There's a thin beltway encircling the globe in which all of the world's apples are grown, and Washington State shines as that apple beltway's buckle. Our state's panoply of apple orchards produce more than half the apples Americans eat fresh every year, as well as the nation's best apples for pieing, juicing, jamming, and saucing. And now, more and more of our great state's great apples are being made into great cider—the fermented, gets-you-drunk kind.
Since 2009, the Northwest Cider Association has grown from five cidermakers to more than 30. In the last three years, these regional cidermakers have trucked the fruits of their labor to Seattle for Washington Cider Week, a 10-day Oktoberfest for apples. If you're not already a convert, these cidermakers are out to change your mind about cider: It doesn't all taste like the sugar-heavy ones cranked out by large manufacturers like Hornsby's and Woodchuck (the Budweiser and Coors of ciders, respectively). In general, good cider should not taste like a boozy Jolly Rancher. It should taste like apples.
That said, cider apples are traditionally not the same as eating apples—they're smaller, more tart and tannic (more crab-appley, if you will), with a higher acidity than the chomping apples you normally find on the supermarket shelf. However, there are as many apple varieties as there are ways to craft cider, and Washington cidermakers are experimenting with them all, including our beloved Honeycrisps and Pink Ladys.
Washington Cider Week wants to introduce local ciders to your mouth. There are restaurants offering cider pairings with select dishes, or flights of cider to sample (cider pairs well with rich, high-fat foods like cheese and meat because its acid and carbonation cleanse the palate). Last week, Tieton Cider Works teamed up with Theo Chocolate for cider and chocolate pairings in South Lake Union, and Ballard's The Pantry at Delancey hosted a sold-out, two-hour crash course that explained how to appreciate local cider as you would a fine wine.
Local cider is so great that Washington Cider Week lasts 10 days—check out nwcider.com for events through September 15, including cider flights at the Beer Authority, kegs and talks with the folks behind Finnriver Cider, and Bottlehouse's annual Cider Fete with live music, local cheesemakers, and, of course, cider. And keep your eyes peeled for my favorite ciders from South Lake Union's two-day Cider Summit, which featured 32 local and international cidermakers pouring four-ounce shots of their tastiest brews this past weekend. (You missed it, but hey, there's always next year.)
David White, founder of Olympia's Whitewood Cider, doesn't have his own orchard—he buys his apples from nearby—but he's a hardcore cidermaker who was key in founding the Northwest Cider Association. His ciders have good acid and a nice spice. My favorite, the Northland Traditional cider, tastes baroque. It's a medium-dry, European-style cider whose appley flavor spreads across the tongue in tendrils, followed by a honeyed finish that lingers. It's like a goddamn electric symphony playing in your mouth, and you should BYOBabyback ribs.
Port Townsend's Alpenfire Cider has been around since 2008. Their cider is organic, unfiltered, and fermented with wild yeast found in their apples—in other words, they simply press their orchard apples down to juice and voilà: fantastic cider reminiscent of the stuff bobcats get drunk on in nature. Pirate's Plank is a cloudy cider with a full-bodied, woody flavor, as if you're licking the prow of a classy ship. Pick up a bottle and tongue this motherfucker—it'll tongue you right back. Love it or hate it, it's assertive; it's reminiscent of English and French artisan ciders, and they've been making cider for a looong time.
British Columbia's Sea Cider is already a rock star in the cider world, for good reason. Its Kings & Spies is a dry, Italian-style cider. It's complex, effervescent, revolutionary—like your first sip of non-Cook's champagne. Prohibition is a sweeter cider that tastes like deep apple with echoes of burnt sugar.
Ciders are also branching out into flavors other than the perfunctory cherry (apple and cherry seasons overlap, which is why the pairing is common). Yakima Valley's Tieton Cider Works produces an apricot variation, which has floral and sage aromas—it smells like summer in the high desert—and the tart apricots give the even sourer apples a sweet finish. (It also pairs beautifully with dark Theo Chocolate.) Finnriver's Habanero Cider is clear and tart, and will make your glands squirt with joy—where some other ciders strike your taste buds like a sledgehammer, this one falls like an ax. Oregon's Wandering Aengus's Anthem Hops Cider was the first hops-brewed cider in the business, and in my opinion, it remains the best hops cider out there—it sips like a cider, but then the apples take a timely exit and it lingers like a good beer in your mouth. Finally, Seattle Cider Company, located in Sodo, produces a Gin Botanical Cider whose aromatic juniper-berry notes make its apples taste lush in comparison.
Much like brewers, cidermakers labor over their craft. Get out and talk to them during Northwest Cider Week, and they will tell you the origin story of every apple in their bottles; they will brag about the brightness of their flavors or the petulance of their bubbles. They will charm you and seduce you, and only very rarely bore you; those who are passionate about apple juice that gets you loaded turn out to be pretty much intrinsically interesting. Ciders can be sweet, tart, dry, full-bodied. Like wine, well-crafted ciders can have other flavor notes, like floral undertones, spices, tannins, and yeast. They can contain 80 different kinds of apples that electrify your taste buds like fireflies lighting the way to flavor town, or one variety that consumes your mouth like a deep-throated kiss. The only way to figure out what you like is to try them all.