Slaking the thirst for what’s new, a growing number of restaurant operators are touting a drink that until recently was in eclipse — hard cider. Even those whose claim to fame at the bar is beer or spirits may now find a place for a well-chosen bottle or tap of the fruity tipple.
Some restaurateurs found a following for dinners and tastings with ciders from artesian producers in Britain, France, Spain and here at home in the United States. At d.b.a. in Brooklyn, N.Y., a bar with a distinctive collection of craft beers and whiskies, proprietor Ray Deter invites his patrons to choose a beverage for a free tasting each Monday night. Recently, they voted for ciders from around the world rather than the usual brews and distillates.
“The same people who are interested in craft beers and single malts are looking at cider, too, and there are some great ones to try,” said Deter, who carries the British brand Aspinall and Doc’s Draft Hard Apple Cider from New York State.
Cider is underrated, perhaps, but the better ones are serious craft beverages, fermented from select apple or pear varieties and in some cases aged in stainless steel or oak vessels for greater depth and complexity.
At FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar, an upscale-casual eatery in Minneapolis, executive chef Paul Lynch said cider has gone from “nonexistent” to “finally on the radar” in America. In his opinion, its selling points are that it is a natural product, goes well with food and has lots of regional interpretations, like wine and beer.
“I think it really has legs,” said Lynch, who suggests Crispin Hard Cider, a locally based brand, with dishes like cherry wood smoked lamb ribs. Lynch also pointed to the growing popularity of Indian and Asian cooking as an opportunity for cider.
“It’s really tough to find wine that matches with the heat and ginger and spices of those foods,” he said. “But cider has the ability to stand up, cleanse the palate and add another dimension to the meal.”
“I think a lot of restaurants are missing the boat on great cider and some other interesting beverages that aren’t wine,” said Michael McAvena, beverage director of The Publican, a restaurant in Chicago with a penchant for rustic pork dishes, oysters and esoteric beers from around the globe. It lists a trio of high-end ciders from Normandy, Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouche Brut on draft, priced at $7 per glass, and two bottled selections from Eric Bordelet, the 2006 Authentique, an organic pear cider priced at $40, and 2005 Sidre Doux, an organic apple cider, $38.
Cider accounts for only a small percentage of overall beverage sales, McAvena said, “but it’s definitely something we want to showcase in its own right.” He was encouraged by a 75 guest turnout for the Publican’s first-ever cider dinner last December, a four-course, $65 per person repast with three ciders from Normandy and one from Spain’s Basque country.
Who is the cider drinker? For a large chunk of American history, it was pretty much everyone.
“Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to end up in a in a barrel of cider,” wrote Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire. For McAvena, the cider fan is often a craft brew drinker too, “but you also get some people who are ardently anti-beer and those who are only into wine.”
At FireLake, Lynch sees all sorts sipping cider, but especially “the late 20-somethings” who are experimenting with beer but have not yet dabbled with wine. At Castagna, a fine-dining restaurant in Portland, Ore., Basque and Oregon ciders headlined a five-course, $55 per-person, Basque Cider House Holiday Dinner that sold out its 60 seats.
Executive chef Matt Lightner patterned the event after the cider house dinners he attended while working in the Basque country for 18 months. Among the courses, which Castagna served family-style in the typical Basque way, were alubias con chorizo, a bean and sausage stew and bacalao pil-pil, house-cured black cod with traditional olive oil sauce. Accompanying them were the Basque cider Isastegi Sagardo Naturala and Wandering Aengus Dry Cider from Oregon.
While the event was an overall success, the Isastegi received mixed reviews, Lightner said. Traditional Basque ciders tend to be cloudy, tart and barnyard-like in aroma, an acquired taste.
“I think Americans are a bit confused between spiced cider and dry, hard cider,” Lightner explained. “But just as we have evolved as a beer culture in the last ten years, things like that will eventually evolve as well.”