Originally published at Feast Magazine / Written by Heather Riske
Cider is something of a family affair for Russ John. For more than 150 years, his family has owned a 160-acre homestead in southeast Nebraska featuring a grain farm and orchards. Over the years, they made fruit wines and cider; around 15 years ago, he even found bottles of cider made by his grandfather during Prohibition in the barn’s foundation.
This fall, he plans to display at least one of those bottles in the taproom at Brick River Cider Co., located in a former firehouse in Downtown St. Louis. In addition to four to six ciders made by cidermaster Evan Hiatt, the city’s first cidery will include a contemporary gastropub menu featuring regional American fare as well as some specialties from the historic cider-producing regions of England and France.
How is American cider different than English cider? Great Britain makes about two-thirds of the cider produced in the world. They produce cider from bittersweet apples that are really just for cider; if you bite one, you usually want to spit it out because they tend to be bitterer than what we would eat, and smaller and uglier. Those apples don’t exist in any large quantity in America, so most cider in America is made from what you would see in the grocery store. It’s easier to make interesting and complex ciders using English bittersweet apples. Without them, a cidermaker compensates using several techniques. Cidermakers in America had to learn to do lots of innovative things – that’s why you tend to see a lot of ciders that will include other fruits and spices. Relatively speaking, we’re working with less interesting apples than the Europeans are. An apple that’s been bred and grown to sit on your grocery store shelf is meant to look big and beautiful with lots of water and a relatively modest sugar content, and that doesn’t ferment out quite as interestingly to the palate. So, we [Americans] do things with it to add complexity.
What misconceptions do people have about cider? I think there’s a predisposition in America that cider is very sweet. You can make a completely dry cider that would be more reminiscent of a very dry white wine that has no residual sugars left. One of the interesting things in cider is that you don’t have quite the same agreed-upon naming conventions that bring automatic meaning to the mind of the consumer the way you do in craft beer. With craft beer, you’ve got your IPA, porter, lager, saison – there’s a very developed language that tells somebody, “OK, here’s what to expect because I’m opening a Hefeweizen.” You’ll find that you can open up three different ciders from three different makers that all will say “semi-sweet,” and they’ll have a vast difference in what that means. With a range of 2 to 5 percent residual sugar (after fermentation), they can have a dramatically different [flavor] profile. I would call a cider with 5 percent residual sugar fully sweet, but some producers might label it semi-sweet. I’d call a cider with around 2 to 3 percent residual sugar semi-sweet. It takes a little bit of description by the maker to really help set expectations as far as what you’re getting when you open it up.
What types of cider will you offer at Brick River Cider? We make a variety of ciders, creating interesting ones by blending multiple – sometimes two, sometimes three – fermentations together. You can bring out sweetness with one style of yeast, or astringency – that little pucker that you’d get in a red wine – with a different yeast. Sweetness, astringency, viscosity, color, aroma, alcohol content and fruit notes can be changed by using different yeasts on the same fruit. For one tart apple cider, we’re bringing in a little sour cherry. Another that will be a little sweeter is a farmhouse-style unfiltered cider with a cloudy characteristic that will remind you of fresh cider you’d sip at the orchard.