Monday, August 2, 2010

Cider & Beer: Two of a Kind?

When I was growing up, I never really understood what was up with Johnny Appleseed. I mean, I liked apples well enough, put the idea of wandering around, planting trees so people could eat apples years later always seemed a bit daft to me. It's only when I grew up and started learning about the history of beer and other forms of drinking that things started to make sense.

First and foremost, Johnny Appleseed (or John Chapman, to use his real name) wasn't interested in providing apples for people to eat, he was interested in providing apples for people to make cider from. The types of apples he planted were totally unsuitable for eating (much too tart and hard) but absolutely perfect for pressing to make cider.

Second, while he was a very generous and charitable man, he didn't do his apple tree planting out of altruism. No, he actually established apple nurseries, where people could buy his apple trees (often on credit, true, but he wasn't giving them away) and use them to establish their own apple orchards. In fact, his early business was bankrolled by cider press owners, interested in creating more business for themselves.

Despite his altruism and charity, Johnny Appleseed left an estate of over 1,200 acres of valuable nurseries to his sister. He also owned four plots in Allen County, Indiana, including a nursery in Milan Township, with 15,000 trees.

Obviously early Americans were very fond of their hard apple cider.

Personally, I never had much use for cider until I was living in London. However, in my various pub crawls about town, on some rare occasions I encountered cask-conditioned or "Real" cider. Just like its close cousin, cask-conditioned ale, this type cider is a long-established traditional drink which is produced naturally from apples and is neither carbonated or pasteurized. It was about as different from most typical commercial ciders as you can imagine, and a nice alternative to ale in the pubs that offered it. I found myself missing it after leaving London, and I've occasionally thought of trying to make my own but never have.

After some prompting by a friend, I decided to give some of the ciders available around here a try.

I started off with a can of Strongbow, an imported dry cider. In Britain, this is one of the brands that stand for everything Real Cider is not, i.e. it's pasteurized and brewery conditioned, available on draft everywhere, from kegs rather than casks. But we're in Alaska, not England, so let's give it a try.

Strongbow pours a lovely clear gold, with essentially no head. In fact, in the glass it could easily pass for a pilsner or a golden ale except for the lack of foam on top. On the palate it was nice and dry. Ciders come in two general types: sweet and dry, depending on how much sugar remains in them when the fermentation is finished. Strongbow weighs in at 5% ABV, putting it on a level with your typical beer. It has a fairly tart apple flavor, which makes it quenching and refreshing. All-in-all, it was a pleasant, well-made cider. Not as exciting as one from a cask, but still eminently drinkable.

After trying the Strongbow, I moved on to an American cider. Woodchuck Hard Cider is made in Vermont and is one of the biggest and best known producers of cider in the US. I decided to try their Amber Cider, which is the original style they produced. True to its name, it poured a little darker than the Strongbow, closer to a dark honey color. Still no head, of course. On the palate it had a nice apple flavor and was sweeter, though not overly sweet. To some one used to drinking beer, the lack of carbonation seemed strange, with the cider just sort of resting on my tongue, rather than dancing, the way a nicely carbonated beer does. As also at 5% ABV, just like your average beer.

I've got a couple more ciders on hand to try later, and I'll review them then. I want to wrap my sojourn in cider-land by suggesting that if you've never had a hard cider, you pick one or two up and see how you like them. They're very different from beer, but represent a "brewing" tradition that's very old and distinguished in its own right.

I promised to review some of the best of the beers I had in my recent trip back east, so let me tell you about another one of them: The Sixth Glass from Boulevard Brewing Company's Smokestack Series. I picked up a 750ml bottle of this brew in a liquor store in Cool Springs, TN, and drank it that night in my hotel room.

I knew absolutely nothing about this beer before trying it, though I had heard good things about the brewery. It poured a pale amber with an absolutely massive and very long-lasting head. The aroma was very unusual, with some sour elements that I did not expect, besides the usual malt and dark fruit notes common to Belgian Strong Dark Ales (or quadruples). On the palate the beer was delicious, with wonderful mouthfeel, some heat from the 10.5% alcohol, and maybe a hint of sourness? Or perhaps it was wood from cask aging? Hard to be absolutely sure, in spite of working my way through the entire bottle, trying to decide. The beer that I think it reminded me of the most was Samuel Smith's Yorkshire Stingo, which is pretty high praise. I regret that this was the only beer from The Smokestack Series that I've been able to try, and I wish I could have brought a bottle or two back to Alaska to share.

Speaking of back in Alaska, I made it by St. Elias Brewing Company to taste Zach Henry's new Nimbus Tripel. Brewed with the same yeast strain that he used to produce his excellent Sunfire Saison back in June, this is a formidable beer, coming in at 10.75% ABV. True to the style, Zach has used Belgian candi sugar to keep the body lighter than you would expect for such a strong brew. The hopping is robust enough to stand up to all this malt and alcohol, producing a brew that is fantastic, so long as you remember to enjoy it in moderation. To help ensure that you do, Nimbus is only available by the 12 oz glass; no pints and definitely no growlers of this bad boy! If you like strong Belgian ales, you really need to give this one a whirl.

Also on new on tap was Pandora's Passion, a blackberry kolsch at 5.5%, but by the time I finished my glass of Nimbus, I didn't dare have any more, since I was on my way home. Hopefully I'll get to try it before next week's blog.

Finally, I wanted to mention that the last full week in August (20th through the 29th this year) is Local Beer Week. I'm not sure yet what our local brewers will be doing to celebrate it, but one thing I know we should all do for that week is only drink locally brewed beer. So make your plans to lay in your supplies and stay tuned for news of special local events.

Well, that's about it for this week. My lovely wife and I will be heading up to Anchorage this weekend for some shopping and hopefully I will find some new beers to try. I think I will be able to swing by Midnight Sun and try a couple that they have only released on draft. I'll let you know next week how I make out.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

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