Now that cider has started to regain its place in the American larder, it's time to learn some history.
The most important cider producing countries have developed different traditions and styles. For example, farmers in northern Spain may have been the first Europeans to cultivate apple trees, and more than a hundred small cider producers in the region make hard cider sold in corked wine bottles to local siderias, or cider bars. The region of Asturias produces more than 80% of Spain’s cider. Roughly half are classified as sweet and sparkling, and the other half are called sidra natural.
However, Basque cider developed in an entirely different tradition. Annually, in the first half of the year, Basque cider houses become party central. An astringent and funky style of cider flows freely, always served with food. Basque cider is paticularly dry and sour, sometimes akin to Belgian farmhouse brews in their funkiness.
Cider was made in England during the Roman Empire using local crab apples and culinary apples brought to the country by the Romans. During the 17th century, English landowners made efforts to improve cider apples so that the finished product would be more like wine. As a result, English cider is traditionally fermented to a high level of dryness, with strong acidity and between 5% and 10% alcohol by volume. Traditional English farmhouse cider is not only dry, but also still. Cider consumption in England has always been robust.
French cider tends to have lower alcohol content than English cider (between 2% and 5%ABV). Cider produced in and around Normandy in northwestern France retains more residual sweetness as a result of a traditional production process that also allows very slow fermentation, sometimes for as long as a year. French cider is frequently bottled in Champagne-style bottles with corks held in place by wire cages. Because cider in this region is bottled before fermentation is totally finished, it has a natural sweetness and higher levels of carbonation, although there are also still French ciders.
Most apples in the United States are grown for dessert and culinary purposes, many too sweet for cider production because they lack tannin and acid. As the popularity of cider has increased, the demand for more cider apple varieties with higher tannin and astringency has as well. But generally speaking, American cider tends to be on the sweet side. American hard cider is defined not so much by styles but by the way it is produced. Larger companies tend to use apple juice concentrate, sugar, water and flavors, while craft cider is generally fermented from a wide variety of apples that are crushed during production. Be sure to jump on cider’s ever-increasing popularity, and consider creating cider pairing and tasting menus.