As microbrews and specialty beers continue to attract connoisseurs with a vast selection of styles from America and abroad, one craft beverage that shouldn't be overlooked is hard apple cider. Yes, we beer lovers crave barley and hops, but cider is a crisp and refreshing quaff. It's a more than ample sharpener, especially during the fall months, and one that is enjoying a second coming of sorts.
Hard apple cider was a boon companion to the Founding Fathers and for more than a century it was the tipple of choice for hardy pioneer types. The reason was simple: New England was filled with apple trees, and turning the fruit into a potent potable was a cinch. Unlike beer brewing, which required hard-to-source ingredients and a good body of specialized knowledge, cider making could be done in the humblest of circumstances by the humblest of people—and by some of the most famous. Thomas Jefferson made cider at Monticello, John Adams had a tankard every morning at breakfast and George Washington always kept barrels of it on hand.
Cider has been mostly supplanted by beer since the Industrial Revolution, but when the craft and microbrewing revolution began in the late-1970s, the door was opened for beer makers to work their alchemy not with hops and barley, but with apples. Since then, hard cider has made a sturdy comeback and Americans are once again finding that it fills a very particular niche in the alcoholic beverage pantheon. It pairs beautifully with most foods, can be served almost any time of day and is excellent for cooking with.
Small cider mills flourish in apple growing areas throughout the United States and many regional hard ciders are available. Larger brands, such as Fox Barrel, Ace, Hornsby's, Original Sin and Woodchuck, can be found in specialty beverage stores around the country, along with seasonal ciders from such craft beer companies as Harpoon. British and Irish ciders—Blackthorn, Strongbow, Woodpecker, Magners—are plentifully exported and popular in stateside pubs, while France also has a presence with de Christian Drouin and Etienne Dupont. Look for a good balance in taste—neither cloyingly sweet nor so dry that the apple notes all but disappear. And don't believe all cider is low in alcohol. Some varieties top 8 percent.