Cider, the alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice, was popular with early Americans -- John Adams drank a tankard nearly every day. "[It] was part of our culture that we lost and really forgot about," says Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook.
Rebecca Sheir: I love what you write in your book. You refer to exploring cider as a worthy pursuit. You write that, "The noble grape may sit at the top of the enological pyramid, but apples can produce wines and ciders with tremendous complexity, variability and plain deliciousness."
How do you do that -- how do you produce cider? What is it exactly?
Amy Traverso: Cider is fermented apple juice. In the U.S. we get a little confused because cider has come to be what we call fresh apple juice. But in the rest of the world and historically, cider referred to apple juice that was fermented.
Apple juice was fermented because before we had refrigeration, it was hard to stop that from happening -- apples would just ferment naturally. At some point in history, and it's hard to find exactly when, people started figuring out that apple juice could ferment, that it could be alcohol and that it could be tasty. Cider culture evolved.
I think the first place we really see it taking root is in Spain. I think a lot of people don't realize there's a massive cider culture in Spain.
Cider at one time in the U.S. was the most popular beverage for early Americans. It was safer than water. It was easy to make.
It's a pretty simple process. It can go wrong, and I think people who have had funky cider know that, but it's actually a fairly simple process. You crush the apples, you extract the juice, and you let it ferment either with its own natural yeast that exists on the skin, or with special Champagne or wine yeast that you add to be a little more controlled about it.
But in John Adams' time, he drank a tankard of cider every day. Children drank it, because it was fairly low in alcohol and safer than water in a lot of places.
Over time, cider lost ground between the temperance movement and the arrival of eastern European immigrants and the rise of beer culture. British people also brought beer, but cider was a little bit easier to make, so that's why it was more popular in the early era.
RS: It seems like it's had a resurgence.
AT: It is having a huge resurgence. It's really exciting. It's gotten to the point where it's really all I drink. I love it. I love seeing people rediscover it because it really was part of our culture that we lost and really forgot about. In the 1980s in this country, some makers -- in particular Terry and Judy Mahoney of West County Cider in western Massachusetts -- were early cider reintroduction pioneers.
In England, cider has had a huge revival over the past 10 years. You're seeing growth of about 100 percent every year in terms of cider consumption; it's growing quickly. It's still a relatively small pocket of domestic wine and beer and spirits consumption, but it's really growing quickly. It's the fastest-growing drink category in the country.
RS: What regions produce cider?
AT: In our country, it's really concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest (the Great Lakes area), the Pacific Northwest and some in the Virginia area. There's also a lot happening in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, so there's a lot in Canada as well.
If you think about how hard it can be, there are certainly grapes that do grow well in northern climates -- winemakers are getting better and better at it. Here in New England, where I live, there's actually really good wine being made. But apples thrive in cold climates; it is a truly local beverage. If you want to eat and drink locally, apple cider is a great option. As more and more cider makers are coming online, you're more and more likely to find apple cider being made nearby.
RS: If we want to go out and buy a bottle of cider, what should we look for?
AT: You may want to start with what's local to you. It's always fun to go to the cidery, it's always fun to see it made, it's great to support your local people.
But cider is international; it's made all over the world. The tricky thing is finding it. Because cider is still in its resurgence, it can be hard to get -- for me it can be hard to find West Coast cider, for example. France, England and Spain don't always export their best stuff, so it can be hard to even find that.
France is a little bit better. For example, there's a French maker called Etienne Dupont from Normandy who tends to export some pretty great stuff; I've seen it in many stores around the country. Another French brand that exports is Eric Bordelet; you can often find that.
The nice thing about cider is it's a really low investment. You can get a great bottle for $8, $12 at the upper end.
In general, I think France is a good place to start because the French are really good at making just delicious ciders with enough residual sweetness in them that they're super friendly to the new drinker. Spanish cider is really great, but it tends to be a little more acidic, which if you're new to it, you might not like as much.
Where I live there are so many great ciders coming online. There's Bantam Cider here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that everybody is crazy about. Suddenly it's on tap in so many restaurants. It's really fun. It's always good to look around and see what's coming online where you live.
RS: Once we get our hands on a bottle or we get it on tap somewhere, what would you recommend pairing with cider?
AT: I think cider is one of the most food-friendly beverages in the world. It does have that fruitiness and can have sweetness. Some of them are very dry, but some of them have sweetness, which makes them pair with so many foods.
Also, it has the fizz. When you're eating food and then you drink your cider, the little bubbles are like cleaning off your tongue, they're balancing any richness or fattiness in your food. It can go with foods anywhere from curries to barbecue to creamy sauces.
But if you want rules, you can say, "OK, cider from Normandy is going to go really well with foods from there." Your creamy cheeses like Camembert or mussels cooked in a cider cream sauce are going to be amazing.
If you're in Spain, you're going to really enjoy cider with tapas, with pork dishes that have some fat or with grilled steaks -- things that are hearty because of that extra acidity.
In England, some of the commercial ciders that tend to be sweeter are really good with fish and chips and fried food because they have that sweetness and that fizz. But they are also great with cheddar.
In general, cheeses pair incredibly well with cider. Sweeter ciders -- in particular ice ciders, which are very concentrated, sweet, nectary dessert ciders -- are incredible with blue cheese and with nuts. You can really do a nice cheese platter, have a cider tasting, and even include some dried sausages -- you'd have a really great feast.
Rebecca Sheir is the host of Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C. She previously served as host of AK on Alaska Public Radio Network and reported for NPR member station KTOO in Juneau. Her stories have won numerous awards, airing on public radio programs such as All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, Latino USA, Only a Game, Here & Now, Interfaith Voices and Voice of America.