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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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Bipartisan legislation offers excise tax relief sought by U.S. hard cider makers

American producers of hard cider have been seeking to level the tax playing field with their competitors in the beer industry. Relief may be soon at hand.

Congressmen from Portland, Ore., and New York’s Niagara region earlier this month introduced legislation in the House that would ease the excise tax burden on America’s small, but growing hard cider industry.

Chris COllins

Chris Collins

Earl Blumenauer

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. Chris Collins (R-New York)  introduced the bipartisan Cider Industry Deserves Equal Regulation (CIDER) Act, H. R. 2921, which would have the federal excise tax on cider structured more like the tax on beer, which is 22 cents per gallon. New York Sen. Charles Schumer reportedly is planning to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

When the alcohol content exceeds 7 percent, cider is taxed as wine, based on a sliding scale that goes as high as $1.07 per gallon for producers making more than 100,000 gallons a year. Cider makers must pass on the higher taxes to consumers or absorb them.

The tax on cider varies, depending on its alcohol and carbon dioxide content, which vary from harvest to harvest based on weather and small changes in production techniques.

jim silver

Jim Silver

“Even under normal harvest circumstances, dessert apples like Fuji and Gala, which we use, can easily ferment beyond the 7-percent-alcohol threshold that breaks the tax barrier and turns cider into “apple wine,’ ” said Jim Silver, general manager of the Standard Cider Co., producer of True Believer and True Companions Ciders, on Long island’s North Fork. “In the worst case scenario, the cider maker is now compelled to put a garden hose into the tank to assure himself that the finished product will be under that threshold – obviously not an ideal situation, especially if that producer wants to make the best cider possible.”

Because of the narrow way that hard cider is currently defined in the tax code, these small variations can lead to cider being taxed at a rate 15 times higher than what the law intended, according to a press release issued by the congressmen.

The Blumenauer-Collins bill would broaden this definition to include pear, as well as apple cider and to greatly reduce the chance that improper taxation would occur.

“Cider making is sometimes closer to an art than a science,” said Blumenauer.  “As the American apple and pear hard cider industry becomes more prominent on the world stage and cider becomes a beverage choice for more Americans’ developing palettes, we need to ensure that cideries have every opportunity to expand and meet the needs of this growing market without an unfair tax burden.”

Collins added. “This bill will help spur growth in the American apple industry by allowing it to be more competitive on an international level.

Cider makers, who have been pushing for the changes, cheered the bill.

“This bill bravely and wisely cuts a path to ensuring cider gets a real chance to succeed,” said Silver.

“We are very pleased that Congressmen Blumenauer and Collins are working to assist cideries not only in our part of the country, but nationally as well,” said Sherrye Wyatt, executive director of the Northwest Cider Association, which represents producers in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia.  The changes proposed by the congressman “will update the existing federal definition of cider to better reflect the industry and keep American cider competitive in the international marketplace,” she said.

“Blumenauer and Collins’s cider bill comes at a crucial time for the small but quickly growing cider industry,” said James Kohn, owner of Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem, Ore. “The current excise tax for fermented ciders does not capture accurately the ciders we produce or most of the ciders in the U.S. And this is very confusing to current producers and the growing number of new cider producers in Oregon and the Northwest. This Cider Bill will end this confusion and ensure ciders are taxed consistently.”

Mike Beck, president of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, called the introduction of the legislation “a critical first step towards making the United States hard cider industry more competitive internationally and treated more fairly under the tax code.”

Sales of domestically produced cider more than tripled in 2012 from 2007, climbing to $601.5 million, according to IBISWorld, a market research company.

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