Something New From Something Old

November 26th, 2012


Twenty five years ago, on a trip to Victoria BC, I discovered a new treat.  All of the pubs served something called hard cider! Alcoholic apple juice! Now granted, folks with more “bar time” than me might be surprised that this was a new discovery, but chances are most Americans had little experience with what we now call hard cider.  A non-alcoholic apple beverage called cider was for sale in most grocery stores, but I’m hard pressed (pun intended) to define the difference between non-alcoholic apple cider and apple juice.  A quick search on Google confirms that I’m not alone.  A few states have laws that draw a distinction; cider is unfiltered and juice is filtered. But more often than not, it is simply a matter of labeling.

Hard cider however, has a definitive status and a fascinating history. Probably since the beginning of time, humans have enjoyed the result of fermentation. In Biblical times, we find Noah’s sons getting into big trouble because of growing, fermenting and imbibing the fruit of the vine. As far as apple cider goes – history tells us that apple trees existed along the Nile River delta as early as 1300 BCE. In what is now England, Roman explorers found the locals drinking hard apple cider in 55 BCE.  By the beginning of the 9th century, cider drinking was well established in Europe. In the new world, apple trees for hard cider were the first fruits planted in the British colonies. Historians tell us that John Adams started each day off with a tankard of hard cider for breakfast. It is important to note here that only in America is the term hard cider used.  For most of history and currently in the rest of the world – the term cider always means fermented (and therefore alcoholic) apple juice, with an alcohol content that can range from 2%  to 8.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).

So, if cider drinking has such a long and popular history, why was it such a discovery for me in Victoria?  It is somewhat of a mystery why hard cider all but disappeared from the American table. Historians tell us that as late as the early 1900’s hard cider was the drink of choice for “every-day” Americans. In 1840, conservative presidential candidate William Harrison managed to convince a majority of working class Americans that he was “one of them” by associating himself with the symbols of “log cabin and hard cider”. (Lest we think that photo-ops of politicians drinking beer, bowling and grocery shopping in order to present themselves as “one of us” is a new thing.) Shortly after that though, hard cider all but disappeared from the American scene.

There are a number of reasons that have been bandied around about why hard cider fell so far out of favor. Of course Prohibition in the 1930’s probably played its role. But most other alcoholic beverages came back easily when it was repealed. Some think that a killing freeze in the eastern states during prohibition is to blame. After all of the apple orchards were wiped out, farmers replanted trees much more suitable for eating than fermenting, since alcoholic beverages could not be legally sold. There are also anecdotes about farmers in a fit of temperance-driven passion chopping down all of their cider apple trees. Another factor blamed is the in-flow of German immigrants in the late 1800’s with their superior brewing methods, which greatly improved the taste and popularity of beer.

Whatever the reason for the disappearance of hard cider, we are greatly enjoying its comeback.The Pacific Northwest in particular, is home to many small cider makers, which provide a wide variety of ciders to bars and stores. There are also some fun events to attend in your search for great cider. The Cider Summit, billed as The Largest Ever Tasting of Artisanal Ciders From Around the World has held events for the last 5 years in Seattle and Portland, with one planned for February in Chicago. There is also the Cider Stomp in Portland OR, which is a combined blue-grass festival and cider tasting extravaganza held in early November and definitely on my list for next year.

A short drive north from Bainbridge Island you will find Finnriver Farm, whose ciders have been served at the Harbour Public House &  Pegasus Coffee House.  We visited the farm on a sunny day in late October and had a wonderful experience. Owner Christie Kisler greeted us and led us through an adventure of tastes. The first cider tasted was the Artisan Sparkling Cider which has a crisp dry taste.  This is produced using “method champenoise”, which is rooted in the history of the Champagne region of France. It is also more labor intensive and takes longer than most cider methods. Must be worth it though, Finnriver’s Artisan Sparkling Cider has won a Silver Medal from the Great Lakes International 2011 Cider and Perry Competition, a Silver Medal from the 2011 Northwest Wine Summit and a Double Gold Medal from the 2011 Seattle Wine Awards.  Moving on to dessert choices, we thoroughly enjoyed the Black Current Wine with Apple Brandy, which would pair perfectly with chocolate. However, everyone’s favorite wine was the Spirited Apple Wine which is made from organic apples and then blended with oak-aged, custom-distilled apple brandy. This had a nice kick to it (18% alcohol) and is made in the port style.

While we enjoyed the cider in the cozy tasting room, we learned a lot about the farm and the fortuitous partnership of Christie and her husband Keith Kisler. Purchased in 2004, the Kislers have created a farm that evokes family farms of days gone by. Along with cider, Finnriver provides fresh eggs and produce to area restaurants, farmer’s markets and homes. Keith is a fifth generation farmer from eastern Washington and grew up with farming in his blood. Christie’s childhood in New York City did not provide much farming experience but she had dreams of living on a farm and brings excellent marketing skills to the enterprise. As hostess of the tasting room, she also brings that all-important personal touch to the experience. Whether you are traveling from Bainbridge or from Seattle, Finnriver is a wonderful destination for a very fun, and refreshing day trip.

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