Bring on the Oak: Barrel Aged Ciders

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[Photos: Christopher Lehault]

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Farnum Hill Semi-Dry
Potter's Craft Cider Oak Barrel Reserve
Wandering Aengus Oaked Dry

It seems that we will barrel-age anything these days. Beer and wine are a no-brainer and even barrel aged cocktails are popular enough to brave the tunnel to my beloved Garden State. And now there are folks barrel aging vinegar, maple syrup, and even Worcestershire sauce. But cider actually has quite a long history with the barrel.

Fermenting cider in oak was common practice before the advent of stainless steel tanks. The earliest farmhouse ciders in Europe were made with little more than a wooden bucket of freshly pressed juice and some airborne yeast. And even today, oak fermenters are still employed in more traditional cider landscapes such as in Spain, where the sidra is both aged and served in enormous oak barrels.

America's history with cider began with that same wooden bucket and wild yeast found on the English farmhouse centuries ago. But most modern producers favor the reliability and temperature control of stainless steel tanks to the unpredictable, centuries-old traditions of Spain or England. For some American cidermakers, however, there is no substitute for the tannins and complexity of traditional barrel-aging. Here are a few oak-aged ciders worth checking out.

In the Spirit: Ciders Aged in Whisky and Brandy Barrels

Craft breweries have long used spirits barrels for aging beer, and some of these brews, such as Kentucky Breakfast Stout from Founders, Boulevard's Rye-on-Rye, or The Bruery's Smoking Wood are some of today's most sought-after brews. So it was only a matter of time before today's cider makers—many with roots in home brewing and craft beer—followed suit. When filled with the juice from bittersharp and bittersweet apples, barrels that were previously used to age spirits can add a sweetness and warmth to cider that hints at classic cocktails such as the Stone Fence.

Potter's Craft Cider's Oak Barrel Reserve, for example, is laced with traces of the Laird's Apple Brandy that once filled their aging barrels. Further north, in Canada, Sea Cider's Prohibition Cider receives a hefty slumber in Screech Rum soaked bourbon barrels to impart boozy, sugary flavors necessary for a long, cold winter up north. (The hefty 12% ABV also helps curb winter's bite.)

And while our favorite spirits-barrel-aged cider is Finn River's Fire Barrel Cider, the mere whispers of bourbon may be too subdued for drinkers looking for more up front liquor notes.

In a Traditional Sense: Barrel Aging for Structure

At Farnum Hill, cider undergoes a long fermentation in neutral oak barrels

Not all American cideries are using barrels in order to impart the flavor of spirits into each sip. Some, like New Hampshire's Farnum Hill, are barrel-aging in a more traditional sense. Their Semi-Dry Cider uses a blend of ciders aged in older, neutral barrels for tannins, structure, and subtle woody notes without the sweeter, boozier flavors found in ciders that aged in bourbon or brandy barrels.

There are only hints of oak flavor in Alpinefire's Pirate's Plank Bone-Dry Cider a bracingly dry, unapologetic, unfilitered cider more reminiscent of English Scrumpy than its American counterparts. And bucking tradition completely, Oregon's Wandering Aengus prefer to use oak chips in their tanks instead of aging in barrels. Wandering Aengus' co-owner James Kahn tells us:

With Oaked Dry Cider, the use of medium toast French oak chips fill valleys in the flavor profile created by the high tannin peaks that the bittersweet apples (Dabinette, Yarlington Mill, and Chisel Jersey) create. We selected chips in stainless steel tanks over barrels to help us preserve the fruit character of the rare heirloom apples we use and better control the level of oak."

Barrel-Aged Ciders from the Big Boys

Both Crispin and Woodchuck have tried their hand at barrel aging cider. The more complex of the two is Crispin's Bird-on-a-Wire where four separate yeasts, Tupelo honey, and the use of both rye and bourbon barrels produce a sweet cider that simultaneously connotes deep rye and fresh pressed apple juice.

Woodchuck's Private Reserve Barrel Select is clearly influenced from time spent in Heaven Hill Distillery bourbon barrels. It has a long finish and strong, American oak flavors. Both of these ciders are geared more towards the bourbon drinker looking for an easier-drinking beverage, rather than the cider drinking looking for the barrel's more traditional benefits.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

Woodchuck, Crispin, Finn River, Wandering Aengus, and Potter's Craft
Cider samples provided for review consideration.

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