Cider: The Hard Truth 

Getting reacquainted with an old friend

"I love the sweet and dryness of this one," says Chris Oates as he raises a glass of amber liquid to the light, narrowing an eye as if sighting through a scope. "It goes sweet and then finishes very, very dry, especially on the top of your palate."

Rick Boyd of Brewforia Beer Market in Meridian agrees.

"There's also a tartness, an underlying tartness," he says. "It's more of a cider vinegar note that comes through."

Here in the back room of their shop, both Brewforia employee Oates and owner Boyd do a little wrist swirl with their glasses, getting that liquid turning like a golden whirlpool. I do my best to imitate them, then take a sip. The flavors are surprising. After all, we're not tasting beer or wine here. It's bright, slightly sweet, but far from cloying, and as Oates says, makes a U-turn on the tongue toward a kind of fruity astringency. I don't know much about hard apple cider, but the education they're giving me is starting out pretty damn delicious.

I'm learning, too, that hard or fermented apple cider is far more American than apple pie. Cider sailed over on the Mayflower, and Johnny Appleseed definitely wasn't thinking dessert when he scattered all those seeds across the land. Like most Americans, he had a thing for hard cider. It was, after all, the nation's most popular alcoholic drink. Then came prohibition. After a solid century of obscurity, hard apple cider is again climbing up the charts. It's big in New England. In the Northwest, Washington and, to a lesser degree, Oregon are getting props for producing fine craft cider. Idaho could, too.

As we work our way through half a dozen samples, I'm struck by how distinctive each tastes. Unlike apple juice or low-end ciders, which snarky connoisseurs call "cider pop," many of the better hard ciders are dry and pleasantly tannic, like carefully crafted beer or Champagne.

Jeremy Wheeler, one of several home cider makers who've mysteriously materialized around our cider-clogged table, agrees.

"There's so many different styles of cider," Wheeler says. "You can infuse it with other fruits, you can produce it with pears or apples, you can make a dry cider, a sparkling cider, a still cider, a sweet cider. There's just so much variety."

And so many varieties of apples appropriate to cider making. Native crab apples and rare apple varieties can produce excellent cider. John Dadabay, another home brewer, says Idaho's backcountry is prime habitat for cider apples. He prowls old homesteads in a search of odd and nearly extinct apple types, the kind that might curl your toes if you bit into one, but which, when pressed, offer depth and complexity.

"You'll find a lot of them on the homesteads along the Salmon River," Dadabay says. "You'll find apples and cherries and all kinds of things up there and it opens a whole new area for people to make craft ciders--and delicious craft ciders."

In fact, in cider hot spots like Yakima and Port Townsend, growers are re-planting old-fashioned cider apples, varieties that were long ago yanked from the ground in favor of commercial table apples, which are often too cloying for high-end cider. (Of Washington's 225,000 acres of apple orchards, only about 30 acres contain cider apples.) In that sense, the hard cider movement is slipping on Johnny Appleseed's shoes by offering a little pomey biodiversity in a land tilted too far toward apple monoculture--the insipid Red Delicious makes up more than 40 percent of America's commercial crop.

Although a number of Idahoans have the apples and interest, the state is currently home to nary a single commercial hard cider plant. The examples we're tasting all hail from somewhere over the horizon. Between sips of a Michigan cider, Boyd recalls a Sandpoint cidery called Seven Sisters that closed shop some 10 years ago. Several of those around our tasting table think Idaho is now more cider-receptive.

"With the amount of producers of wine and beer," home cider maker Justin Stewart says, "and the amount of consumers consuming more and more cider, it's just going to be a matter of time before somebody jumps in and starts producing it on their own."

Boyd offers another reason why Idaho is ripe for cider production: Basque culture. He opens a Basque cider, our first still cider, and as is the tradition, stands to pour the drink into glasses from up high.

"We want to pour it as long and hard as we can from the greatest distance to give us more carbonation and aerate the cider," Boyd explains.

This cloudy, sediment-rich cider is to cider pop what speed metal is to a lullaby. It's sharp, aggressively sour and finishes with a feral twang. Tony Eiguren, owner of the Basque Market, says hard cider is central to Basque cuisine but also an acquired taste, admitting it reminds his wife Tara of vinegar. On the other hand, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov writes that Basque country "produces some of the greatest and most unusual ciders in the world" with aromas like "wet wool" and "animal fur."

Not exactly mouth-watering descriptors but that zippy--if furry--flavor would cut through a seafood paella as cleanly as a prized and equally feral New Zealand sauvignon blanc. In the cider houses that dot the Basque countryside, whole dinners orbit around the pairing of cider to Basque foods like salt cod, egg tortillas and desserts of sheep milk cheese, walnuts and membrillo (quince paste). On occasion, at their Basque Market, the Eigurens offer their own version of a cider house dinner starring several types of Basque cider.

Back at our Brewforia tasting table (and on to a warm, mulled-wine like cider) home brewer Nick Phillips thinks Idaho's burgeoning wine industry is another place ripe for sparking an Idaho hard cider industry.

"I think if we could impress winemakers to set aside some of their storage for it, I think that would be great because back in New England, where it first started here in the States, they made [cider] in barrels. And we already have plenty of barrels, and I can imagine a delicious fresh cider that was aged in a chardonnay barrel would be fantastic."

Phillips punctuates his sentence with a goofy smile and a slightly giddy laugh that seems to spring from a well of enthusiasm more lasting than the cider settling in our bellies--most ciders have a moderate alcohol content of 6 percent. Fellow brewer Jeremy Wheeler adds that with Idaho's high-desert climate, "We have an opportunity to produce cider that's got a unique Boise/Treasure Valley terroir."

Cider with a Treasure Valley terroir? With every sip that sounds more inevitable and deliciously logical. So why the holdup?

"It's just one of those things that's probably the last thing you think of," says Phillips. "Cider isn't the first thing you pull off a shelf. Oddly enough though it's something everyone enjoys. Some prefer it dry, some prefer it sweet. Everyone enjoys hard cider."

Our founding fathers certainly did. America's second president, John Adams, supposedly drank a tankard of hard cider every morning before breakfast. According to Boyd, Martin Van Buren used his love of cider as proof of character during elections. A cider barrel was William Henry Harrison's campaign symbol.

Clearly it's time for patriotic Idahoans to take a cue from America's elder statesmen and bring hard cider back to the table. We've got the climate, the culture and the expertise. A perfect cider storm? Except for maybe that breakfast part.

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