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The Serious Eats Guide to Thanksgiving Cider Pairing

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez Alt / Chris Lehault]

Convention tells us to take it easy with the drink choices on Thanksgiving and concentrate on food and family. But you're a Thanksgiving pro by now (you've watched Kenji's video about how to spatchcock a turkey, right?) so we think you can put as much thought into what goes in the glass as you do about what's going on the plate.

And the secret is: getting it right is easy. You just need 3 bottles of cider. The key, like all things Thanksgiving related, is pacing.

Start Off Easy

20131010aaronburruse.jpgThere is nothing more festive than greeting your guests with a glass of bubbly. But instead of Champagne or Prosecco this year, break out a bottle of dry sparkling cider. These subtle ciders won't weigh down your palate but will complement briny olives and pickled vegetables while cutting through rich cheese plates and deviled eggs. The tannins in dry ciders can accentuate spicy foods, though, so put down the pepperoni and choose prosciutto or other delicate charcuterie.

Any dry cider can kick start the day but—in this situation—we prefer those high on minerality and low on complex yeast character. Thanksgiving is not the time to bring the funk.

Try these:

There are quite a few single-varietal Newtown Pippin ciders out there but this holiday we're most excited about the Pippin Cider from Washington's Dragon's Head Cider. Dry and bright, with lemony flavors and light tannins, Pippin Cider is an easy-going way to start the meal.

For a more rustic approach, reach for the the Homestead Cider from Aaron Burr Cider. Fermented to dryness from wild, New York state apples, cider maker Andy Brennen creates an earthy cider with an impressive amount of tannin from foraged fruit.

Uncle John's Fruit House Winery's Baldwin Cider is an easy choice from the Great Lakes region. Using heirloom fruit, this cider has a subtle balance of wet stone and crisp apples for definitively fall feeling.

Go Bright for the Main Course

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When serving traditional Thanksgiving fare, you'll want a cider with brightness and acidity. Holidays dishes tend to go big on the fats and bright ciders cut through the richness and prepare your mouth for the next bite. To complement the caramelization and sweetness of roasted side dishes, pick a cider that is off-dry or medium dry. The subtle sweetness with hold up to—but not weigh down—the meal.

Generally, ciders pressed from American heirloom fruit—sharp-sweet apples grown from seed or discovered in the New World —are ideal in this situation. They are also historically relevant. These fruits—many of which were discovered by chance during the colonial era—are American cider's foundation and bring a range of palate-cleansing flavors from a lemony brininess to apple and red currant.

Due to a lack of tannins, American cider fruit produces ciders that are easy-going and festive. If you are looking for something more structured and austere, pick a cider that adds bittersweet English and French apples in the mix.

Try these:

New England cider makers are leading the way in heirloom cider production and some of the best are come from New York's Finger Lakes region. Bellwether Cider's King Baldwin blends two old apple varieties—the Tompkins King and the Baldwin—for a tart, refreshing cider with an earthy finish. This one-two punch of acid and earthiness plays well with everything from rich gravies to roasted root vegetables.

Further east, Slyboro Ciderhouse's Hidden Star uses locally grown Northern Spy and Liberty apples for a cider that is more aromatic. Crisp, fresh apple flavors still dominate the Hidden Star but there also a floral character that does wonders around butter and comforting fall flavors.

Tilted Shed Ciderworks' Graviva! Semidry Cider is a more English-inspired take on an heirloom cider. Graviva! starts with California's quintessential apple, the Gravenstein. These are blended with Hubbardston Nonesuch heirlooms and English bittersweet fruit for a lively cider with apple and citrus flavors. The tannins provide a long, lingering finish.

Succumb to the Sweetness

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As dinner winds down, it's best to tone down the tannins and pair sweet with sweet; dessert is not the time for a daring pairing. But when choosing a cider as decadent as dessert, think high acid and high sugar. This double intensity will both complement and cut through the richness of pies, crumbles, and cakes.

Try these:

Harvest Moon Four Screw Hard Cider smells like autumn's fresh apples and brings hints of spice. This cider is finished with a touch of maple syrup, which helps it work well with fall desserts. Cider makers can be a bit heavy-handed with their maple syrup additions but, here, the syrup is balanced by a brightness that helps it complement, but not overwhelm dessert.

If you are looking for something a bit stronger to end your meal, try a pommeau. Produced from a blend of aged apple spirits and fresh or lightly fermented cider, pommeau usually clocks in around 20% ABV, making it a good choice for post-dinner sipping. Seek out your local cidery's version, or look for the 2011 Pommeau from Traditions Ciderworks in Corvallis, Oregon. Produced with traditional bittersweet cider fruit and blended with Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme, this pommeau layers flavors of apples, oak, vanilla, and caramelized sugars.

Ice cider is also a wonderful way to close out a meal. Each year, more and more producers in cold climates are turning out inspiring bottles. Newhall Farm's version is a Thanksgiving favorite for its high acidity, and wonderful spice and caramelized sugar flavors. Of course, there are no spices in this bottle, just 100% estate grown Vermont apples.

Serving cider this Thanksgiving? Which bottles will you open?

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.

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