Thursday, December 28, 2017

My 10 Favorite Ciders of 2017

This is my fifth annual roundup of favorite ciders for the year. Wow! That's 50 favorites recorded here, and my heart knows that there are many more. 2017 was a challenging year; I don't want to understate that. For me, though, it was also a healing and exploring year. I did more with cider than ever before: volunteering, pouring, teaching, writing, speaking, and consulting. I'm so grateful for all of those opportunities.

My cider highlight had to be judging two more cider competitions for the first time: The Pennsylvania Farm Show Competition ( and the cider category at the Good Food Awards (

But one of my favorite at home cider activities each year has to be compiling this list of my 10 favorite ciders of the previous blogging year.

For context, here are my lists for the previous four years:

And I'll quote my own rules. “As in earlier years, I have two rules: I'm not listing more than one cider from any company, and I am going to limit myself to ciders that have coverage in the blog. Beyond that, my only caveat is that these are my personal favorites that I wrote about in 2016. These may or may not be your favorites, but I encourage you to taste them and make up your own mind.”

10. Virtue Percheron

Virtue Cider was started in 2011 by Greg Hall; This cidery is based out of Fennville, Michigan. They use a lot of international inspiration for their ciders and aren't afraid of a little funk.

My tasting notes include leather, dried tropical fruits and raisins, all as an overlay to overripe apples. The scents include something a little floral and a little spicy. The french oak barrel aging gently steers the flavors of the Percheron. The definites are high acid, medium high tannins, with a low intensity of bubble. What I especially like about this cider is the mutually supportive spice and richness.

9. Dunkertons Dry Organic Cider

Dunkerton's Cider is the only English company to have made the list this year. They make cider in Pembridge, Herefordshire and have done so since 1980. That has allowed them to see a lot of changes in the cider market both in the UK and abroad in that time.

The cider looks like dark tea but hazy; it had only a few visible bubbles. Gorgeous. When I first tasted it, I said the drinking experience like getting mildly whacked in the head, but assuredly in a good way. This is so dry and tannic that its level of bitterness was almost provoking, but since it offered up medium acid to go with those tannins, it brought me round. The aromas bring richness, and the whole experience is heavenly but this one is not for beginners.

8. E.Z. Orchards Poire

E. Z. Orchards has been growing apples since the 1920s in Oregon. Now, they make Cidre and Perry as well, in a style much inspired by French ciders and perries. With the Cidre part of the business founded by Edward Zielinski, E. Z. Orchards has made a name for itself in the region for trees, fruit, Cidre, and shared knowledge.

The first thing I noticed after pouring this cider, is how it was ambiently sizzling with effervescence. The Poire reminds me immediately of French ciders and perries in its farmy yet fruity aromas. The keeving fermentation process can create some reductive notes in the aromas like fallen leaves, warm wet wood, and farmy scents. After the funky aromas, I was shocked by how cold and clean tasting it was. Sweet and distinctly like fermented fruit sweetness; its the only perry on this list, but it's here for a reason.

7. South Hill Prelude 3

I know, perhaps it seems unfair for them to get the stop spot last year and yet still appear on this year's list. I can't help it. I like South Hill's ciders. These are simple apple-centric ciders that only tweak or adjust in ways that I tend to enjoy. This cider is from a single tree, yet it still tastes great.

The Prelude #3 is dry and sparkling, but it's so much more. It smelled honeyed and floral. Other aromas include orange, but concentrated like Seville oranges or tangerines. The Prelude #3 offers up a strong tannic presence, but overall the cider is round and soft. The tannins are beautifully balanced with bright golden acidity. For flavors, I taste vanilla, citrus, ripe apples, and just a bit of soft leather.

6. 2 Towns Ciderhouse Cidre Bouche

2 Towns Ciderhouse has been operating as a cidery in Oregon since 2010. 2 Towns was founded by Lee Larsen and Aaron Sarnoff-Wood, focusing on local fruit and innovative cider processes and experiments.

This is a French inspired cider through and through. Its semi-sweet, smelling of overripe apples, lemons, leather, hay, and wood. I love this ciders fine bubbles and full mouthfeel. It's my absolute favorite from this producer!

5. Champlain Heirloom

The Heirloom comes from Champlain Orchards out of Shoreham, Vermont. This cidery is truly a fruit farm that happens to make really great cider, among other things, on stunning land. All of the stages--growing, milling, pressing, fermenting and bottling--happen right there. They grow many fruits and more than 100 varieties of apples.

This semi-dry cider smells bready and tart but tastes stony and grassy with notes of green grapes. It absolutely wowed me. I love the light and vivacious body on the Heirloom. The esters from the smell remain as pleasant and clean flavors, and I find the acidity bright and high without ever being sharp or pointed. This is fruity sort of acid, balanced with medium tannins. Such a pleasurable and drinkable cider.

4. Blue Bee Charred Ordinary

Blue Bee is Richmond's first urban cider--in fact, it's Virginia's first. They focus on heritage fruit, incorporating varieties that can bring both acidity and tannin to their finished ciders. You can visit their tasting room year round.

The Charred Ordinary's aromas remind me of barn wood, barrel, and overripe cider apples. This aroma is extraordinarily rich: frankly outstanding. There's definitely something citrusy going on, specifically lemon. Once I tasted it, I could tell that the Charred Ordinary is 100% New World in style and not old. This cider is defined by high acid, mid-level tannins, and almost no sweetness. This cider ZINGs and keeps on zinging. And that's a very good thing.

3. Quebrada del Chucao Sidra Espumante Brut Nature

The company, Quebrada del Chucao, has been around since 2010 in Chile. It is a collaboration between a fruit-producing family and a university-trained winemaker. The back of the bottle describes the orchards from which the apples came as being more than 60 years old.

Though I expected sweeter, this cider is on the dry side of off dry with 7.5%ABV. I love how bubbly it is, and we can thank bottle conditioning for that natural sparkle. I'd expected it to be sweet because the sidra smelled both sweet and briney reminding me a little bit of both French and English ciders.

2. Black Diamond Solstice

Another strong cider maker from the Finger Lakes Region, Black Diamond is the small family cidery of Ian and Jackie Merwin. They have had a cidery since 2003, and a 150+ variety strong orchard near Trumansburg, New York since long before then. Cider is a natural focus for Ian Merwin as a Pomology Professor Emeritus at Cornell.

In this cider, the aroma notes included overripe apples, sun-warmed rocks, late-summer dust, and caramel. The Solstice tastes fruity, beautiful, and complex while also being uncompromisingly dry. The mouthfeel is fully and boozy. The Solstice's high acids are balanced with high tannins, making the Solstice come across as astonishing and rich. This is a mature and balanced cider, an absolute favorite.

1. Eden's Imperial 11 Degree Rose

Their logo reads “Unique expressions of extraordinary apples,” and Eden Specialty Ciders certainly supports that by making some of the finest cider I have ever tasted. It's astonishing to me that this is their first appearance in a top 3, but it wasn't hard to choose this cider as my absolute favorite of the year. Eleanor and Albert Leger have been helming their cidery since 2007. But for this year, I have to pay homage to the Imperial 11 Degree Rose, which is a blend of heritage apples and red currants.

This cider is off dry, dripping with fruit, and 11% ABV, making the Imperial 11 Degree Rose a big big cider. It's zesty, sprightly, tart and extremely bubbly. I love its flavorful intensity, and I know I'm a sucker for really good bubbles. High acid ciders with lots of fruit and some tannic structure are often among my favorites, so my love for this cider should come as no surprise. I could drink this all the time and never be sad about it.

But most of all, I want to end this post with gratitude for the cider experiences and people. From farmers to restauranteurs and every flavor of cider maker, cider writer, cider seller, and cider fan in between, you all enrich my life so much with your ciders and your stories. Here's to even more in the coming year! Cheers!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Cider Review: Blue Bee Cider's Hopsap Shandy

I know most folks associate hops with beer and with summertime. But a hopped cider doesn't have to wait for warm weather. This style is one of my favorite modern variations on cider, so I make an effort to include them in my personal rotation year round. Perhaps a way to think of it would be drinking a brief window onto bright skies and sappy green leaves. That sounds nice to me.

Today's hopped cider is from Blue Bee Cider in Virginia. This is the first urban cidery in the state, near Richmond. They have a tasting room and give tours when scheduled in advance. Blue Bee Cider earned a Good Food award for 2016.

Check out the website here:

You can also learn about their processes by reading their blog:

You can see my previous review of the Charred Ordinary from this March:

This is Blue Bee's official description for the Hopsap Shandy: 
Cascade hops and heirloom cider apples unite in Blue Bee Cider’s HOPSAP SHANDY, a traditional cider with a modern twist. After a light dry-hopping, this Winesap blend takes on floral, grassy and zesty citrus notes with an assertive apple finish. Borne of a whim, Hopsap Shandy is something refreshingly unexpected that can appeal to aficionados of beer, wine and cider alike.

Appearance: hazy, visible bubbles, warm nectarine flesh

Aromas: grapefruit, green, wet, green

This cider smells burstingly grapefruity, like the grapefruit is about to climb out of the glass! It's juicy herbal, green, wet, and cold. So interesting! All of these notes are solely from the aroma of this and not yet from drinking. I find this intensity and this zooming freshness utterly compellingly. Like a truly good perfume, you just want to keep sniffing it. 

Dryness/sweetness: Dry

This is one dry hopped cider!

Flavors and drinking experience: dry, high acid, lemon

Oh wow. Drinking this cider tastes tremendously good. It's lemony, citrusy, and fruity. Some drinkers might say that this level of acid is too high, but not me. I like that it has a little fun yeasty character. The first note is dry and dark and almost sweet, but then a wave of real tannins and acids hit. It gets brighter immediately and the tannins linger.

Tannic hopped ciders are rare (in some ways this cider reminds me of Tom Oliver's English hopped cider, which is also fantastic). I can taste lots of wood flavors. There are a relatively small number of little bubbles (but that maybe age?). The 8% ABV is apparent when drinking it, but its not hot. The Hopsap Shandy offers up citrus bitterness that's both quick-acting but also has some lingering power.

The cascade hops and Winesap apples make for that insane aroma. This cider is simply too good not to share even outside of this style's usual season.

A thing to note is that Blue Bee has done multiple version of their Hopsap Shandy, and mine is of an older edition, but I cannot imagine that either the age has hurt it or that their current edition would be any less interesting.

I had mind through a peaceful late afternoon with a fun fantasy novel and a little plate of cheese and crackers. One could pair this in a dozen more sophisticated ways, but the satisfaction of that simple spread was ideal. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Cider Review: Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse's Pippins

I don't actually get to taste very many ciders from Canada even though the border isn't that far away. I always get excited about anything new and out of the ordinary, so picking up this bottle of Sea Cider when traveling to San Francisco was an easy choice. I've heard about Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse for years, but this is the first time they've been reviewed here. 

For a bit about the cidery, Sea Cider joined the Canadian cider scene in 2007. Sea Cider is a farm and cidery on Vancouver Island, in Western Canada, growing more than 50 varieties of organically-grown heritage apples. They have a tasting room open to share cider and tours year round. I've heard great things, and many of their ciders are covered in medals from GLINTCAP and other cider competitions.

I love that Sea Cider has an explicitly stated mission, “Sociability, sustainability, and community involvement have been the three pillars of Sea Cider’s business philosophy and mission.” And what a lovely one at that.

Here's a link to the website where you can read more about them:                         
The official description of Pippins reads, 

Pippins is a “sharp” style cider, thanks to the Yellow Newton Pippin apples we use and cool fermentation from champagne yeast. Off-dry and chapitalized to 9.5%, it is an example of a New England style of cider that was meant to be as strong and robust as North America’s pioneers. Pippins features pineapple and confectionery notes, and is incredibly food friendly. It fits just about every occasion and its crisp bite will pair perfectly with everything from steak and salad to spicy curries. 9.5% ABV.
Let me just draw attention to that higher than usual ABV and suggest pouring this one is a more wine-like serving size.  

Appearance: radiant, bright, jewelers brass

This cider shines. I forget sometimes the difference between a transparent cider and a truly brilliant one until I see something like this. The radiance is enticing. I could see many bubbles in the clarity.

Aromas: overripe apples, vinous, vanilla, spices

This smells dusty, vinous, and apply. Aromas include caramel, baking spices, and vanilla. The overall impression is boozy, barreled, powered overripe apples. Based on the aromas, I anticipate that this cider will be very tart indeed and on the drier side of off-dry.

Sweetness/dryness: Semi dry

I was misled by the tartness in the aroma! This is a semi-dry cider but not as dry as I expected at all. The sweetness is very natural: all apples. There's more going on though than either the sweetness or dryness of this cider.

Flavors and drinking experience: complex, rich, fruity, tart

I found Pippins complex and sweeter than the smell had prepared me for. Though the description doesn't include it, something about both the aromas and the flavors struck me as barrel related. That could be the higher than usual ABV, but more likely the richness, vanilla, and maple notes that accompany the fruit. Pippins offers up high acid, as described but that was less striking to me than the balanced maple finish. 

So much about this cider was warm, pleasant, rich, and more than simple. It reminded me of some white wines in its weight and fermented fruit esters. The mouthfeel was full and satisfying. The texture was crisply bubbly. I so enjoyed drinking it.

I had this cider with fantastic homemade black-bean burritos. Perhaps not the most predictable combination for a Canadian cider, but the sweetness of corn and beans was absolutely delightful with the richness of the cider. I'd absolutely recommend this pairing to anyone. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Cider Review: South Hill Cider's Prelude Cider #3

Perhaps you don’t care for the holidays, or current events have gotten you down, way down. I hear ya; I’m feeling it. But I refuse to let my blues keep the cider reviews from their weekly date with the internet. Thanks, Readers. You keep me going. The cider world gives me so much to be thankful for. Many special thanks to the Cider Guild of Pennsylvania and the PA Farm Expo for giving me a chance to judge cider last week. It was a great time. I'll share more about it once we're closer to the Farm Show.

Recently two good friends of mine shared one of their Cider Club bottles from South Hill Cider with me. That’s how I got to taste a cider so specialized that all of its apples come from one tree.

Here’s how South Hill Cider describes themselves and their cidermaker, “Fine and well-crafted hard cider from the Fingerlakes. Made in small batches, with attention to detail. Steve Selin: apple-hunter, cidermaker, orchardist.”

I've previously reviewed a few ciders from South Hill Cider:

Most recently, they appear in my Finger Lakes Cider pairing dinner:

My top cider of 2016, the Stone Fence Farm:

I also really enjoyed the 2014 Packbasket:

And my first review for them was the hyper-limited Hypothesis:

The back label describes the Prelude series; here’s the official description from the website.
#3- (2015) Sparkling and dry. This rare cider is produced from one single mysterious tree whose origin and variety are unknown. It is located in West Danby, NY and Steve has been making single tree cider from it since 2013. It is now being propagated for South Hill’s orchard and in a decade we can look forward to more than the 4 cases per year average that this one tree produces. The prelude label was glued over the original label which was printed as a private label - we never expected to be able to share this cider as widely as the cider club allowed. Thank you, cider club member for giving us the opportunity!

Apologies for not getting more pictures.

Appearance: transparent, warm straw, not many visible bubbles

This cider looks very true to the appearance of most South Hill Ciders. It isn't brilliant, but it is transparent. I don't see much in the way of bubbles but it does have a warm creamy straw color.

Aromas: floral, citrus honey

This is where this cider starts becoming magical. It smells so floral with intense honey notes. There are summer flowers like jasmine and honeysuckle all over this. Other aroms include orange, but concentrated like Seville oranges or tangerines. 

Sweetness/dryness: dry

This doesn't have a dry first edge, but the cider seems to become dry in the mouth very quickly.

Flavors and drinking experience: tannic, bubbly, soft yet structured

Mmmm, what a delight. The Prelude #3 offers up a strong tannic note, but overall it is still round and soft. The tannins are beautifully balanced with bright golden acidity. For flavors, I taste vanilla, citrus, ripe apples, and just a bit of soft leather. All the citrus one smells is here in the taste too. Wow. 

The texture offers up a plenitude of small bubbles. The Prelude's mouthfeel is a little astringent with a nice mouthcoat that is rich but not syrupy. Overall, this is just a fantastic cider. I know I'm biased toward ciders that are both tannic and strongly bubbly, so this is playing to just about my favorite flavor profile, but the fermentation is clean without being sterile, the cider is balanced yet interesting. I loved it.