An Apple a Day… In Your Glass
No longer just super sweet, cider has proven itself a proper food pairing
Once considered a sickly sweet drink for people who didn’t like beer or who were gluten intolerant, cider has come into its own and has started to position itself as a delicious, low-alcohol beverage to pair with a variety of food.
Cider, generally made from fermenting apples and sometimes pears, has long been a popular drink crafted in the U.K., France and Spain. Only recently have more boutique cideries emerged in the states, many in Michigan, New York, the Pacific Northwest and the mid-Atlantic coast — all areas known for growing delicious cider apples.
That emergence has helped bring cider again into fashion in America, where back from Colonial times up through the turn of the 20th century it was a main drink of choice. But then with the rise of large-scale German beer brewers and Prohibition, cider fell out of favor. Now, due to its range from sweet to dry to effervescent, cider has started to get a reputation as a great food pairing. In fact, it’s starting to get looked at as a rival to wine.
“The discovery for a lot of people is how insanely well cider pairs with food. It’s lower alcohol than wine, but has great acidity.”
Aaron Zacharias, owner of The Northman
“The discovery for a lot of people is how insanely well cider pairs with food,” said Aaron Zacharias, owner of Chicago’s first cider-focused bar, The Northman. “It’s lower alcohol than wine, but has great acidity.”
Cider has the ability to pair with a large swath of food — everything from cheese, oysters and escargot to mushroom-based dishes, grilled meats and more. And like wine, not every cider goes with everything you’re going to serve so you have to do your homework and see what works and what doesn’t. One thing that doesn’t? Heavy tomato dishes like a proper Bolognese, Zacharias said. For that, he added, suggest a bottle of Tuscan red wine.
At Chicago restaurant Proxi, which celebrates global street food ranging from Asian to Mexican to American and beyond, beverage director Arthur Hon included close to 10 ciders from the American Northeast to across the pond in France and Switzerland. He chose to add a well-rounded cider selection to the beverage offerings to complement Proxi’s globally influenced menu.
“Cider comes in all styles and as I taste more and more, I realize how great that is,” Hon said. “I want to represent global-style cider from super dry to sweet and fruity to fortified.”
And as we move into fall, Hon added that cider complements all the spice components that start to emerge alongside salty and savory items.
“When you think of apple, you pair it with something salty or sour,” Hon said. “All of those things go well with apples, so cider goes well. The earthy, funkier aspects that come through from fermentation work well with heavier dishes.”
And being lower alcohol by volume, cider allows diners to drink more — and it’s often less expensive than wine, usually around the same price as an imported beer. Cider also can have an effervescent quality with nice bubbles, which make for a great palate cleanser especially when eating heavier, fattier dishes associated with fall. For those types of dishes, you may want to look to Europe for fall menus, according to Bill Jensen, a partner at Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat restaurant in Washington, D.C.
“As it gets colder, I gravitate toward ciders from Brittany and Normandy (France), which are richer, may see some oak and can go with sturdier flavors,” Jensen said. “Cider is just a good drink to go with food, broadly speaking, because it tends to have this streak of acidity. It’s that brightness from the drink that makes you want to eat and it coheres with food in this poetic and symbiotic way.”
While cider used to have that reputation of just being a very sweet drink, fortunately many cider-focused bars and restaurants have popped up around the country in the last few years. You have Wassail in New York, Black Twig Cider House in Durham, N.C., Capitol Cider in Seattle, Upcider in San Francisco and more continue to open all the time, proving the demand for cider is increasing.
“For a long time, the mass-produced, overly sweet ciders were all people knew of the cider world,” said Alex Zink, general manager and co-owner of The Dabney in Washington, D.C. “Craft cider has become accessible enough for people to buy it in most major markets.”
And that means if you don’t have options other than Sonoma Cider or Woodchuck at your bar, you may want to start checking out what’s available in your market. You don’t have to add a lot to your list, but having a nice variety will help attract more patrons seeking out this trend, which looks like is here to stay.
“Consider your clientele and, like anything else, offer a variety,” Zacharias said. “Do your research, know what you’re serving, taste through some ciders and offer a range.”
Sounds simple enough.