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Ciders that turned wine writers’ heads

Author's top pick, Christian Drouhin Poire

Author’s top pick, Christian Drouhin Poire

Apple and pear ciders demonstrate at a New  York tasting that they are earning a place at the dining table

By Alan J. Wax

When members of the Wine Media Guild of New York convened recently in the private dining room of Felidia, in Manhattan, there were no elegant Chardonnays to be tasted, no sensual red Burgundies, no coveted First Growth Bordeaux wines and no well-aged Barolos.

No, at this meeting of wine writers, the drink of the moment had nothing to do with grapes. Instead, the scribes sampled a beverage that in recent years has soared in popularity: hard cider. And many of the writers, new to cider, took great pleasure in their discoveries,

Indeed, hard, or alcoholic cider, is among the hottest alcoholic beverage categories in the U.S. The Chicago-based market research firm IRI reported that cider sales soared 75.4 percent over the12 months that ended Nov. 30, 2014 to $366 million, or about 1 percent of the beer market.

Cider, to be sure, is technically a wine, albeit one made from apples, or, in some instances pears and, generally, one of less than 7 percent alcohol by volume. Cider makers typically ferment their fruit juices with natural wild yeasts, yeasts used in winemaking, and occasionally, at least in the U.S., with yeast strains used by Belgian brewers.

In the past, cider was confused with apple wine and was considered a sweet/carbonated drink. Lately, however, there’s been a move to make dry and semi-dry ciders, driven in part by the gluten free movement and the perception that the sweeter taste of cider, with a similar alcohol level to beer, will appeal to women and drinkers seeking novelty. Under U.S. tax regulations, fermented apple and pear drinks may only be labeled cider if they contain less than 7 percent alcohol by volume.

To be sure, cider is not new. It goes back millennia to Roman times. In colonial America it was the beverage of choice until German immigrants brought their beers to our shores, the wine writers learned from event speaker Daniel Pucci, cider sommelier at Wassail, a cider bar and restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Pucci also discussed the cider-making process — and its various styles.

Oliver's Classic Perry, from England

Oliver’s Classic Perry, from England

Cider, like its vinous distant relative, can be produced from one or more varietals and in range of styles, often dependent on the traditions of the region where the cider was made. Ciders at this tasting originated in England; Normandy, France, Basque, France; New York, New England, Virginia and California.

And the distinctions are readily apparent.

In the United States, most ciders are produced from culinary apples— the kind you find at your local supermarket, thus producing beverages that tend to be sweet, though there are exceptions. But in Europe, ciders are produced from fruits grown especially for cider making that tend to more acidic and more tannic and largely inedible. Oh, but do they make great quaffs.

At this tasting we had more than 30 ciders to taste, including a few perries (pear ciders), so many were enjoyable, particularly the pear versions. Confession, I skipped those flavored with spices, flowers and hops and by and large favored the European ciders.

My top picks:

Aaron Burr Cidery Homestead East Branch, from Wurtsboro, New York. Made from foraged wild apples, this light gold rendition was dry, spicy and yeasty.

Bad Seed Cider, from New York’s Hudson Valley. A surprising dry, straw-hued cider with a tart apple character that was crafted from culinary apples. A great companion to food.

Christian Drouhin Poiré, from Normandy.  Drouin is known for its Calvados. Without a doubt, my No, 1 pick of the tasting. Made from pears grown on 200-year-old trees, it has a sensual elegance that starts with delicate pear aromas and continues with a flavorful, soft mineral quality.

Etienne Dupont Bouche Brut, from Normandy. Champagne clear, it starts a bit funky and is dry with bracing acidity from start to finish.

Ettienne DuPont Tripel Cidre, fermented three times

Ettienne DuPont Tripel Cidre, fermented three times

Etienne Dupont Cidre Tripel, from Normandy. Fermented three times with Champagne yeasts, including a dosage, this amber cider is made from bitter apple varieties. It’s dry, savory and has quite a bit tannin that makes it seem a somewhat weighty.

Farnham Hill Semi-Dry, from Lebanon, New Hampshire. Mild gold in appearance, this serious cider burst with red apple and mineral flavors. Not as sweet as its name might suggest,

Oliver’s Classic Perry, from Hereford, England. A fruity, off-dry drink that screams out its pear character.

Titled Shed Ciderworks Graviva from Sonoma, California. There’s a tart green apple character through and through this semi-dry sparkler made largely with Gravenstein apples. There’s also a bit of earthy funk and tannin.

One thing this tasting demonstrated: Cider is earning its place at the table.

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He missed a trip to the GABF, but his beer won gold in Pro-Am competition

The story behind this year’s pro-am winning beer and Long Island home brewer Brian Giebel

Great South Bay Brewery owner Rick Sobotka, Brian Giebel and lead brewer Jon Gomez (photo courtesey Great South Bay Brewery)

Great South Bay Brewery owner Rick Sobotka, home brewer Brian Giebel and GSB lead brewer Jon Gomez  brewing Muscat Love. (photo courtesy Great South Bay Brewery)

By Alan J. Wax

A new job prevented a high school chemistry teacher from Babylon, New York from attending the Great American Beer Festival and its annual awards ceremony. But minutes after the first gold medal was announced for the festival’s Pro-Am competition, Brian Giebel, stopped grading his students’ work to answer his phone.

Pitcher of Muscat Love at GABF's Pro-Am tasting table

Pitcher of Muscat Love at GABF’s Pro-Am tasting table

On the line at 10:15 a.m. Mountain Time was Phil Ebel V, chief operations officer at the Great South Bay Brewery (GSB) of Bay Shore. The reason for the Sept. 26 call: to tell Giebel that the beer he initially entered in a local home brew competition and later brewed at GSB for the Pro-Am competition, Muscat Love, had just been awarded a gold medal, topping 91 other brews that were collaborations between home brewers and commercial breweries.

“I told him we won—he won—the gold medal,” Ebel said. “He asked, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”Just days after the medal ceremony, Ebel recalled, “I was pretty crazy. It’s Its really an incredible feeling to sit down for the awards ceremony and win gold within five minutes of sitting down.”

Ebel and his GSB colleagues had arrived at the ceremony at the Colorado Convention Center hopeful that Muscat Love would have a chance in competition with 90 other brews. “It’s a fantastic beer,” said Ebel. But when the gold was announced, Ebel recalled, “I was speechless. I was over the moon”

GSB also won a gold medal for its Hog Cabin Maple Bacon Porter in the specialty beer category, which had 59 entrants. The 2015 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition awarded 275 medals to some of the best commercial breweries in the United States, plus three GABF Pro-Am medals. (You can view the 2015 winners or download a PDF list of the winners.) Presented by the Brewers Association, GABF is the largest commercial beer competition in the world and a symbol of brewing excellence.

Muscat Love labelThe story behind this year’s pro-am gold winner goes back a decade, when Giebel, now 40, started home brewing. Giebel, who now dreams of going pro, produced Muscat Love, a Belgian-style triple that used canned Muscat grape puree instead of candi sugar as a fermentable, on his 10-gallon, garage- housed system. Giebel had intended to use the grape puree in another brew, but decided instead to brew a tripel, because, he said, “I liked that style and that yeast character and thought it would work well with the grapes.” He entered into a competition for members held monthly by Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, a home brew club. Each monthly winner is brewed on GSB’s 1-barrel pilot system and sold in the brewery’s taproom.

Earlier this year, Ebel, brewery owner Rick Sobotka and Andrew Luberto, a national Beer Judge Certification Program home brew judge, selected Muscat Love from among the club’s half-dozen winners of the past year, including an IPA, a pre-Prohibition-style lager with chilies and a gose, to enter in the Pro-Am.

“We felt Brian’s beer was the best tasting and most complex out of all of them,” Ebel said..

Days after the Sept. 26 award announcement, Giebel, who has a PhD in chemistry, says he’s still stoked about becoming a hero home brewer. “It was a little surreal. I never really thought I had a shot at it.”

And, he adds that winning the Pro-Am, could provide new impetus to his aim to go pro. “This ramps up my interested a hundred fold to get things going.”



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Guinness’ The 1759 reviewed: A distinctive, flavorful, pricey brew


By Alan J. Wax

A bottle of Guinness The 1759

A bottle of Guinness The 1759

Guinness has a winner, albeit a pricey one, that’s generated some controversy among beer geeks.

The big international brewer’s late October release, called The 1759, comes in a frosted, black, corked, 750 ml Champagne-style bottle nestled in a velvet-lined box and is priced at $35. Guinness says it produced only 90,000 bottles, largely for the U.S., of what it described as “a luxury beer.”

News  of the beer’s release, however, unleashed a stream of largely negative comments in various social media. “Guinness, yuck,” one read. Guinness, some suggested, was a giant evil monster. A marketing gimmick, said others. Few said they would pay the $35. But others, I read, had paid $50 for a bottle of this limited edition brew and, then shared it among friends. A good notion.

No one will ever accuse Guinness of being a craft brewer. Yes, it’s big on marketing as is its parent, drinks giant Diageo. Still, Guinness has been brewing that black elixir known as Guinness Stout for 250 years. It’s a wonderful brew when poured properly on draft at an Irish bar.

I’m sure many naysayers hadn’t tasted The 1759, which Guinness describes as an amber ale brewed with peat-smoked whiskey malt and fermented to 9 percent ABV.

I have, thanks to a sample shipped to me by Guinness’s PR folks. And I can say it’s distinctive, flavorful brew that most drinkers would be happy to sip, albeit at a lower price.

I shared my sample with a group of knowledgeable, advanced homebrewers/BJCP judges, among them the owner of a just-launched commercial brewery.

The group’s reaction was largely positive, although one taster thought it too smoky.

It was an interesting brew, they agreed. In fact, If you didn’t know it was from Guinness, you might think it was a terrific American craft brewed beer. I rated it 4/5 stars.

The 1759 poured a deep brownish copper and offered up a peaty nose that suggested a burning pile of fall leaves. But there are also notes of caramel, butterscotch, roasted malt, and suggestions of bacon. The hops were subdued. Full bodied, almost chewy with a creamy finish, it’s a complex brew that doesn’t hide its 9% ABV alcohol level.

In fact, it’s one of the better beers I’ve had recently. Would I pay $35 for it? Perhaps, once. But if someone chose to gift me with another bottle, I wouldn’t say no.

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Corks, Caps & Taps wins blogging award

Photo-18The Press Club of Long Island, a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, presented its 2014 award for “Social Media-Blog Created and Maintained by an Individual” to Corks, Caps and Taps and its editor, Alan J Wax.

The award was among 80 presented by the club at its 2014 Media Awards dinner on June 5 at the Woodbury Country Club in Woodbury, New York.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization with 60 professional chapters and 250 student chapters nationwide. It is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.

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Cider makers form national trade group

America’s hard cider makers are banding together.

A group of cider makers meeting last week in Chicago announced the formation of the United States Association of Cider Makers (USACM)

The group’s mission, according to a statement, is to gather and share information about cider and perry production, regulations concerning the production of hard cider and perry (pear cider), and pear and apple growing; as well as to help members improve their operations, raise the public’s awareness of the products produced by its members, and promote the interests of the cider and perry producers in the United States.

The association’s formation comes as U.S. sales of hard cider are exploding, growing at double-digit annual rates and cider makers are attempting to obtain federal standards for cider making

Brad Page, founder and owner of the Denver-based Colorado Cider Co., says about 100 cider making companies attended the industry conference at which the association was established, “I’d think there might be upwards of 150 and growing fast,” he added in a email.

In addition to Page, the association’s inaugural board of directors, which reflects the industry’s diversity of regional distribution, production volume, and growth, include:

Greg Hall, co-founder and former brewmaster at Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co.  and now the owner of Chicago-based Virtue Cider, said in a statement: “I started out in the craft beer industry in the 1980s, and as a craft brewer for 25 years it is thrilling to be here at the dawn of the USACM. There are so many similarities between cider now and craft beer in the 80s, beginning with the passion of the people leading this effort.”

The meeting to form this new organization preceded the annual CiderCon  industry trade show in Chicago and Cider Summit,  a consumer tasting event.

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Hard cider: Mott’s it’s not and it’s hot

Hard cider is hot!

It doesn’t matter where you look, there’s a heck of lot of action taking place in the cider business. In fact, cider may be experiencing its biggest popularity since America’s earliest days.

We’re not talking about that murky brown stuff sold in gallon jugs in the supermarket dairy case.  No, our subject is fermented apple juice, which was the drink of the wealthy 18th Century English and which was consumed daily in early America until German lager beers displaced them.

Typically cider has about 5-6 percent alcohol by volume, a level between that of beer and wine and is offered sweet, dry, still or sparkling. Some resemble wine coolers, sweet and fizzy.  But there also are oak-aged expressions, single-apple versions and complex blends.  Hard cider can be bone-dry, like the rustic English beverage called scrumpy, or it can sweet, depending on the apples used and if any sugar or acid has been added.  Most English and European ciders use specially grown fruits, which offer high acidity and tannins that the eating apples generally used by American cider makers.

One thing is certain are the astronomical growth figures in this beverage category Cider sales last year rocketed 50 percent, according to SymphonyIRI Group, the Chicago market research firm. Another researcher, Impact Databank, puts the annual growth figure at 23 percent.

It doesn’t make a difference which number you use. Cider is attracting attention from producers big and small.

Boston Beer Co., the makers of Samuel Adams beers, has rolled out its Angry Orchard label nationwide (it previously marketed cider under the Hard Core brand) and brewing giant Anheuser-Busch released its first American cider—the low-calorie Michelob Ultra Light Cider. MillerCoors, meanwhile, bought the Crispin cider business and operates it as part of its Tenth and Black craft beer business. Crispin is growing by 300 percent monthly, according to a report by Shanken News Daily. The producer recommends imbibers pour its wares over ice.

Vermont Hard Cider, producer of the Woodchuck ciders is experiencing 30 percent-plus growth, according to Shanken, and is building a new facility. It’s also the U.S. marketer of Strongbow, a cider brand owned by Heineken, the big Dutch brewer.

Also, Late last year, C&C Group, the Irish-Anglo company that owns Magner’s Irish Cider, added Hornsby’s to its portfolio (the brand formerly was owned by E&J  Gallo.

On the artisan side, there’s Greg Hall, who sold his Goose Island Brewing Co. in Chicago to A-B and who now is making cider under the Virtue Cider label. Meanwhile, Peconic Bay Winery on Long Island’s North Fork launched twos cider, True Believer and True Companion, using apples grown on the East End.

In the New York area, alcoholic beverage promoters have taken notice.

Jimmy Carbone, of Jimmy’s 43 in the East Village and Beer Sessions Radio, has launched Cider Week in New York which kicks off on Oct. 13 with a tasting event in Williamsburg that features a selection of more than 20 ciders (including Virtue, Farnum Hill, and France’s Domaine Dupont), 20 craft brews (including Barrier Brewing of Oceanside, Rockaway Brewing, New Jersey’s Carton Brewing, and Vermont’s Shed Brewery), 10 artisanal spirits, as well as charcuterie and cheese. Two general session and two guided tasting sessions are planned for the event at 110 Kent Avenue at N. 8th Street, Williamsburg).  Tickets are $50, though there is a $40 discount option currently available through Google offers. Steve Wood, owner of New Hampshire’s Farnham Hill Ciders and Virtue’s Hall, will conduct seminars. Jimmy’s also is having a cider-paired South Indian harvest dinner on Oct. 15. Tickets for the dinner, $44 per person, are available online.

Just the other day, Long Islanders for Fermentation Enjoyment, a beer enthusiast group that I’m involved in, tasted a selection of ciders at its monthly gathering at the Black Forest Brewhaus in Farmingdale.  Many in the line up were simple, alcoholic apple juices, fruity alternatives for those who don’t drink beer. Still, the Angry Orchard cider was a favorite and a number of participants also enjoyed a maple-flavored variation from Harvest Moon Cidery Critz Farms in Westchester., as well as a sour-cherry apple cider from Crispin.

Meanwhile, out on Long Island’s North Fork, Peconic Bay Winery has joined forces with Starfish Junction Productions, the promoter of various beer events, to put on Pour The Core:  A Hard Cider Festival on Oct. 20, from 12:30-5 p.m. at the Cutchogue winery. More than 30 domestic and international ciders are to be offered. And there will be there seminars on cider-based cocktails, home cider making and cooking with cider. Tickets have sold out, however.

If things go as planned, I’ll be at the Peconic Bay fest and then post some tasting notes.

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Press Club of Long Island award for Corks, Caps and Taps Editor

The editor of Corks, Caps and Taps is an award winner!

Alan Wax, who founded this blog less than three months ago, won a Press Club of Long Island media award for a story published last September on about the travails of Long Island winemakers following the Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene and the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, which drenched Long Island vineyards close to the 2011 harvest.

The Press Club presented the award at a June 7 dinner at the Woodbury Country Club.

Wax’s award-winning story, “Grape Growers Worry About 2011 Quality, QuanitiePLCI AwardPLCI Awards” was published Sept. 23, 2011. The 2nd place award was for a Business/Economic/Financial story published online. The first-place award went to a team of Newsday reporters.

Wax contributed stories about the Long Island wine industry to from September 2010, shortly after the launch of the NorthFork Patch site, until September 2011, when, a unit of AOL, dropped most free-lance contributors.

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An Italian evangelist in New York showcases Piedmontese wines

Fiorenzo Dogliani and his Gavi

Italian vintner Fiorenzo Dogliani has been an evangelist for his Piedmontese family’s Barolos and other wines seemingly forever. He introduced the wines of Beni di Batasiolo to New York in 1979 and he’s still at it today at the age of 68.

Dogliani, president and managing director of the family owned Beni di Batasiolo, stopped in New York recently to showcase his wines. New York is one of Batasiolo’s biggest markets, he says, admitting, however that China is becoming quite important, too. The wines are exported to 68 countries.

Over lunch at Il Postino, a charming eatery near the United Nations, he told me about Beni di Batasiolo, one of the largest privately owned wineries in the Langhe-Barolo region of Piedmont and the Dogliani philosophy used in the production of 5 million bottles annually.

Headquartered in La Mora Cune, Beni di Batasiolo — beni means property in a rural Piedmontese dialect, owns 345 acres of vineyards in nine sites and four growing regions: Barolo, La Morra, Monforte D’Alba and Serralunga D’Alba. It’s one of the largest farming operations in the Langhe.

The Dogliani family has been making wine in the Piedmont for four generations. They started with just 7 1/2 acres of Nebbiolo vines in Barolo. Their business, originally called Fratelli Dogliani, was renamed Beni di Batasiolo in 1978.

The youngest of 10 siblings, Fiorenzo Dogliani entered his family’s wine business at a young age, learning winegrowing and winemaking as the business grew. As a young man, he led the winery beyond the borders of Piedmont, marketing his family’s wines to restaurateurs in nearby Milan. His early efforts helped raise visibility for the company’s long-lived Barolos and Barbarescos. By 1979 he was traveling to New York, introducing the trade and consumers to Nebbiolo in an effort to steer American palates, more familiar with sweet, fizzy Lambruscos, to dry, sophisticated Italian wines. America now is a key market, in part, he says, because of America’s affinity for Italian food.

Dogliani, who does not speak much English, was accompanied by Ricardo March, the winery’s North American director, who is based in Miami and who translated during our luncheon.

Beni di Batasiolio’s vineyards are planted 70 percent with Nebbiolo, which goes into making Babaresco and Barolos.  The other 30 percent are planted with Arneis, Barbera, Brachetto, Chardonnay, Cortese, Dolcetto,

Moscato Nebbiolo, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc. In addition to Barolo, Batasiolo produces other sparkling and still wines, including Barbera d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Alba, Moscato d’Asti and Gavi, as well as a number of grappas.

Batasiolo’s flagship wines are its four single-cru Barolos: Corda della Briccolina and Boscareto, both from Serralunga d’Alba; Bofani from Monforte d’Alba and Cerequio from La Morra, each with a different elevation and exposure.

For Dogliani, wine making starts in the vineyard. “One of the most important things to us is the exposure of the hills – the elevation,”  he says as we taste his wares.

We start with a straw-colored, aromatic Gavi di Gavi DOCG 2010, produced from Cortese grapes, a white variety that Batasiolo grows at an attitude of 100-200 meters. It offered up a floral nose and peach-citrus palate with hints of minerality. Its crisp acidity made it a refreshing starter.  “Acidity is the most important thing in this wine,” said Dogliani. “It’s dry, but not too dry.” It retails for about $19 a bottle.

Batasiolo Sovrana

Our next wine, Barbera D’Alba Sovrana DOC 2009, was made from Barbera grapes grown on 55-year-old vines in Barolo and La Morra at altitudes of up to 450 meters with a southern and southwestern exposure. Its big perfumed nose hits you immediately. On the palate it’s fruity, full-bodied, soft and round with just a touch of heat from the 14 percent alcohol. A baby now, this a wine to age. And, says Dogliani, it can be drunk with anything. $23.



Batasiolo Barbaresco

We followed with Barbaresco DOCG 2008, a 100 percent Nebbiolo wine, grown in a hilly area. Aged for one year in traditional Slavonian oak barrels and one year in the bottle, this wine has a concentrated nose, hints of anise, black fruit and good tannins  “Barbaresco is the wife of Barolo,” says Dogliani. $36.

Batasiolo Barolo

Time for a big wine: Batasiolo’s Barolo DOCG 2007, also 100 percent Nebbiolo and also aged in Slavonian oak — but for two years. This $40 bottle was ready to drink and offered up notes of red, black and dried fruits, spice and a touch of tobacco and leather. With 15 percent abv, it seemed a tad hot at the finish.

Batasiolo Moscato

We weren’t done, however. Sr. Dogliani had two sweet wines for us to try.   Moscato D’Asti DOCG 2010, produced from Moscato Bianco grapes grown in hilly Serralunga,  was a lip smacker with only 5.5 percent abv. It could pass for a wine cooler, but of course, much better with its bright aromas and flavors of pineapple; melon and hint of oranges. Much more character than many of those Moscatos you find selling in pretty blue bottles. It’s light and sweet without being cloying.

Batasiolo Moscato Spumonte Rose Dolce

Our last wine, also was dolce.  It was a Moscato Spumante Rosé 2010, made from a blend of Moscato Bianco and Moscato Rosa grapes (from Trentino, which is outside the Piedmont.  This salmon hued, off-dry bubbly wine is tank-fermented using the Charmat method. It’s an easy quaff with fresh strawberry notes. $17.

Batasiolo’s wines are distributed in New York state by Southern Wines & Spirits.


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Hello world!

Welcome to Corks, Caps & Taps. I’m Alan J. Wax and I’ll be writing here about the world of wine, spirits, beer and more.  You’ll find news from the drinks world, tasting notes, coverage of industry events and restaurant reviews, among other things. Given my long tenure covering the Long Island wine industry — I started writing about it in 1989 as a reporter at Newsday, there will be some emphasis on this region in my coverage. And much as I enjoy fine wine, there also will be plenty of digital ink about ales as lagers.  I’ve also been an aficionado of good beer since my introduction to craft brewing two decades ago by my former Newsday colleague, Steve Hindy, founder of the Brooklyn Brewery.  Not surprisingly, I also take pleasure in spirits and, of course, fine dining, so I’ll have something to say about these topics, too.

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