding specialist, did not stop at pear cider. Over the course of an afternoon here on his farm in the Finger Lakes region, he poured crazy, often-transcendent ciders that blend apples with fruits like chokeberries or sea-buckthorn fruit or local riesling grapes.
He normally makes a cider with black currants, but he lost most of his crop last year. “I’m a fruit grower first and cider maker second,” he said. In the future, he will make a quince cider from trees he planted a few years ago. “And medlar fruit is definitely something I’m tempted to plant.”
For ages, farmers have been fermenting all types of surplus fruit. But never before have hard-cider enthusiasts found so many non-apple variations on store shelves and bar menus.
Mr Reynolds, who began bottling in 2013, is one of dozens of American farmhouse cider-makers to experiment with fruit other than apples. In the Hudson Valley, Aaron Burr Cidery is making an elderberry-flavoured cider. Art & Science in Rickreall, Oregon, which also began cider-making in 2013, produces both a blend of apple and quince and a 100 per cent quince cider, as well as a perry made from foraged wild pears. Blackduck’s Finger Lakes neighbour, Star Cider, which began bottling in 2014, makes tasty ciders blended with rhubarb, strawberry and sour cherry.
“Some people see adding anything besides apples as blasphemy,” Reynolds said. “Then there’s wild experimentation. I guess I see myself as somewhere in the middle.”
“The sky’s the limit,” he added. “But the question always will be, ‘When is it not cider any more?'”
That’s a question being asked all over, as cider’s popularity explodes in the United States and producers large and small stray ever further from classic apple cider.
Federal labelling rules supply one answer, which is not very satisfying to cider-makers. Only fermented apples and pears may be labelled cider, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. If a bottle does not contain apple or pear cider, and is more than 7 per cent alcohol, it must instead be labelled “fruit wine.”
That is one reason so many flavours are being added to basic apple cider. Art & Science, for instance, is allowed to label its apple-and-quince blend as cider, but it must call its all-quince cider fruit wine. “The laws and regulations have not caught up with cider-making,” said Ms Kim Hamblin, who with her husband, Mr Dan Rinke, owns Art & Science. “It really confuses the consumer.”
Big brands such as Woodchuck, Magners Irish Cider and Crispin Cider (owned by MillerCoors) have leapt headlong into non-apple ciders, as well as ones with added flavours.
“Straight-up apple ciders can be one-dimensional in taste,” Mr Jeffrey House, the owner of California Cider, told the drinks trade magazine Market Watch last summer. “People can get tired of them. They want more flavours — a wider variety of fruits.” House’s brand, Ace, makes ciders flavoured with pineapple, honey and pumpkin, among others.
But many craft cider makers are not impressed. “Some people use the other fruits to mask low-quality cider,” said Ms Melissa Madden of Finger Lakes Cider House on Good Life Farm, overlooking Cayuga Lake. “It’s a trend none of us want to get involved with. It’s become a circus. It’s frustrating.”
Finger Lakes Cider House, which Ms Madden owns with her husband, Mr Garrett Miller, has become a hub of New York’s growing craft cider movement. It pours ciders from five acclaimed producers, including its own Good Life Cider.
“We’re proud apple growers and cider makers, just like winemakers who are growers of wine grapes,” Ms Madden said.
Having said that, she sheepishly poured a glass of Nor’easter, a Good Life cider flavoured with cranberries. “This is where we go down a slippery slope,” she said with a chuckle. “But we do have a friend on Cape Cod who has a cranberry bog. And we home-juice the cranberries. I guess the question for us is: Who’s growing the fruit?”
The identification with winemaking is important for many craft cider producers, including Mr Andy Brennan at Aaron Burr Cidery.
“Flavouring ciders or creating these ‘recipe ciders’ is similar to beer-making, where it becomes about the prowess of the brewer, or the cider-maker,” Mr Brennan said. “With wine, there is still a model for remaining faithful to quality farming practices.”
Mr Brennan is an outspoken critic of flavoured ciders and what he calls “the ease with which cider can be manipulated”. Still, asked about his best-selling ginger-carrot-apple cider, he replied: “I stopped making that two years ago out of concern for how cider was portrayed. Admittedly, that’s a dumb reason.”
Mr Dan Pucci was the first “pommelier”, or cider director, at Wassail, the cider-obsessed restaurant on the Lower East Side (before recently leaving to start Wallabout Hospitality, a beverage consultancy). He advocates a “wine-based approach to making cider, with estate-grown fruit”. Still, Mr Pucci keeps an open mind and insists that great cider can be made with many different types of fruit.
“Our consumers have no preconceived notion of cider,” he said. “People don’t have set opinions yet. They’re open to whatever.” But, he added: “I don’t carry things that are flavoured for the sake of flavour, or are synthetically flavoured. We won’t have a mango-habanero cider.”
Wassail has more than 20 non-apple ciders on its menu, including one fermented with red currants (from Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont) and Aaron Burr’s elderberry-flavoured cider. Pear cider, or perry, dominates its nonapple offerings.
Perry has a long tradition in the English counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and its French cousin, poire, has historically been produced in Normandy alongside cider and Calvados. Brands such as Oliver’s Classic Perry from Herefordshire and Christian Drouin Poire from Normandy are mainstays on cider lists around the country.
But for enthusiasts, there is a key difference between what many companies call pear cider and authentic perry, which must be made from inedible, tannic, bitter varieties. “Perry pears differ from eating pears in the same way cider apples differ from eating apples,” said Mr Tom Oliver, the cider maker at Oliver’s.
Mr Pucci says producers have only scratched the surface of pear’s potential. “There’s so much apple research,” he said, “but we’re so much further behind with pears.”
“Cider is in a dynamic place right now,” he added. “But cider’s big challenge moving forward is all about identity. For example, we’re not sure if we want to be like beer or wine.”
Not a lot of apples, but plenty of flavour in these ciders
Here are some unconventional ciders to try. All bottles are 750ml unless noted.
- Art & Science Quince-Apple Rickreall, Oregon, US$16 (S$21.50): Cider’s wild edge, with flavours and aromas that suggest mythic, old-time fruit.
- Blackduck Still Perry Ovid, New York, US$16: Pure, fresh pear flavour; almost like fine wine in its balance of tannins and acidity.
- Christian Drouin Poire Normandy, France, US$16: Crisp, subtle, elegant and low in alcohol, from a renowned Norman cider-maker. (B. United, Oxford, Connecticut)
- Citizen Cider Plum Intended Burlington, Vermont, US$15: A good non-apple offering from a larger producer. Wine-like acidity balances the fruity plum.
- Oliver’s Classic Perry Herefordshire, England, 500ml, US$9 to US$12: Rich, with notes of baking spice and baked pear. Classic British perry. (Shelton Brothers, Belchertown, Massachusetts)
- Star Cider Rhubarb Clifton Springs, New York, US$15: Bright, fresh like a spring rhubarb pie, with a dry, wine-like finish.