About the author: Chris Lehault is a homebrewer and cider connoisseur. He also blogs about beverage culture at IDrunkThat.com.
Historically speaking, there was little in the way of "style" when it came to hard cider. Most orchards made a single cider from their available apples using whatever techniques they'd learned through the generations (and the wild yeast already present on the fruit.) Over the decades, however, as production became more sophisticated and local tastes developed, regional ciders styles began take hold.
The English became known for dry, tannic ciders with higher alcohol levels, while the French created lighter, lower alcohol ciders using sweeter apples and a technique known as keeving.
In America, modern cider makers, like craft beer brewers, experiment with a range of styles. Each producer often makes a variety of ciders with a range of sweetness using a number of different brewing techniques, yeast strains, and apple varietals. This can be exciting for the contemporary cider drinker, but it can also be overwhelming. In an attempt to demystify the process, here are a few key terms to help choose the right cider for your table.
This is the serious cider-drinker's cider. Dry ciders have less than 0.5% residual sugar. They are often quite tannic, with a pronounced acidity, and slightly thinner body than those with more residual sugar. Many dry ciders are aged in oak barrels to complement their inherent mineral qualities and are excellent both still and carbonated.
If you like dry white wines or Belgian farmhouse ales, then try Wandering Aengus Ciderworks' Oaked Dry Cider (500ml, 6.8% alcohol, $8, buy online). The oak aging marries nicely with notes of lime peel and black pepper for a crisp finish that magnify the flavors of goat cheeses, light seafood preparations, and Thai dishes.
Off-dry ciders have slightly more body than their dry counterparts; usually 1 to 2% residual sugar. This additional body makes for more food-friendly ciders while retaining enough character to partner with—rather than outshine—your meal. Off-dry ciders have the same tannic quality and bright astringency as dry ones but usually begin with a smoother mouthfeel and richer flavor.
For fans of sparking white wine, Foggy Ridge First Fruit (750ml, 8% alcohol, $16, buy online) packs an elegant, floral bouquet and robust, fruity flavors. The finish is tart and to the point, thanks to the inclusion of Hewes crabapples along with a sweeter base of Harrison apples. First Fruit pairs well with pork dishes, washed-rind cheeses, and lighter, spiced fare.
Semi-Dry & Semi-Sweet Cider
Semi-dry and semi-sweet are catch-all categories for ciders above 2% residual sugar. There is no real distinction between the two aside from the obvious. Semi-dry is a little drier than semi-sweet. Semi-sweet ciders can carry as much as 4% residual sugar with some finishing even higher. Expect firm legs, solid body and hearty, pronounced apple flavors. They also work well mixed into cider cocktails.
AEppelTreow Appely Doux (750ml, 7.5% alcohol, $15) is an excellent, full-bodied, semi-dry cider from Southeast Wisconsin with fall orchard notes, bright apple flavors and an underlying hint of honey. This is a multidimensional cider with rich mineral qualities, strong tannins and a healthy dose of terroir. It pairs especially well with rustic root-vegetable-based dishes.
In England, farmhouse cider refers to natural or "real" cider made with as little impact from the producer as possible. These ciders are often fermented with wild yeasts and often possess higher ABVs—up to 12%. In America, farmhouse cider is a far looser classification, referring to approachable table cider with a lower astringency and an earthier flavor profile.
West County Cider's Kingston Black (750ml, 6.8% alcohol, $16, buy online) is an excellent and refined American farmhouse cider. Fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, the Kingston Black has a nose full of fresh apples with hints of caramel, rhubarb, and lake-house funk. The taste follows suit with flavors of green apple, dusty orange peel and a dry, almost chalky finish from the solid tannins. This is a complex yet approachable cider that pairs well with pork dishes, cheesecake and Camembert cheese.