I recently picked up a Kentucky Wine Guide and was intrigued when I saw Wise Bird Cider listed. Thought I would catch up with Tim and ask about this philosophy.
Our philosophy on cidermaking and why we at Wise Bird Cider think of cider like a wine boils down to the raw ingredient: the apple. We work with specific varieties of apples chosen for their content of acid, sugar and tannin and then grown and picked in a way to maximize their vigor and vitality. The final cider is therefore an expression particular to the apple or blend of apples, the geography where the apple was grown, and the influences of the climate during that growing season. This is the same approach taken by vineyards and wineries around the world.
We press the apples and ferment the juice, just like you would if you were making a white or rosé style wine. We use either natural fermentation or inoculate with neutral white wine yeasts to focus on expression of the apple in the same way that you see wine being made and sold. Our Jonathan or Ashmead’s Kernel single varietal ciders, to choose those two as examples, are much like a Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc in the wine world: single varietals expressing ripe fruit, minerality and with only enough residual sugar to balance out the brite acidity of the cider.
We work with other varieties too that are not commonly known and although you might find them at a farmer’s market, you would never seen them in a grocery store: Hewe’s Crab, Harrison, Ashmead’s Kernel, Esopus Spitzenburg, Yarlington Mill, Grimes Golden, Virginia Gold, Jonathan, Stayman, Winesap, Arkansas Black.
To dive a little deeper, the cider world is split into two categories: modern and traditional style cider. We make cider in the traditional way, which is to say how cider has always been made in England, France, Spain, and Germany and how cider was originally made in the US in the 18th century. The focus with traditional cider is on showcasing the apples from which it is made. Modern cider uses the lowest cost, most readily available apples (think Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, etc) to make a base alcohol with little character on its own onto which other fruit flavors are added, like cherry, pineapple, ginger, etc. The ultimate flavor that the consumer tastes in modern cider is not the apple, it is the other fruit.
You see this style of cider with Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, etc, or in our local market with Pivot and Country Boy. Some producers in this category, particularly the macro brands, skip the apples altogether and make their base cider from apple concentrate that comes from China. Modern style cider is very popular in the US and is what consumers generally think of when they think of cider: sweet and fruity.
There is a whole lot of history behind why modern cider came to exist in the US while cider in Europe is still predominantly made in this traditional style. Without boring you too much (and please fact check all historical references because I’m just going from memory here!), when cider was first being made in the US in the 1700s, there was a great diversity of apples grown in our country and cider was made in the same way. That started to change in the late 1800s with the arrival of German immigrants making beer and then Prohibition and the leadup thereto (i.e. Temperance Movement) really changed that for good. Not only did people stop making alcohol from apples (legally anyway) farmers who were growing apples started to change out the varieties that they were growing as consumer interest shifted towards apples better for eating and cooking and those that would look more uniform and keep longer.
Fast forward to now and we’ve gone from some 14,000 varieties sold in pomological catalogues of the 1800s to now a mere 90 varieties grown commercially today. As producers started making cider seriously again over the past 10-15 years, they’ve made cider from the apples that are available, which are these commercial apples bred for appearance and eating qualities, rather than for complexity and cidermaking qualities. This is changing but change is slow when you talk about a farm commodity that takes 5+ years to bare fruit after you plant!