Falling for Ciders
The season’s most popular fruit makes the perfect beverage pairing for harvest dinners and holiday menus.
The crisp autumn air. The earth-tone foliage. And the season’s most popular fruit. With the apple harvest comes a season for putting the resurgence in American cider-making front and center on any table, and a handful of restaurants or cider-centric public houses are at the forefront of this movement. Admittedly, much of the hard cider boom is centered on back-sweetened product that’s tasty and refreshing, but perhaps not something befitting a delectable meal. (It’s OK to simply call it cider since “soft cider” is just juice and no one calls grape juice “soft wine.”) But if there’s one thing restaurateurs and bar managers love to get to do, it is be innovative. Seeing as how nascent cider and pairing with cider is, in the grand scheme of things, that makes brand new places such as Anxo in Washington, D.C., The Northman in Chicago, and Capitol Cider in Seattle some of the restaurants and taverns to watch.
In New York City’s Lower East Side, the veggie-focused restaurant and cider bar Wassail is named for the ancient ceremony of celebrating in the orchards to ensure a good harvest. Wassail’s cider director, Dan Pucci, struggles against being dubbed a pommelier—a pomme fruit riff on sommeliers—but he certainly knows apples and what fermented ones offer—not only to a patron but to a restaurant itself. With an Italian wine background, Pucci’s affinity for French, Spanish, and ultimately for American ciders has him excited about the future of bar programs. “Cider is a totally uncharted beverage and we’re still figuring it out,” he says, which is contrary to well-established cider cultures in places like Normandy and the Basque Country. But, while a bottle of biodynamic Redbyrd Cider’s Cloudspitter from the Finger Lakes Region, a dry, tannic cider made from heirloom varieties listed at $57 per bottle—one of the most expensive on Wassail’s menu—may not fetch as much as an estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, the fact that most ciders are less alcoholic means that diners are able to drink twice as much. Says Pucci, “They spend more money on the product and leave very happy.”
Cider, he affirms, pairs well with foods, where wine or beer may come up short. He points to spicy or heavily seasoned foods where lower-alcohol beverages that have high acidity is an ideal combo.
Wassail actually began as a vegetarian restaurant. It didn’t take long to make the adjustment to amend the menu to include dishes such as pork belly pintxos (think crostini) and smoked duck breast. The pork belly is braised in cider, and the new duck breast is braised with Spanish ice cider and currants.
The innovative, helpful bottled cider menu’s North American offerings aren’t broken up by region or even style, per se, but rather by descriptors such as fruit, savory, and wild. Pucci explains, “That took so many revisions … but as we went to more American products, people had no idea where to start.” And while he ensures Wassail’s staff is well-versed in discussing the wide variety of ciders and flavors, the staff “don’t need to handhold customers.” Guests come in eager and receptive, and the menu does a lot of the talking for them. It’s how they might select the Snowdrift Ciders Red Crab with hints of berries and melons to pair with Brillat-Savarin, a decadently creamy French cheese, or Eden Specialty Cider’s Cinderella’s Slipper, an earthy, funky, still cider from Vermont, to go with Garrotxa, a semi-soft goat cheese from Spain.
The Spanish connection is impossible to avoid in the booming world of cider, and Black Twig Cider House in Durham, North Carolina, finds a way to marry pork-heavy Spanish-style sausages with Southern flair. But more importantly, Black Twig boasts the largest stash of ciders—roughly 90 in all—in the Southeast.
Co-owner Mattie Beason, already a partner in the beer-oriented Mattie B’s Public House, discovered cider while traveling through the Basque Country. It’s why the restaurant features a traditional Basque txotx, or cider barrel, that doles out samples for patrons. Alas, unlike those found in the Northern Spain region positioned outdoors for obvious reasons, Black Twig’s txotx is inside, and it’s common for some to splash on the floor.
Black Twig seats some 85 customers who Beason believes are excited about the cider experience but who usually don’t know what they specifically enjoy. And even the half who walk through the door with the preconception that they’re not really cider drinkers and who just came in to eat well—those agnostics tend to become the beverage’s biggest converts. Furthering the education is manager Amy Loria, whom Beason helped train as a cider expert and who is certified by the United States Association of Cider Makers (usacm).
“I like to contrast, not just complement,” says Beason of cider pairing. It helps create new flavors in addition to cider’s palate-cleansing effect given its usual light carbonation and gentle acidity. Sandwiches named for traditional cider apples include the Handsome Norman, a bratwurst with house-smoked pimento cheese that is the most popular. Golden Harvey, named for a sharp and aromatic variety of apple, features chorizo, a bright Spanish romesco sauce, smoked goat cheese, and a kick of sweetness from Espelette honey. On its own, the sandwich, Beason says, is “round and fatty and luscious,” so that either the Basque ciders that are the natural inspirations or domestic dry ciders can come in and create a creamy mouthfeel that standard, sweet ciders might simply quash. Southern cider makers who have found a home at Black Twig include Noble Cider, from across the state in Asheville, and Foggy Ridge from Virginia.
As for other American cider producers making food-friendly ciders, look no further than the WildCraft Cider House in Eugene, Oregon, where proprietor Sean Kelly hosts pairing dinners at one of the few cideries with an on-site full-service restaurant. The reservation-only events (reservations are not required to dine in the restaurant) highlight WildCraft Ciderworks’ commitment to seasonality and support for local farmers and orchardists. In fact, all of the fruit in the ciders—including other pomme fruits such as pears, quince, and medlars—and the foods served at the Cider House are grown in the Willamette Valley. One exception to that rule was when Kelly hosted a sushi and cider dinner that grew to 140 customers when the restaurant’s usual capacity is around 60.
Echoing a sentiment from Pucci at Wassail, Kelly opines that the vast majority of diners are still looking for education and that they’re intrigued, if not familiar, with most of the ciders on offer. And unlike the other restaurants, WildCraft’s 10-strong taplist is composed of house ciders, all wild-fermented. Kelly further mentions that some of the apple orchards date back to the 1850s, while one biodynamic orchard from the 1960s represents what WildCraft aspires to, with ciders devoid of sulfites, titrations, and back sweetening.
Given that fall is a time to celebrate the harvest, every crumb or drop of the fruit is utilized. Kelly loves the Wild Rose cider with the house crepes. (The cider is made with whole, native, wild roses, and it’s worth noting that apples stem from the rose family.) As opposed to other Spanish-influenced menus, there’s little pork served at the Cider House.
Both Pucci and Black Twig’s Beason proclaim cider to be the ideal beverage to serve with roast turkey and the cornucopia accompanying Thanksgiving meals, from squash to foraged mushrooms where cider won’t overpower those flavors. As mostly a pescatarian, Kelly loves the versatility of WildCraft’s crepes. Not only are they filled with fresh vegetables or fruit compotes, but also cider is used in the batter. The restaurant also makes apple sodas in house, great for guests too young to sip the hard stuff, and the pulp is used to make fruit leathers. “Any farm-to-table restaurant, children should be a part of it,” Kelly proclaims. Even the youngest early settlers in America would raise a mug to that.