Serendipitously, I received a cider for review this week. It's from South Africa. I was looking for some kind of hook and realized that it was Ontario Cider Week. So, I'm going to do an omnibus review. Hopefully it will show the variety and quality of Ontario and help situate the South African cider within a context to understand it.
The highly unscientific testing method to determine the best cider was to have my wife and I to drink a bunch of ciders, mostly from Ontario, with a few from other regions like Quebec, UK and USA. We would note our reactions and try lemon juice to determine if it makes a difference. The lemon juice would be added after tasting the cider as a nod to one of the recommendations from a producer who declared that their cider tastes better with a lemon in the neck of the bottle.
So, I went to my local LCBO to purchase supplies. I didn't realize how many ciders were from Ontario. Sure, there is the Grower's Cider from BC which was one of the first that I remember seeing in the LCBO but now there is a whole lot more. With sixteen members in the Ontario Craft Cider Association, this could be the next craft beer craze. Even with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I do have to admit that cider in the last few years has often been a good way to round out a night of drinking and with its distinct lack of bitterness can provide a mellow respite from summer beer.
The Ontario list: Spirit Tree, Pommies, Thornbury, County Cider, and Waupoos. Both Waupoos and County Cider are from the same company.
The Other list: Savanna Dry (South Africa), Woodchuck (USA) and Cremant Cidrerie St-Nicolas (QC).
And one not cider: Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner.
When I started the tasting, my suspicion was that the ciders were going to clump around two polar opposites of sugariness. I hesitate to use the word sweet because in cider talk, sweet means the apple juice product where hard means the fermented drink. Dry cider means using champagne yeast or less sweet tasting or alcohol content removing the sugars from the fruit. In reality, dry has regional meanings. There are whole categories in Quebec based on the carbonation levels and then there is the ice ciders, a Canadian innovation that is big in Japan. Since I am not going to be the one to develop new coinages for the whole cider industry or further add to the confusion factors, I will use sweet and dry like wine terms. But this paragraph on sweetness is just a long way of saying that I was wrong. There is more of a range than I expected.
First of all, some overall impressions on the ciders. Almost all used sulfites. It is necessary. Most had a hints of sulfur in the smell or in the first few mouthfuls that dissipated if you left the glass for a few minutes. The smell/taste thing is particular to the bottles as I rarely find it in cider on tap. Haven't talked to a cider maker yet, but believe it is probably just a natural compound in rotting apples. When I used to live near apple trees in the country, you would notice that downed apples in late fall have a particular smell.
Let's get to the particular impressions, I do a mean Pikachu impression. Sorry, been watching a lot of Pokemon with my kids.
Spirit Tree: Drier and bouncy on the tongue. Light colour and clocks at around 6%. More of a mid range apple flavour. I've had it on tap and this is one of my go to ciders. My wife hates this one due to mustiness. Due to my love of barnyard tastes, this one just registers as slightly funky for me.
Pommies: Clocking in at 5%, this has a lot of apple and sugar taste in another light coloured cider. It tasted juicy when tasted alongside any of the finer carbonated and drier tasting ciders. Although classified as a dry cider due to the alcohol content, I wouldn't call in dry. My wife likes this one. It is close to cooler territory for me. Lemon seemed to accent the sweetness and made this one veer into candy territory.
Thornbury: This one was the fizziest of the ciders poured on this night. It was the most like apple juice, maybe an Allen's apple juice that fades into a crisp finish. This one smelled like the pleasant version of downed apples. My wife liked this one and commented in particular that this one smelled appley. It is around 5% alcohol. The lemon juice brings out the latent tartness and gives the cider a cooler like quality that reminds me of mass market beer.
County Cider: Like the other cider, Waupoos, that we tasted from the same company, this is a 6.5% beverage. The body feels light to me with a milder apple flavour possibly due to a different varietal. Tasting these two side by side allows you to appreciate the difference the varietal can bring because you can assume similar production methods. Lemon brings out apples and a citrus taste in a way that other it didn't with the other ciders. It was a really pleasant addition.
Waupoos: The other of the two ciders that we tasted from County Cider. There is similar carbonation levels to the Spirit Tree. Light sour apple taste fading to a drier finish. A 6.5% alcohol beverage. There was a slight funkiness in the middle that my beer hating wife perceived as tasting like light beer. It was drinkable for her but I think she used the words 'Coors Light'. Adding the lemon enhanced the sour apple but made the slight unpleasant flavour obvious.
Savanna Dry (South Africa): The
excuse that I used to round up a bunch of ciders was this sample sent
for tasting. It's marketing is around being dryly humourous with a lemon in the neck of the bottle as a tasting gimmick. Think Corona and lime. South Africa is the 16th largest apple
producing nation where Canada is 29th. We import a lot of apples from
South Africa, they are the 5th largest by volume of countries that we import apples from. Anyways, enough
background information and back to tasting
notes. There was a slight smell that was hard to place but it was almost
cheesy. It is at 6% alcohol content which contributes to a drier taste. It was the
darkest cider we tasted and may have created the buttery tasting
connection in our heads. It was more on the fizzy side. Their claim of lemon enhancing the flavour was true
as it accented the carbonation, brought a distinct apple flavour to
the front and pushed away the butteriness. This makes the drink more lively.
My wife liked it with lemon but without the lemon, it tasted beery to
Woodchuck (USA): An American cider that I always associate with Britain. It's partly the packaging and partially the taste. Its another dark cider that smells of socks initially before quickly fading to mellow apples. The flavour reminds me of sugary apples and while this would classify as a semi-sweet, it drinks closer to the sweet side. Lemon brings a tartness that plays with the carbonation in a way that makes it taste fake. Once again, this one heads close to cooler territory and appealed to my wife. Skip the lemon on this one.
Crémant St. Nicolas (QC): The lowest alcohol of the tasting at around 3%. It had the tiniest little bubbles with pronounced apple taste. Well rounded mild apple taste with hints of acid. Lemon juice turns the mildness into an aggressive "apple" taste like splashing citric acid onto a fresh cut Mac. This is where my wife's and my tastes come together. Without compromising what a cider is, this manages to please both the funky, beer like dry ciders with the cooler type sugary and apple forward ciders. This may be due to the champagne yeast. This was the most distinct flavoured of the ciders but remember, Quebec is the site of many innovation such as ice ciders.
Not a Cider
Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner: Easily recognized as a beer by the wife. Tastes like a flavoured beer. I like a lot of Nickel Brook products but this one always tastes fake to me. Lemon did nothing to improve it.
Overall Impressions: I've drank a lot of ciders in the last few years but by focusing on Ontario craft ciders at one time, it made me realize the breadth of products available. I'm not sure if there are any remaining drinkers out that gender cider by putting it into a corner with coolers that are best left to womenfolk. If so, they are missing out. None of the ciders tasted were bad. One or two crawled towards a more bland flavour profile but none screamed mass market.
The cider market may have been given a gift when the juice canning factories closed down in Southern Ontario. This left many orchards with few choices. Alcohol sells. There are more innovations that are happening in the Ontario market such as using different yeasts, dry hopping ciders, and barrel aging. Cideries are applying both brewing and vinous methods. West Avenue Cider is one to watch.
The cider industry in Ontario has many stories to be told. Craft cider is fast approaching craft beer territory, in terms of innovation and excellence. This week was the inaugural Cider Week. Now, all we need is the craft version of Sessions. Get out there and find a cider you like. The search is well worth it.