Author: Melissa West

Cider, Hard & Sweet by Ben Watson – A Book Review

cider, hard & sweet ben watson

Cider, Hard & Sweet, by Ben Watson, is now in its 3rd edition, and for good reason. This quintessential book on cider informs the reader in a clear and lively way. Reading it from cover to cover is enjoyable; opening it at random for a casual peruse will quickly get you sucked in. You’ve been warned—set the timer on the oven or dinner will be burned.

Watson sets out 10 clearly organized chapters, which cover: the history of cider, apple varieties for cider, sweet cider, hard cider, cider styles and traditions, tasting and evaluating cider, perry, cider vinegar and spirits, cooking with cider, and cidermaking: beyond the basics. Being my husband’s wife, I have often heard these topics casually discussed, but reading Watson’s book helped me put the information together in a cohesive way.

One of my favorite chapters was that on apple varieties for cider. Ben Watson begins by explaining why apple trees are often grafted—apples rarely reproduce “true to type” from seed, which greatly affects how new varieties are formed. Like me, you’ll surely learn something in the details he shares. However, most of this chapter is spent in more immediate concerns—the flavor profiles of different categories of apples, and how they can contribute to a well-rounded cider, which includes sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and aroma. Previously, I had been mystified by cider makers that blended apples in their chosen proportions before pressing—how did they know what they would end up with? Watson reveals that it’s less a matter of magic and more a matter of knowing your apple categories. Cider producers will enjoy using this chapter as a jumping-off point when considering adding different varieties to their orchards or cider blends.

Another interesting chapter is Stronger Waters: Cider Vinegar and Spirits. As a teacher, I know that learning in context is much more effective than learning in isolation; even if your main focus is cider, learning about other apple-based drinks will extend your knowledge and give you a rounder picture. The “stronger waters” covered in this chapter are: apple brandy, pommeau, apple jack, ice cider, and cider vinegar. You may have never heard of some of these beverages before, though a description of ice cider (made from “freezing fresh cider pressed from apples in the dead of winter”) will surely intrigue you. I can attest to its deliciousness, which I can only describe as something akin to maple syrup, but alcoholic and made with apples—anyway, it’s worth a try. Conversely, anecdotes of “apple palsy” might put you off applejack, but nevertheless, the section will entertain you.

There’s a chapter suited for every reader, and each is skillfully done. I’m interested, however, in seeing how the chapter “Cider Styles and Traditions” will change in future editions, as cider itself blossoms and changes in the United States. What new styles will be invented or reinvented? Which categories will expand?

This book is not a read-once-and-put-on-the-shelf affair. Our copy is smudged and dog-eared. Part of the reason for this is the way in which the content is displayed. Helpful sub-headings divvy up each chapter while relevant photographs, diagrams, and easy-to-read charts are peppered throughout. Readers are prompted to smile at the start of each chapter, which begins in a prescient quote or verse.

The strength of this book rests on Ben Watson’s talent for finding a balance between breadth and depth, covering ground in a way that piques the interest of the cider drinker and the cider maker alike. Reading this book is probably the quickest and most accurate way for your average imbibing layman to reach the ranks of cider connoisseur. What’s more, it’s painless—nay, it’s downright enjoyable.

Cider Hard and Sweet

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The New American Cider Guide: Apple Knocker Hard Cider

It’s now March, and the phone interviews with cider makers for our upcoming book, The New American Cider Guide, are well underway. I don’t have to do too many truly “cold calls,” but with only one or two emails preceding, some calls are barely defrosted before that first ring. Yet the conversations themselves are decidedly warm and rewarding. I’m learning a lot about individual cider businesses and what makes cider makers tick.

That’s a good thing, because it will be many more interviews and a lot more writing before we achieve the reward of holding the finished book in our hands. But with several profiles behind us, we wanted to take a little peek at what it could be like.

Brad Genung from Apple Knocker Hard Cider was one of the first to reply to my interview request and to send me some photographs for our book. Using my write up of the interview and his photos, I’ve created a mock-up version of the Apple Knocker profile. Though I most likely will play with it a bit before print, I hope that you enjoy this preview.

Here it is, folks: Apple Knocker Profile for The New American Cider Guide . If you can’t open the pdf, here’s the content:

apple knocker h.c. color

Surrounding areas once ridiculed the inhabitants of Cobden, Illinois, as rustic country bumpkins, or “apple knockers.” Full of gumption, working-class Cobden took ownership of that term by making Appleknockers its high school mascot. When the school made it to the state basketball finals in 1964, the “apple knockers” were fully transformed, from foolish to tenacious.

Modern-day apple knocker Brad Genung embodies that spirit of grit. He spent about five years developing Apple Knocker Hard Cider before selling his first production run of 6,000 gallons in 2012. Though Genung acknowledges “there’s a little bit of anxiety in every bottle,” he has reason to believe Apple Knocker will be a success; current production is up to 20,000 gallons, and the business has had to pull back distribution so that the supply can meet demand.

Currently Genung uses apples from local orchards, but Spring 2014 heralds the beginning of Apple Knocker’s own orchard with the planting of two acres, to be extended at the rate of an acre a year. The trees will all be trellised in a similar fashion to his wine grape vineyards. The dense spacing—every 8 feet on 12 foot centers for a total of 460 trees per acre—is made possible because all of the trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.

Apple Knocker Hard Cider Bottles

Genung believes that there are three main approaches to making cider. Beer brewers who decide to go into cider focus on big, bold flavors; traditional cider makers use “beautiful, wonderfully tannic apples” to create ciders with depth and complexity; and winemakers make cider the way they make good white wine, by focusing on fresh fruit character. Genung, who has owned Owl Creek Vineyard since 1995, takes the vintner’s approach. On first impression, this may come as a surprise; Apple Knocker is sold in 22 oz. bombers with a label that’s reminiscent of craft brewing. But part of what drew Genung to cider is the convivial culture that surrounds it, and he worried that wine bottles would align his product with wine’s serious and restrictive image. Genung wanted his packaging to reflect the “free expression” phase that cider is currently in.

Brad Genung’s experimentation has resulted in a core trio: Hard Knocks, Bad Apple, and Sweet Knockers. So far, he’s proudest of Hard Knocks, which is a semi-dry cider. He ferments it to dryness using Belgian yeasts, and then adds back apple juice for a touch of sweetness. He describes it as having some citrus and sour flavors, with a light oak character on the finish. He’s also working on developing a dry hopped cider; by using Cascade hops at cooler temperatures, he hopes to imbue only a light hoppiness to the cider, complementing the flavor of the apples. Even when borrowing techniques from the beer brewing tradition, he’s looking for “the clearest expression of the apple.”

“It’s delicate, and it’s ethereal, like the great moments in life. You pick up these subtleties that you appreciate so wonderfully, and then it’s all gone. It’s like the really defining moments in life that you always harken back to, that’ll put a smile on your face to make you happy. That’s what enjoying a good cider should be like.”

Apple Knocker Hard Cider

Photo: Brad Genung stands behind dock crushing crew Tim and Karin with about-to-be-pressed cider apples. The apples are pressed cold to inhibit any wild yeasts or red wine yeasts that might be present, without having to add sulfites.

Cider Week Virginia — Part 2

As in Part 1, Melissa shares her experiences at Cider Week Virginia 2013. Cider Fest was held on Saturday, November 23rd and is the marquee event of Cider Week Virginia. — Eric

the barn at castle hill
The barn at Castle Hill, site of Cider Fest

The day of the Cider Fest at Castle Hill dawned bright and clear. The festivities didn’t start until 11, so Eric and Ben made a quick trip to Beer Run in Charlottesville. I stayed behind so that Heron could get in his 9 o’clock nap before another big day. Allowing Eric to go to Beer Run unsupervised—or even worse, with Ben the beer aficionado—was like telling a preschooler “I’m just going to drop you off at the candy store for a couple of hours, honey. Here’s your piggybank.” Here’s what Eric has to say about Beer Run:

Beer Run turned out to be an excellent place for stocking up on Virginia cider, with bottles from AlbemarleBlue BeeBold RockCastle HillFoggy RidgeOld Hill, and Potter’s all in one place. I bought a few imports that I can’t find at home—Txopinondo, Le Père Jules (Brut), and Eric Bordelet (Sidre Brut Tendre and Poiré Authentique)—and convinced Ben to buy the last bottle of B. Nektar Zombie Killer, a cherry cyser. Beer Run also has a full kitchen, and we couldn’t pass up the Saturday morning breakfast taco menu: Ben opted for El Gringo while I chose The Gardener. And last but not least, Beer Run does growler fills at the bar. Potter’s Farmhouse Dry is the house cider, though I opted for a fill of Bell’s Two Hearted to give to my IPA-loving friends who were watching our dog back home.

When the dangerous duo returned from their foray, we quickly checked out of the motel, swung by Bodo’s Bagels for some seriously good bagels, then hopped back in the Subaru and headed toward Castle Hill in Keswick.

Tickets to Cider Fest were $20 each, which got us each a tasting glass and 10 drink tickets. Each drink ticket could be exchanged for a 1 to 2 ounce pour of cider from any of the six cidermakers at the festival (Bold Rock was not in attendance). Some ciders were only available by the glass, while other ciders were only available by the bottle.

Castle Hill’s picturesque barn, situated on a grassy hilltop overlooking a pond, is a perfect spot for a big event. The cidermakers were set up inside, while food vendors could be found just outside the barn’s sliding doors. It turned out to be a gorgeous day, with blue skies, sunshine, and temperatures in the mid-fifties. Families laid out picnic blankets on the lawn and watched the pick-up soccer games the children played.

11:15 am, when you could still see the cidermakers from afar
11:15 am, when you could still see the cidermakers from afar

We had arrived early. Our game plan was to space out the tastings, enjoying the grounds and each other’s company between pours. For almost an hour we sipped slowly. Civilized, we kept notes of each cider that we tasted. Then the band—Love Canon, a bluegrass-inflected ’80s tribute band—began to play and people began to pour in. Soon enough, Heron began to fuss. We went for a walk, trying to soothe him.

I had never been to Castle Hill before, and I wanted to see the kvevri that Eric had told me about. Kvevri are large terracotta amphorae used to ferment cider (or wine) in. Seven thousand years ago, amphorae were the first vessels used for the fermentation of grape juice into wine. Although most of the amphorae at Castle Hill are buried beneath the frost line, with only the lids visible, one broken six-foot tall amphora can be found on display. It was cool to glimpse a piece of history (and I was pretty excited to use the word “amphora,” too. Who knows when I would get another chance?)

Eric with the kvevri
Eric with the kvevri

After feeding Heron in the merciful calm of the tasting room and taking another walk, I returned to the car. Weary of the crowds, Eric and Ben had set up folding chairs in the parking lot. They pulled out bottles of cider. Yes, my friends, yes. Tailgating. I want it on the record: it wasn’t my idea. Eric had been holding back a bottle of Flag Hill Farm’s Sapsucker for just such a special occasion, and Ben parried with a Sidra Menéndez collected during a recent cycling trip in Mallorca. At least it was high-class tailgating.

a little extra at Castle Hill
A little extra at Castle Hill

Laughing and shaking our heads, we pulled out fistfuls of unused tickets from our pockets. Eric and I still had 11 tickets between us! With an hour and a half until the festival was done, and people still coming through the gates, we decided to try and use our tickets up. Unfortunately, the lines were unmanageable. Several cidermakers were out of one or all of their ciders, and the ciders that were left seemed to be the ones that I had already tasted! Courtney from Blue Bee had bravely manned her table all day, but she was forced to abandon her post when she ran out of stock.

Although there were plenty of people swaying to the band or enjoying the sunshine, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one frustrated and disappointed by the difficulty in gaining access to the cider. The numbers might explain it: last year’s crowd numbered 200-250 people; the crowd had easily tripled for 2013!

With unused tickets still in our pockets, we left Cider Fest. I was glad to be on the way home. This had been our first trip away from home with the baby. It had been fun, but it wasn’t easy.

And, after all, there’s always plenty of cider waiting for us at home.

The West family at Castle Hill
The West family at Castle Hill

Cider Week Virginia — Part 1

[This post is by my wife, Melissa, who rarely travels to cider events due to other commitments. Keep an eye out for future posts from Melissa and other guest authors! — Eric]

tasters at East/West Smackdown
East/West Cider Smackdown at Albermarle CiderWorks

My husband and I were too busy to travel to any Cider Week Virginia events in 2012, so there was no way we were missing out this year. We packed the whole family up—newborn son included—and headed to Charlottesville. We carpooled with Eric’s friend Ben, a National-level BJCP judge who proved to have quite a knack for pacifier re-insertion.

Our crew arrived a few minutes late for the sold-out East/West Cider Smackdown at Albermarle CiderWorks, held on Friday, November 22nd. But we arrived just in time to hear tasting room manager Anne Shelton explain how the good fight was going to go down. Twelve ciders—six from the West Coast, six from the East Coast—would be the contenders. We were given a tasting wheel and a note-taking sheet, and then set free to taste each cider at our own pace. The twist? Each bottle of cider was wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a three-digit number so that we wouldn’t know the cider’s true identity. Of course, Eric was saying “I bet this is a Foggy Ridge,” and so forth, but I was truly blind.

This was the most fun with cider I have ever had. I couldn’t believe my good luck! I got to taste 12 different ciders and rate them against each other, without actually having to buy 12 bottles of cider. (Even most of the Virginia ciders aren’t yet available in the Blacksburg, Virginia area we call home.) Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider and Stuart Madany of Castle Hill Cider were also in the crowd, taking advantage of this rare blind tasting opportunity. Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider was absent, but some of her tasting room staff were there helping Albermarle’s staff pour the ciders.

pouring cider at East/West Smackdown
Anne Shelton pouring cider at the East/West Smackdown

Tasting so many ciders led me to realize that I have quite a wide palate in terms of what I like to drink—from dry to sweet. It also led me to realize that even though the cider resurgence is still in its infancy, there’s a lot of promise in what is out there. Out of the twelve, there was only one I wouldn’t drink, and given the strong, musty smell, it may have been a bad bottle or batch.

Of course, twelve ciders is an awful lot to taste, and especially given that I was limiting my sipping (remember the baby?), it was hard to keep each one straight. I wasn’t the only one with this problem: another woman leaned in to share notes with our little group, and I saw by the time she had gotten to the bottom of her sheet, she had written “I like it!” instead of the detailed aroma and taste notes she had at the top. One way to mitigate this would be to have a slightly more tutored tasting, perhaps regrouping two or three times during the evening to discuss. (Anne would later tell us that Tom Burford and Chris Lehault led the ceremonies in 2012.) As it was, it was a free for all until the end, when we were able to cast our tickets for our favorites.

I cast both of my tickets for a bright, full-bodied cider with a heady aroma that I couldn’t get enough of. When Anne called its number out as the winner, there was an immediate uproar of people wanting to know the name behind the number.

The top five vote getters were:

  1. Snowdrift Cider Co. — Cliffbreaks Blend (Washington)
  2. Blue Bee Cider — Aragon 1904 (Virginia)
  3. Foggy Ridge Cider — First Fruit (Virginia)
  4. Whitewood Cider Co. — Old Fangled (Washington)
  5. Tieton Cider Works — Tieton Blend (Washington)

The remaining seven ciders were, in alphabetical order: Albemarle Ciderworks Ragged Mountain, Alpenfire Ember, Castle Hill Celestial, Dragon’s Head Cider Manchurian, Finnriver Artisan Sparkling, Old Hill Yesteryear, and Potter’s Craft Cider Farmhouse Dry.

The West had beat out the East with three of the top five ciders. Snowdrift is one of the premier American cidermakers (in Eric’s opinion) and Cliffbreaks Blend is his favorite cider of theirs, so it wasn’t surprising that it finished on top. (Snowdrift now ships to 43 states if you’d like to try it.)

How I wish I had the chance to taste them all again, knowing the name of each, so I could associate a taste with the name! It’s hard to keep twelve different ciders straight using three-digit numbers! Ah, well. One interesting thing that I didn’t realize until I had a chance to look at the results was that the Smackdown wasn’t just an East/West competition. All of the East ciders were from Virginia, and all of the West ciders were from Washington state. Virginia didn’t stack up too poorly, and I was pleased to see our closest cidery, Foggy Ridge, was among the top three!

The cider tasting was fun, but the night wasn’t over yet. Because Ben is an avid cyclist with the metabolism of a teenager, we then sought out Milan Indian Cuisine and feasted on some scrumptious Indian food. Afterwards, we crashed at the nearby Super 8, resting up for Saturday’s Cider Fest at Castle Hill.

Ben, Eric, and Heron enjoying Cider Week Virginia
Ben (r), Eric (c), and Heron enjoying Cider Week Virginia