The artisanal cider movement is currently having a moment. Over the last few years, a crop of renegade producers have been creating bold, quirky and sometimes head-scratching flavors. Taking a nod from craft brewers, more and more cider producers are going far beyond the traditional apple, experimenting with far-flung ingredients like dragonfruit and nettle to more familiar flavors like root beer and sangria.
As a result of what some deem an inauthentic approach to cider making, there's been a core tug-of-war happening among producers and cider enthusiasts. The purists believe flavors like rhubarb or piña colada have no place in a category that’s synonymous with apple, while the cider visionaries have difficulty staying inside such limiting lines when there is a whole palette of flavors from which to draw. The opposing viewpoints are similar to the mindsets that dictate German versus Belgian beer brewing.
Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider is a cider historian who spent years studying old-school production methods, but prefers to preach about the future of flavor.
“I’m constantly looking for a way to reflect my life experiences in my creations,” he says. “If I hear about an ingredient, or visit a forgotten site, I’m guaranteed to come away with an idea for a cider. I have no shame in embracing a diversity of ingredients beyond apple only, which curiously seems to be the beginning and ending for so many of my cohorts.”
West’s curiosity has led him down a literal rabbit hole. After a backyard chore removing a briar patch revealed a rabbit's nest, he started thinking of carrots, and his Bre’r Rabbit carrot cider was born.
And after a trip to China, where he was gifted a mandarin to celebrate the new year, he created his New Moon Mandarin cider with mandarin juice and chamomile. West’s ciders are still apple-based, but he doesn’t shy away from letting other ingredients create a more dynamic flavor profile.
West’s friend and fellow Oregonian, Sean Kelly, on the other hand, is a plant proselytizer forging a new and well-received path in wild-harvested cider production with his company, Wildcraft Ciderworks. His commitment to staying local by utilizing the natural resources all around him – coupled with his vast knowledge of botanicals like lilacs, roses and sage – inspires his creations.
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“I create wine from plants and flowers, and introduce it as a blended component to my cider,” Kelly says. “From a traditional standpoint, I can see where orchard-based cider makers knock the idea of introducing other ingredients to cider, but to be just apple-focused would really limit the whole vision of what Wildcraft does.”
His Strawberry Spruce Tip cider, for example, came from an interesting observation: “When you open a bucket of freshly picked spruce tips, it smells like strawberries,” he says.
The inspiration Kelly gets from mountains and forests, Andrew Blake of Blake's Hard Cider in Armada, Michigan, gets from his backyard – a 1,000-acre apple orchard and farm that’s been in his family for 71 years.
The habaneros that set the mangoes ablaze in his top-selling El Chavo cider come from his farm, as do the cucumbers in his cucumber-and-ginger-based Tonic.
Blake always knew he wanted to take some chances. “We use cider pressed from real apples, but I wanted to have fun with our ingredients, and be a little bit edgy, pushing boundaries to get people talking.”
The creative cider trend shows no signs of letting up. So regardless of which side of the apple tree you fall on, you only have two choices: drink it all in, or give your bottle to someone who will.
Here are a few boundary-pushing ciders across the U.S. that you should sample:
Tart and dry
The Passion – Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider – Portland, OR
This medium dry and tart cider has just enough passionfruit to let you know it's there, with barley a touch of coconut, and a hint of vanilla to balance out the passionfruit's pucker.
Delawaken – Wildcraft Cider Works – Eugene, OR
Created in the spirit ofDia de los Muertos to honor the passing and memories of loved ones, this cider is made with wild rose and raspberries, infused with smoked, dried chiles and fermented in tequila barrels. It's also steeped in social justice and activism – a portion of the profits from Delawaken go to Centro Latino Americano, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to advocacy and integration of all latinos into our society.
Chili Pineapple – Locust Cider – Woodinville, WA
This cider tastes about as far from traditional apple as you can get. There is a definite heat from the chili, but the flavor itself is also quite tart and dry, and the pineapple is more acidic than sweet. If you're looking for something crisp to pair with poultry or fish, this would be it.
Sweet and sassy
Sangria - Portland Cider Company – Portland, OR
Portland Cider Company's Sangria cider is made with oranges, strawberries, pears, passionfruit, elderberries and limes. It's very fruit forward, light and refreshing – like a sweet, sparkling cocktail.
NW Atomic Root Beer – Elemental Hard Cider – Woodinville, WA
This cider, made with sassafras and licorice, smells just like root beer, but at first blush tastes mostly of spiced apples. The spices sneak up on you, however, delivering a lingering root beer finish at the back of the mouth.
Dragonfruit with prickly pear juice – Atlas Cider – Bend, OR
The dragonfruit is not distinctive on the palate, and this cider's muted apple flavor makes this more like a fruit juice, but if you're looking for a sweeter, more quirky departure from your average cider, this is it.
Out of this world
Archimedes – Blake’s Hard Cider – Armada, Michigan
Blake's is known for their seasonal ciders and specialty releases as much as for their dedication to using local ingredients. Their winter release, Archimedes, which is made with vanilla and elderberry to create a sweet-and-tart combo, is about as non-traditional as a cider can get (even down to the purplish color).