By Chris Chagaris
There’s an emerging player on the NYC beverage scene – from its beginnings on Colonial American tables to its presence in the city’s trendy establishments today, cider is making its mark.
New York City is, of course, known for its diverse array of establishments offering an endless assortment of wine, beer, spirits, and cocktails. There is a player among these beverages that is quickly gaining popularity with the city’s residents and visitors; that player is cider. The drink’s roots in the United States stretch back to Colonial times, when the original English settlers imported apple seeds from England to plant apple trees in place of the crab apples that were unfit to be eaten. These apple trees flourished in the New England climate, and cider quickly became a beverage of choice. However, the Temperance and Prohibition movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries banned the manufacturing and sale of cider.
Prohibition ended in the 1930’s, but it would be many years before cider’s revival. In the years that followed, the revival became an all-out movement, especially in New York City. Each fall for the past five years the city has hosted Cider Week New York City, a testament to the libation’s increasing popularity. More than 50 events take place throughout the 10 day festival with over 100 restaurants and shops ready to share the very best craft ciders.
There are many different types of cider, such as still or sparkling and hard or soft. Table and dessert apples are among the many kinds of apples used to produce the drink, and some ciders are aged in oak barrels with juice added for extra flavor. Cider makers abound in New York, the second largest apple producing state in the country, second only to Washington state.
“We are representing 22 different cider makers at Cider Week this year, mostly from New York State producers, but also three from out of state: Farnum Hill from New Hampshire, Eden Ice Cider from Vermont, and Foggy Ridge from Virginia,” said Jenn Smith, lead producer of Cider Week. “Cider is a food-flattering beverage, and that’s why partnering with restaurants is important. It also has all the qualities that we’ve sought in wine, such as texture and tannins. Consequently, cider appeals to wine and beer enthusiasts. Cider Week increases the visibility of the drink, and helps connect consumers with it.”
The food connection has been one of the keys to cider’s New York City popularity. “The city especially has seen a surge of interest in local food, farming, and the food culture connected to local farms diversifying,” said Sara Grady, VP of Programs at Glynwood – the organization based in New York’s Hudson Valley that created and produces Cider Week. “New York, being an apple producing state, strongly identifies with this fruit, and cider is emblematic of that. Also, I think that New Yorkers are very adventurous and open to new experiences. New York City is one of the main epicenters for culture and tastes, and I think that’s a great driver of cider’s growing popularity.”
One New York City restaurant helping to lead the cider charge is the Lower East Side establishment Wassail. “There’s a certain romanticism about the cider tradition,” said Benjamin Sandler, who along with wife Jennifer Lim and Sabine Hrechdakian own Wassail. “It was America’s first table wine of sorts, and it’s a really great choice between wine and beer. Not filling like beer and not high in alcohol like wine.”
One of the city’s premiere cider establishments, Wassail also serves beer, wine, and liquor and boasts a diverse food menu. It offers 12 draft ciders, upwards of 100 bottles, and four to six ciders by the glass. The restaurant’s name is derived from the old English term “waes hail,” which means “be well,” and is associated with the English tradition cider makers abound of bestowing good health on apple trees for a bountiful, healthy harvest.
Sandler and Lim also own The Queens Kickshaw in Astoria, Queens, which offers 30 ciders. That establishment opened in late March 2011; Wassail in March 2015. Wassail has a rustic, intimate feel complete with wood plank floors, booths, and tables and a long bar with ball-shaped lights. A place where one would be very comfortable lifting a glass of cider and making a warm toast.
“We started with ciders at the Kickshaw,” said Lim. “Cider wasn’t something that you could readily get. We went to a pre-Cider Week event and it opened our eyes to the potential of the beverage.” Wassail carries ciders from regions as diverse as Spain and its Basque region, the U.K., Chile, and Switzerland. However, its most popular ciders are from the U.S., especially New York State cider. “The market in the U.S. is new,” explained Sandler. “Many of the New York ciders come from the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes region.” Wassail also features cider from New York City’s only cidery, Descendant Cider of Queens. “I think the thing that draws customers to cider is that it tastes good and there is such a variety to pick from,” Lim added. The restaurant is gearing to add ciders from Australia and New Zealand, as well as from Japan and Canada.
“Most cider is bottled in the spring,” said Sandler. “Cider is really a year-round beverage. The longer the apples ferment, the more time cider has to develop its complex structure.” Ciders from different regions have very disparate tastes, as Lim pointed out. “American cider is clean, dry and crisp; a very balanced taste,” she said. “Spanish ciders are very tart and refreshing, so they go well with rich food. French ciders are high in tannins, and pair with earthy dishes such as eggs.”
Hearth is another restaurant that prides itself on its cider menu and food pairings with the drink. Located in Manhattan’s East Village, this winter the restaurant will be offering 11 bottled and canned ciders instead of its usual eight. Hearth’s East Village sister bar, Fifty Paces, serves the same ciders as Hearth, plus one draft cider in winter. “Like our beverage program that evolves with the seasons, Hearth’s food is seasonally based,” said Josh Allen, Hearth’s beverage director. “Starting in the fall, really good cider and food pairings come out, so you can pair a certain cider with meat and fish dishes. It’s similar to pairing food with certain wines, where you take into account sugar, acid, and tannin levels to best match the wine to a certain dish.” Allen’s suggestions for cider-food pairings off of Hearth’s menu include Long Island Fluke with Villacubera Traditional cider from Spain; Berkshire Pork Chop with Weidemann and Groh, Speireling cider from Germany and Roasted Market Peppers with Uncle John’s Cider from Michigan.
“We also have a great charcuterie board, which includes rabbit ballotine, duck, ham, and pigs head terrine; which all go very well with cider,” he added. “The last two years, cider has become very popular in New York City. It’s a delicious drink, and is a beverage that was forgotten for a long time. Manhattanites in particular are very interested in ordering specialty ciders, and more people have found out about our cider program as a result.”
Cheese and cider also go hand in hand. “Ideally, cider and cheese should be in balance,” said Elizabeth Chubbuck of Murray’s Cheese in New York City at a recent pre-Cider Week event. “You don’t want one to overwhelm the other.” Cheese, with its notes and texture, can influence the sweetness or bitterness of a cider.
It seems only fitting that cider, an apple-based drink, is having a well-deserved renaissance in the one and only Big Apple. Raise a glass, it’s here to stay.