It’s fall, and though I love popping open my light reds while watching football I’ve lately been cracking open some cider too. They have that touch of fruit without being sweet, give you some fizz, and are lower in alcohol so you can drink more which works well for game-watching. Ciders have been getting more popular in the US, so I visited Eden Ciders in Vermont to get a look into the styles and cidermaking process.
You can find a range of cider styles (and yes, some are sweet but we’ll get to that later). The contributing factors basically come down to the fruit and the technique: what variety of apples you’re using, where they’re grown, when they were harvested, and when was it released. (Bonus: all ciders are gluten free, unlike beer.)
According to the US Association of Cider Makers, modern cider is generally made in a recipe process from grocery store variety apples that weren’t perfect enough to sell. Heritage cider, on the other hand, is made from heirloom varieties that have more flavor. These are apples with a lot more tannin, so you wouldn’t really love eating them on their own but they add structure and finesse to a cider. The goal is always to express the fruit which, over time, will age and blend the flavors together. Some of Eden’s ciders blend 50 different varieties!
planting the seeds. literally.
Cidermaking started in the US about 25 years ago, but Eden’s been at it for about 12 years. Having fallen in love with ice cider at her first sip, founder Eleanor Léger took a cidermaking workshop and started making cider herself for the first few years.
Like wine, which all starts in the vineyard, cider starts in the orchard. Eden started planting their apple trees in 2008 – not that long ago considering trees can live 150-200 years, and some don’t start producing good fruit until they’re about 15 years old. Young trees can die if the temperature gets too cold (we visited their Vermont orchards during the polar vortex in January so we experienced that cold firsthand!). Their orchard manager Benjamin Applegate (seriously, no better name for an orchard manager!) walked us through their practice of holistic orcharding which keeps the orchards in good health. They think about health of soil and organisms to give the trees good nutrition and a good “microbial world.”
Eden grows over 50 varieties in their own holistically farmed orchard (and also sources some apples from six other partner orchards around Vermont). All of these apples allows them to understand what grows well in their specific horticultural climate zone. Each variety has its own levels of acid, sugar, tannin and flavors (for example, Northern Spy has great aromatics so they’d be used in a blend to add some perfume).
The unique apple varieties add nuanced flavors to each cider. Even though some have strong characteristics, it’s rare to have single-varietal cider – pretty different from wine, which usually doesn’t have more than five in a blend though in something like Chateauneuf du Pape it can go up to 13 allowed grape varieties. But apples aren’t as inherently complex as grapes, so they need more varieties to create a balanced blend.
So understanding what each apple will contribute to a blend is what their cidermaker, who was hired in 2015, has to figure out. After the apples are harvested and pressed, the juice is fermented like wine – slow and cool, allowing all the flavors to develop over time. It also always helps when you name your tanks after Game of Thrones houses.
so let’s get to tasting those blends
Eden’s cider vintages are bi-annual because there’s only so much energy a tree can muster to make buds. We tried the 2014 Cinderella’s Slipper which was slightly fizzy, with hints of walnut skin and honeycomb. The 2016 had a fleshier texture and slightly riper fruit and a hint of burnt orange. And then we tried the 2018 right out of the tank, so it had a much more pronounced aroma but not as much complexity yet. All are about $23.
They’re also making canned cider, which has more perfume with yellow pear and apple notes. But it’s their rosé (blended with a bit of red currant juice) which is actually their most popular offering. They also come in pretty cute mini bottles.
Once we tried their ciders, it was our turn to blend some of their juices together to make our own. Blending is always so much harder than it sounds. You think you’d just be able to say this one’s acidic, this one’s sweet, and then just use more of the flavors and elements you want. Some we tried were more acidic and tannic, others had lots of crisp apples, honeycomb and woody notes, and then others were all light lemon with white floral and yellow apple notes. But once you start blending, it gets much more complicated. You start adding more drops of one and then a different one and then you lose track and forget how you’d replicate it. It gives you a ton of respect for any winemaker or cider maker who can artfully blend so many juices together.
the sweeter side
Although most ciders aren’t sweet, Eden makes a few ice ciders that do have residual sugar. These ciders go through a different process called cryo-concentration. The apples start fermenting on the tree, but they want them as ripe as possible. They’ll pick anywhere from late August to the beginning of November depending on the variety.
Once picked, they freeze about 25k gallons outside, which obviously happens naturally in the cold Vermont winters.Their outdoor cryo-concentration process lets them make blends with natural residual sweetness, not added sugar. Then they have to melt it down (which is complicated as they need to manage the acid and sugar) to pull off a sweet, concentrated juice. They then refreeze that juice and pull off a second concentrate later.