Don't Drink American Beer This Summer. Drink American Cider Instead. (2024)

A cider evangelist like myself faces a couple of problems when we talk about cider, especially in the summer. First of all, American cider has an autumn problem. Too often, the perception of cider remains that of fall, of leaf peeping season, of the time when pumpkin spice lattes arrive on the scene. The perception leads many to think of cider as something best consumed in a flannel shirt or a cozy sweater, over a crackling fire after a day of pumpkin picking and apple-cider doughnuts. It’s a magical, romantic association, but it’s also limiting—relegating cider to a seasonal niche. Offer your friends a cider on a sunny day at the beach and they might look at you a little funny.

But perception is not reality. Cider is not just for apple-picking season. Let’s remember that grapes are also harvested in the fall, yet no one limits themselves to drinking wine only from September to December. To its credit, the American Cider Association has been working to counterbalance the autumn dilemma. Since before the pandemic, the trade group has promoted American-made cider as a Fourth of July drink of choice.

It seems to be working. Summer has become cider’s biggest season. Last summer, for instance, the Washington Post reported that cider’s highest period of sales in 2022 and 2023 was the four-week stretch from June 20 to July 17.

So for this year’s Fourth, it feels like a no-brainer: Drink American cider. Especially for those who are not yet cider fans, our national holiday feels like a great opportunity to discover just how good cider has become.

But cider presents yet another hurdle for newbies. Cider has a sweetness problem. Too many people’s knee-jerk reaction is, “I don’t like cider. It’s sweet.” While this is incredibly misguided, it’s also a difficult point to argue away. An ocean of semi-dry or off-dry or semi-sweet ciders exist, and many drinkers’s first experience with fermented apples has been something that’s got a bunch of residual sugar. Many have been burned by a cider they thought was going to be dry. The American Cider Association is clearly aware of this problem, since they felt the need to establish a Dry Cider Finder.

Even though I wrote a book on cider, I’ll just say right here that I don’t really love sweeter ciders. I also don’t like ciders made in a sort of craft-beer adjacent fashion. Cider is not brewed. Simply put: Cider is wine made from apples. So all the same things people care about when it comes to wine—terroir, varieties, complexity, acidity, tannins, etc.—apply to cider as well. I want a cider that originates from an identifiable orchard, not one “made” from apple concentrate purchased in bulk, fermented, and canned.

For instance, I personally prefer northeastern ciders from New England or New York, particularly from the Finger Lakes or the Hudson Valley. In this region, you’ll find a critical mass of dry ciders, as well as cider made by people who either work their own orchards, forage wild fruit, or source from quality local orchards.

While I don’t necessarily have an issue with cider in cans, you’re more likely to see the ciders I recommend sold in 750 milliliter bottles, just like wine. These are also the ciders where you’ll find the names of apple varieties on the label. In the cider world, varieties such Golden Russet, Porter’s Perfection, Dabinett, Northern Spy, or Kingston Black hold as much cachet as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Riesling.

Another basic indicator of serious cider is its alcohol level. So many of the canned ciders you find will sit at 6.9 percent ABV or below. That’s mainly because the U.S. government taxes cider over 7 percent as wine. Most of the serious ciders I recommend below will have ABVs well over 7 percent. Many of them over 8 percent, some even reaching 9 to 10 percent. For me, that number represents a cider maker’s willingness to take the tax hit and sell quality ciders at a higher price point. In many cases, it’s a mark of a seriousness of purpose.

I’ve been tasting through several dozen dry northeastern ciders over the past few weeks. It has been a couple years since I did such a directed, comparative tasting like this, and I was really impressed. The top American ciders, particularly from the northeast, keep getting better and better, further separating themselves from the middling pack.

Look for producers such as Aaron Burr, Wild Arc Farm, and Metal House in upstate New York, Eden, Shacksbury, and Tin Hat in Vermont, and Farnum Hill in New Hampshire. The Finger Lakes has perhaps the greatest concentration of great cider with Eve’s Cidery, South Hill, Black Diamond Farm, Blackduck, Finger Lakes Cider House, Open Spaces, and others.

One standout from the tasting, South Hill Cuvée Brut, is a méthode champenoise cider made from apples harvested in 2016 from three specific wild seedling trees in the Finger Lakes. It’s aged six years on the lees, and sits at 9.4 percent ABV. It is exquisite, unique, and can rightly sit on the shelf with top American sparkling wines.

When I messaged South Hill’s cider maker, Steve Selin, to compliment him, he told me: “As with most things, cider is only limited by imagination and vision.” The dry cider recommendations below illustrate that sentiment.

Dry Cider Picks For The Fourth

Don't Drink American Beer This Summer. Drink American Cider Instead. (1)

NV Wild Arc Farm “Apples!” ($6 per can)

Canned ciders can be a mixed bag. Many brands use it as an excuse to sell cheap, volume cider. But this one, from New York’s Hudson Valley, is on a different level, and simply delicious. Made from a blend of apples and even some pear, this is a perfect summer sipper—I’ve been ripping these on the beach.

NV Farnum Hill “Extra Dry” ($14)

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Louisa Spencer and Stephen Wood, of Farnum Hill in New Hampshire, are the OGs of American craft cider. This is a classic bottling, the romantic ideal of an everyday cider, with terrific quality for the price. Citrus, blossom, apple skin, lemon curd, great lively acidity. Pair with everything from pizza to Szechaun to grilled pork. Pour this for your friend who says they don’t like cider.

2023 Aaron Burr “Standard Cider” ($15 for 500 mL)

Andy Brennan is a legend for his profound ciders made with wild-foraged apples, many from trees that might be decades or centuries old. This one, from mountain-grown heirloom varieties, is super earthy at first, but then comes the tart fruit and juicy acidity. Incredibly balanced and full of tension.

2023 Eve’s Cidery “Dabinett” ($18)

I once called Autumn Stoscheck the “Robert Mondavi of cider,” and for nearly three decades she’s run this legendary Finger Lakes cidery with partner Ezra Sherman, where the ciders just get better and better year after year. This pét-nat cider, made with 100 percent Dabinett apples, is a lovely, lively example of a cider that’s complex, but crisp and easy-drinking. Bonus points: All of Eve’s labels have beautiful art created by the couple’s children.

NV South Hill “Goldwin” ($19)

Not all great cider is sparkling. Many top producers experiment with bottling still cider that’s almost wine-like. This one, a blend of Golden Russet and Baldwin varieties, bottled at 10.4 percent ABV. It’s Riesling-like and might fool plenty of somms in a blind tasting. Complex, waxy, pithy, with notes of pineapple, strawberry, and earthy apple peel.

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2021 Eve’s Cidery Sparkling Perry ($20)

Cider is not only always made from apples. When it’s made from pear, it’s called perry. Eve’s probably makes the finest perries in the U.S. This one comes from 80 percent Bartlett and 20 percent foraged wild pears. Surprisingly complex, with notes of melon, lemon curd, lemon verbena, white grapefruit, celery, balanced by a subtle stoniness.

2021 Aaron Burr “Bittersharp” ($21)

Apple varieties can be classified as sweet, sharp, bittersweet (which are tannic and sweet), or bittersharp (which are high tannin and high acid). This bottling focuses on bittersharp varieties, which often provide structure and their acidic kick to blends. This cider has big tannins, creaminess, and a thick layer of foam, with flavors that lean more herbal and mineral.

2023 Black Diamond Farm “Kingston Black” ($21)

In the cider world, Cornell University holds the same place as UC Davis does in wine. Cornell pomologist Ian Merwin has been making great ciders at his Finger Lakes farm for years. This one is focused on Kingston Black, which many in the northeast consider to be the Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon of apple varieties. Complex, structured, earthy, and serious, with great length.

2021 South Hill “Porters Russet” ($21)

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Gorgeous 50/50 blend of Porter’s Perfection and Golden Russet varieties, with zingy acidity, great tannic structure, and an ABV approaching wine (8.8 percent). Complex citrus and melon notes, pithy with a long mineral finish.

2022 Wild Arc Farm Dabinett + Ben Davis ($24)

Who’s Ben Davis? Well, they named an apple after him, and it’s blended in this cider with Dabinett. Sourced from Ontario County in the Finger Lakes, aged in old French oak and chestnut barrels for 10 months, with a dosage of wildflower honey and bottle conditioned.

NV Finger Lakes Cider House “Pomona Reserve” ($25)

Finger Lakes Cider House is a wonderful travel destination that also makes terrific ciders. This one is crisp, bubbly, and rustic in the best possible way, with rich fruit, notes of citrus and apple peel, balanced by an underlying saltiness and a wine-like 8.4 percent ABV.

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NV Finger Lakes Cider House “King of the North” ($25)

From a blend of two heirloom northeast varieties, Kingston Black and Northern Spy. Champagne style, with a tiny dosage of ice cider added for balance. Bright, juicy, and ripe, with notes of stone fruit and spice.

2021 Eden “Cellar Series: Cinderella’s Slipper” ($28)

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Based in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Eden’s Eleanor Leger is always experimenting and pushing cider in new directions. This one, from a blend of 20 different apple varieties (ever heard of Esopus Spitzenburg or Muscadet de Dieppe?) is one of the most complex still ciders I’ve tasted. Pretty nose of fresh blossom and herb; in the mouth there’s electric acidity and notes of lemon curd and wet stone.

2022 Eden “Cellar Series: Wild Kingdom” ($28)

Another of Eden’s limited edition bottlings, this one is produced from apples foraged near Vermont’s Canadian border and bottle conditioned, using ice cider as dosage. Expressive nose of hay, apple blossom, and green apple Jolly Rancher; gentle acidity, with lots of pith, spice, tea, and herb on the palate. Complex and ageworthy.

2016 South Hill Cuvée Brut ($54)

A cider with serious ambitions, full of energy and tension. Méthode champenoise, foraged from three wild seedling trees in 2016 and aged six years on the lees. Complex swirl of aromas and flavors: citrus, spices, fennel, coconut, baked apple pie. A stunning achievement.

Don't Drink American Beer This Summer. Drink American Cider Instead. (2024)
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