I grew up in the apple country of Western New York, where the advent of autumn was always accompanied by fresh plastic jugs of brown cider at the local orchards and supermarkets. I developed early on a particular palate for cider that struck the just-right balance of sweet and tart, not too thick and not too watery. Sometimes I liked it better after it had been opened and allowed to sit in the refrigerator for a few days, fermenting just a little to add some tang to the flavor.
So it was with a certain sense of revelation that in later years I discovered what the British call "cider," during my late-teenage drinking days in the pubs of Manchester. (All perfectly legal, the drinking age in Britain being a sensible 18—though that's a subject for another column.) It's a standard part of your average pub repertoire, with usually at least one cider on tap and a few more in bottles. Here was that fermented tang taken much farther than it ever got in my parents' fridge, along with crisp carbonation and, often, a determined dryness. Hard cider, alcoholic cider, is sweet by nature, but it does not have to be cloying.
Unfortunately, Americans like sweet drinks—especially Americans looking for an alternative to beer. Even as hard cider has become a more common commodity in grocery store coolers here, it has tended toward the syrupy. The most widely available brand of cider in this country is Woodchuck, based in Vermont. I can just about tolerate their standard-bearing Amber, but only on a hot day when the cider's really cold. Even then, I feel like I might as well be drinking 7-Up. (Woodchuck makes a subtler brew, called Dark and Dry, but it is of course hard to come by. And they should just go ahead and call their Granny Smith variety Candy Apple.)
There are a growing number of other Yank ciders, some of them passable but most of them still too sweet for me: Hornsby's, HardCore (made by the Samuel Adams folks), J.K.'s Scrumpy. So I was happy some months back to discover Ace Hard Cider, from California, at Downtown Wine + Spirits. It's an almost perfectly dry drink, something like sparkling wine in its brightness and effervescence. It is also, sadly, no longer available at Downtown.
But you can find a bunch of other ciders, American and British, at Bearden Beer Market, where owner Christopher Morton says the category is one of the fastest-growing niches. It is slowly overcoming its reputation as—not to put too fine a point on it—a sort of sugary, girly drink. Matt McMillan, who works at BBM, says some guys come into the store deriding cider, only to change their tune if he pours them a taste of a British favorite like Strongbow or the newly available, pear-based Sir Perry.
Pear ciders, or perrys, are having a sort of mini-boom of their own within the broader cider swell. But most American pear ciders—like the Fox Barrel brand I bought a few weeks ago in New Orleans, mostly because I liked the label—are just regular cider with pear juice and sugar added. The result is something entirely too fruity—"like pear Jell-o," a friend said after her first sip. Sir Perry, on the other hand, is the real deal: made with "100% fermented pear juice," lightly carbonated and just glancingly sweet. It is billed as "the only authentic English pear cider available in America," and I don't know of anything to contradict that.
Bearden Beer Market also carries Blackthorn Cider, made by the same British brewers that make Sir Perry, and it is a solid representative of English cider: tangy and mellow at the same time, with only its sulfite preservatives detracting a little from its golden-apple crispness.
There is a "Real Cider" movement in the U.K. that disparages the use of preservatives and carbonated water alike, using traditional fermentation to make an almost entirely different drink. You can't get that stuff on these shores just yet, but it sounds like the kind of thing some micro-brewer is bound to try. If you want some idea of it, the guys at Downtown Wine do carry Oliver's Perry, a still (i.e. non-fizzy) British pear cider that is more or less like young pear wine. Chilled and accompanied by good Stilton cheese, it was pretty tasty. And worlds away from anything with a groundhog on the label.