To store and to serve —cider is a matter of degree

In which we listen in on cider experts, marvel at their expertise, and ask a pretty mundane question

Last Thursday’s All About Cider panel at Jerry’s in Wicker Park offered a perfect cross-section of the emerging paths of craft cider making in the US— and a chance to tap the Makers for advice.

Vander Mill was in the house: A tasty, regional powerhouse based in Grand Rapids that is unafraid of adjuncts, and distributes their ciders far and wide throughout the Midwest in 16oz cans. Vander Mill is quick to get their product to market — with a three-month production cycle, according to founder Paul Vander Heide — and hard pressed to keep up with demand.

Prima Cider was there: “A very small producer for a reason,” according to cider maker Rich Bertsche, Prima is a small cidery in Long Grove, Illinois that takes their time with their cider, cellaring some for three to five years before they offer it to market in traditional 750ml wine bottles.

And Virtue Cider was represented by its founder, Greg Hall and his voluminous knowledge and insights into the art of cider making and orcharding. Virtue is an artisan cidery that honors the regional terroir of Michigan apples with lovely ciders created in the European tradition.

But as a recent acquisition by Anheuser-Busch, by way of Goose Island Beer Company, Hall surprised us with the announcement that Virtue will soon be canning cider for distribution. Canned ciders lead the US market in revenue, so Virtue’s move is certainly on trend, if unexpected from a cidery that has historically distributed their cider on the wine shelf. It will be worth watching to see if this packaging maneuver, backed by the muscle of Anheuser-Busch, gives Virtue access to distribution channels that help it better challenge the big cider boys at Woodchuck and Angry Orchard for market share — and better educate the mass market about dry hard ciders that honor the apple and its provenance.

The evening was moderated by Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune travel, beer and spirits columnist, and also featured Brian Rutzen of The Northman and Michelle Foik of Eris Brewery and Cider House, two dedicated cider venues here in Chicago —the first just launched on the world and the other currently under development. Some of the wisdom shared during the evening has surfaced in the recent Chicago Eater piece, Is Chicago Ripe for a Hard Cider Boom?, and with luck we’ll see more of the story emerge in Noel’s column before too much time has passed.

I threw one last question about cider storage out to the panel at the end of the evening, after the conversation had been underway for a couple of hours, and passions gained in volume as pints of cider were poured and passed around to the panelists.

I wanted to know the best way to store craft cider at home, because I’ve been seeking out bottled feral and heirloom ciders and am currently holding on to more than I can drink in a hurry — a scattering of Shacksburys and South Hills and Aaron Burrs — and I want to be sure I don’t hurt these beauties before I can open them up with the right meal. Should they be cellared like wine? Refrigerated? Tucked away in a dark closet? And how long does craft cider keep? Our Makers were kind enough to share their insights:

Greg Hall of Virtue commented on the endearing lawlessness of traditional cider makers when compared to traditional beer brewers, who have a protocol for each step of the process. His observation suggested that heritage fails us on the question of proper storage, unless you happen to have a root cellar on hand.

Paul Vander Heide of Vander Mill shared the advice that he shares with his customers: Drink it quick so you can drink some more. (Which is right in line with my intention to polish off the Totally Roasted cans currently tucked away in my fridge.)

Brian Rutzman, Cider Director of The Northman, offered the reassurance that cider is a hardy product, and can tolerate swings of temperature and light and time better than a craft beer or wine can.

And Rich Bertsche of Prima Cider, who has been making fine, wine-like ciders since the 1980s, added a gentle, earnest appeal: “Treat it like wine”, he advised, with the look of a concerned parent.

Treating cider like wine seemed the right advice for the few precious bottles that I’m looking to keep safe, and so I turned to FT wine critic Jancis Robinson’s new title, The 24-hour Wine Expert, to make sense of it all, and arrived at the following theory on how to best store cider, based on best practices for wine storage. I’ll be testing this theory through experimentation over time, and would love to hear about your own methods and results — feel free to comment below.

Store your cider in a cool dark place, but maybe not in the fridge. The ideal storage temperature for wine is 55°F/13°C, but Robinson notes that ranges from 50°F to 68°F are tolerable, given the expectation that warmer temperatures will accelerate the aging and development of the beverage.

Temperature swings are a bad thing for wine, but perhaps not as much of a threat for cider, as Rutzen noted. Robinson cautions against excessive refrigeration for wine, where the temperature can average from 35°-40°F: “be careful of leaving wine in a fridge more than a few days; long term storage in a fridge can rob a wine of its life and flavor.” Although cider is hardy stuff, it might be best to listen to Bertsche and err on the side of caution for fine ciders that resemble wine, and avoid the fridge unless you’re just about to drink it.
 
If your cider comes with a cork, try to maintain an environment of 75% relative humidity to ensure the cork doesn’t dry out and let in air, which invites the desolate decline to oxidation.

So: How to maintain the ideal cider storage environment at home? My basement keeper zone, which is colder than the rest of the house and doesn’t see a lot of direct light, only barely qualifies as a reasonable cider habitat given its average room temperature of about 67°F. Robinson recommends “a cupboard in a rarely used bedroom”, but I’m considering acquiring a wine fridge for my few precious bottles, which would ensure climate-controlled conditions where I can store the cider at the ideal drinking temperature. Which begs the question:

What’s the best serving temperature for craft cider? Let’s defer to Bill Bradshaw and Pete Brown and their book, World’s Best Ciders, Taste, Tradition and Terroir, on this one:

“Cider should best be served chilled — not warm, and not ice-cold. If it’s too cold the flavor is masked. … You want it to be refreshing on a hot day, but if you do want to get the full flavor, a temperature of around 46–50°F is perfect.”
~ Bradshaw and Brown: World’s Best Ciders: Taste, Tradition, and Terroir

Keep in mind that the warmer a cider is, the more aromatic it will be (because: science), and because nearly 80% of our taste experience is driven by our sense of smell, a 50°F cider will pack far more flavor a cider in the forties.

Many restaurants and bars will serve cider at the colder end of this spectrum, sometimes plunging off into the 40°F range, so you may want to go slow and give your on-premise cider time to warm up by a few degrees, to better enjoy the full flavor intended by its Maker.

Robinson offers further advice for wine that also serves cider well, when she underscores the benefits of serving wines that are tannin-heavy at higher temperatures:

“The reason many full-bodied reds taste all wrong when they are served too cold is that the chewy tannins so prevalent in young reds (they soften with time) are accentuated at low temperatures. If you want to drink a young red wine that is relatively high in tannin, you can flatter it, making the tannins less obvious, by serving it at a fairly high temperature.”
~Jancis Robinson, The 24-hour Wine Expert

And if you’re wondering: “There are tannins in a cider? Like red-wine-black-tea tannins?” then welcome to world of complex craft ciders. Tannin in cider provides body and bite. To call on Brown and Bradshaw again: “It is often about texture more than flavor, but tannin can add straightforward bitterness or astringency, or a dryness that can be minerally.” It’s lovely stuff in the right balance, and is especially in evidence in UK ciders made from high-tannin bittersweet and bittersharp apple varieties — varieties which are increasingly being put to good use in North America.

So it appears our sweet spot for storing and serving ciders falls right around 50°F, with room to err high on the storage side and drop a few degrees on the serving side.

But the only way to know for certain, of course, is to give it a try.

Which means it’s just about time for a 50°F cider. Cheers.


Cidrbox.com connects people seeking orchard-driven cider with the artisans who make it. Each month we visit a single, distinctive American heritage orchard — where small producers grow, harvest, press, ferment and refine their cider — and we ship their cider to our subscribers. We also sit down for a tasting with the maker, and we share that tasting with you at cidersessions.com.

p.s. When we say cider, we mean hard cider: Artful fermentations of heirloom apples by master cidermakers. You must be at least 21 to drink what we deliver, and you will be asked for your ID and signature at the door.