Secret ingredient: Along came some cider

Photo: Beyond the Flavor Photo: Beyond the Flavor

Fresh apple cider is the quintessential autumn drink in Central Virginia, and has a long and relevant history here that predates even Mr. Jefferson. When European colonists arrived in the 1600s, they invested in survival by planting apple orchards. Because apples don’t bear true to seed (due in part to their survivalist tactic of mixing genetic material through pollination), seed-bearing colonists had a lot of waiting and tasting to do; their counterparts armed with Old World apple tree trimmings got right to work as well, searching for native fruit trees on which to graft their hometown favorites.

The combination of cultivating wildcards and cloning known varieties gave the apple the ability to survive in a world that it had never known before; in turn, apples gave the colonists a greater likelihood of survival by providing food, fuel, and animal fodder. And booze.

Central Virginia is enjoying something of a grassroots alcohol revolution. First came wine, and wine was fine, or not fine, depending upon the time, the vine, and the winemaker’s design. Then beer appeared, and the people cheered, and started using words like growler, firkin, esters, and hopyard. Now that the lights have been dimmed and the seats are full, apple cider steps onto the stage as if wine and beer were simply the opening act.

Yes, cider is a common thread running through the history of Virginia and the United States. Yes, cider has always been the booze of the common man, the wages of the laborer, and the breakfast of champions (John Adams and his daily tankard, but you’ve heard that before). And yes, apple cider represents the confluence of agricultural heritage, contemporary craft beverages, and good old fashioned tippling.

Apple cider on the booze continuum
Sweet apple cider consists of freshly pressed apple juice. Oftentimes it has not been filtered or pasteurized, and so contains a fair amount of apple fiber and wild yeasts. The juice can be strained or filtered to produce a more stable product, but true stabilization occurs only through heat pasteurization. This sweet cider is a great beverage for children and adults alike, and can be “dressed up” a bit with other juices, with sparkling soda, or even with ginger ale. Serve it warm on a cold night, or over ice during Indian summer. It can be your secret weapon on Thanksgiving day, providing the key to hydration and the solution to listless Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, or whipped cream.

If apple juice is not pasteurized, yeast will consume the sugar and produce alcohol, emitting carbon dioxide as a sparkling side effect. It’s a beautiful thing. Once a cider has “cleared” and is finished fermenting, it can keep (protected from oxygen and light, of course) for several years.

Suggesting and serving cider
A single-serve cider can be held on ice in a cooler, alongside beer and soda. Bold Rock is the best choice for drinkers of American lagers like Budweiser—it goes down cold and easy, and your guests can decide for themselves whether to reach for it.

For a more formal occasion, cider may be served in nearly any glass—it presents a great opportunity to bring out the champagne flutes, or to use white wine or stemmed beer glasses. In terms of alcohol content, cider falls between beer and wine, so a pour should be smaller than a pint but can be larger than a glass of wine.

If you plan to serve cider when a red wine would usually be the choice, let it warm up an hour or so before the meal so that its flavors and aromas can stand up alongside the meal. Castle Hill’s “Levity” and Albemarle CiderWorks’ “Royal Pippin” are both crafted from the famed Albemarle Pippin apple; a side by side tasting with dinner would certainly spark some lively debate. Potter’s Craft Cider’s “Farmhouse Dry” is great for toasting the host (before, during and after the meal), and the Foggy Ridge “Pippin Black” would be a fortifying finish alongside fruit, cheese, or even dessert.

What about leftovers? Most apple cider has bubbles, so leftovers require some creativity. It’s always easy and fun to incorporate apple cider into cooking—deglaze a pan with it, or spill it into a meat marinade or sauce, and of course using it to cook cabbage or Brussels sprouts makes sense. As a last resort, put the cider on the stove and reduce its volume by about half; it should be getting noticeably thicker and more syrupy by the time you call it cider reduction and drizzle it over your ice cream, on your pancakes, or into your next cocktail.

Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.