While American cider-making began with the earliest settlers, much of today's cider boom has more in common with the modern wine industry than with the stuff our founding fathers fermented. Through modern advancements such as cultivated yeast, forced carbonation, and stainless steel fermentation tanks, producers these days are able to fine-tune their ciders, aiming for consistency in the product from year to year.
But some cider-makers forgo the precision of modern technology. Instead, they embrace the old-world method of fermenting with yeast already present on the skins of the apples. These "wild" ciders, many believe, can represent the true character of their farms, exhibiting unique qualities from the region's microflora alongside the influence of the farm's soil and apples. While producing cider using native fermentation can be unpredictable, the results can offer an array of savory and earthy flavors that are difficult to obtain with cultured yeast.
There are no official genres of wild fermented cider, and each farm's unique environment will yield distinct results, shaped by the cider maker's methods. But there are a few indicators that can help you gauge how intense a cider's "funky" flavors will be....read on for some tips and ciders to try.
On the Lighter Side
There are two common paths to making less assertive wild ciders: one is to inoculate with cultivated wild yeast, and the other is to filter the cider before bottling. Both of these techniques help cider makers refine the funky flavors in their cider while ensuring healthy fermentations.
For the lightest level of funk in a cider, look for one that has been filtered before bottling. Since most of these wild flavors come from yeast, filtering the yeast out—a common practice found in most American ciders—reduces those characteristics and heightens the profile of the fruity apples. In Old Hill Cider's Cidermaker's Barrel (Timberville, Virginia), for example, the earthy yeast character is a whisper beneath a profile dominated by time spent in used bourbon barrels. And while the aroma and character of the yeast is perceptible, the resulting cider leads with more robust vanilla and caramel flavors and a distinct hit of fresh oak.
In contrast, 2011 Traditions Ciderworks' Afton Field from Corvallis, Oregon, is fermented with a dose of Brettanomyces, allowing some control over the fermentation and results that show off the Brett's funky, complex character. This is the same bacteria found in wild beer fermentation, and fans of Lambics or American sours will find the classic barnyard and horse blanket aromas endearing, while still enjoying the cider's uniquely dry, structured qualities.
Just A Little Control
Most naturally fermented ciders fall into this category, aiming to balance apple and yeast character without letting the funkiness get out of hand. Sometimes this balance is achieved through the use of multiple yeasts, and sometimes (as is common in the wine industry) sulfites are added to arrest fermentation and avoid runaway yeast.
Young Texan cider-makers Argus Cidery, for example, balance their Bandera Brut through a second fermentation using additional, cultured yeast. The combination of strains results in a melange of flavors evocative of cider vinegar and fresh-cut lemons to bready, doughy notes. These yeasty characteristics round out the acidity and balance the hefty 9% ABV.
Others, like Rochester, NY upstart Black Bird Ciderworks keep their indigenous yeast in check through the use of sulfites to stabilize the cider. His Black Bird Cider Works Organic Farm Style Cider cider is just off-dry with notes of wet grass, bitter herbs and an almost moss-like character from the wild yeast. While the timid may shy away from such unconventional flavors, they can also be great tools for adventurous food pairings.
Ciders Gone Wild
Only a few master American cider-makers are willing to explore a fully-natural, wild cider. Here, we are talking about naturally carbonated ciders fermented with yeast and with no artificial filtering. Some of these ciders introduce a neutral Champagne yeast near the end of fermentation but the flavor profile of these ciders is already dominated by the wild, natural yeast.
Cider has been made this wild way for centuries around the world, and it's still a common practice in England, France, and Spain. And while these techniques have been passed down for generations in Europe, results can still be a bit unpredictable stateside. But a few dedicated producers in the Pacific Northwest have mastered the technique, and the results are more complex than any other cider in the American landscape.
Natural cider is a way of life at Alpenfire Ciderworks where Nancy and Steve 'Bear' Bishop produce a variety of English and French style ciders. All of these offerings are unfiltered, bottle conditioned, and fermented using the wild yeast of Port Townsend, WA. Ember, their semi-dry cider fermented with a blend of French and English Bittersweet apples, is the most approachable of their portfolio. Yeasty and complex, there is a touch of sweetness in Ember that rounds out the acidity and firm tannins. The earthy notes blend with hints of ripe citrus and red-fleshed apple skins, creating the most versatile wild cider we tasted.
Similarly, Rickreall, Oregon's EZ Orchards are producing Cidre true to French form. Using a blend of vintage French cider apples and finishing with a traditional méthode champenoise, cider maker Kevin Zielinski is able to produce a cider with both the clarity and complexity of its European inspiration. This dazzling, orange-hued cider is rich with botanical and spice flavors, with hints of mustard seed and dill overlaying lush tones of preserved citrus, apricots, and nectarines. The resulting balance is a testament to EZ Orchard's dedication to producing a single cider and doing so in an exemplary manner.
All bottles were provided as press samples for review consideration except the Black Bird Cider Works Organic Farm Style Cider.