Sweet apple cider has long been a favorite holiday beverage: hot or cold, spiced or plain, a favorite for kids and grownups alike. Now adults are increasingly discovering the joys of hard cider as well. Once the drink of choice among 18th-century Americans — John Adams reportedly drank a pint every morning — this unique beverage is making a comeback. In the past decade, boutique cider mills producing award-winning blends have multiplied wherever apple orchards are found.
Renewed interest in hard ciders seems to be linked to the popularity of craft beer and artisanal wineries. Many of the small family-owned cider mills appeal to supporters of the slow food movement who want to buy seasonal and sustainable products from local producers.
A few large-scale commercial hard ciders are available in grocery stores and on tap throughout the country. But for a premium drinking experience, look for a natural cider, without additives, that relies on only the natural yeast present in apples for fermentation. A wide range of varieties are available from sweet to dry, depending upon the blend of fruit used in each batch. Pear ciders, called perry, are also common, processed much the same as the apple, and contain similar alcohol content.
Hard ciders, like wine and beer, pair well with food. "I would pair a cider with Thai food instead of beer if I wanted a hint of fruitiness," says Sondra Bernstein, proprietor of the girl & the fig culinary empire based in Sonoma County, Calif. Bernstein believes that hard ciders especially shine at holiday time and pair well with roasted meats. "A cider would be wonderful served with a beautiful, simple roasted chicken fresh out of the oven," Bernstein says.
Alternatively, Bernstein suggests cider as an ingredient in cooking instead of wine, such as her recipe for grilled pork chops with apple cider sauce.
Since most boutique cider is produced in relatively small batches, distribution is generally limited to the surrounding region. To find hard cider producers near you, watch local restaurant menus, check out local farmers markets and wine sellers, and search online. Small cider mills thrive because of their entrepreneurial spirit and, as a result, have well-developed websites that tell their stories, list where their products can be bought, if they are certified organic, and when they are doing tastings or hosting other activities. Many have tasting rooms open year-round, especially on the weekends.