I became a big fan of hard cider on a trip to England in 2000 with a group of brewers from Goose Island. We visited several breweries on the trip, but the highlight was visiting a pub called The Maltings in York.
They were hosting a cider festival with casks from small producers all around the English countryside. We were all blown away by the variety, complexity and just plain wonderfulness of those ciders.
Here are five of my favorites, in no particular order.
Five Hard Ciders to Try Right Now: Gregory Hall
1. Herefordshire Sparkling Dry Cider - Oliver's Cider and Perry
This reminds me of that trip in 2000, a cider full of overripe apple flavor and a whiff of the farm. It's why I left brewing to make cider. Tom Oliver has been my English cider mentor. It's fantastic with a wedge of mature cheddar.
2. Organic Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie -- Etienne Dupont
Wow, this is probably my favorite as it's such a great blend of the farm, the fruit and the barrel. Dupont grows his own fruit, as his ancestors did before him, on a gorgeous farm in the Pays d'Auge region of Normandy. I like it with roast pork or chicken and a wheel of Camembert from just over the hill in Normandy.
3. Sarasola Sagardoa
A proper Basque cider (sidra) from the north coast of Spain. At its best, it's as tart as fresh squeezed lemonade. It's a little lower in carbonation, so the traditional way to pour it is to raise the bottle above your head and hit the glass at knee level. It takes a little practice, but by the end of the night you'll nail it. All that acidity calls for some rich, smoky sausage or wild salmon.
4. Dooryard Cider - Farnum Hill Ciders
Steve Wood is the dean of American cider makers, with his orchard and cidery in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Dooryard is a window into the orchard itself, variable from batch to batch, based on what comes off the trees.
Traditional cider is such an agricultural product and Dooryard shows that well. There is usually enough tannin and acidity to pair with a bowl of New England clam chowder.
5. Smackintosh - Tandem Ciders
Like me, Dan Young was a craft brewer before making cider. His wife, Nikki, is a bit of an apple expert at Michigan State University, and they discovered proper cider on a bike trip through England. Smackintosh is made from McIntosh, Rhode Island Greening and Northern Spy apples and has a wonderful, fresh apple skin aroma. It's great on its own or with some fresh goat cheese.