Cider 101: Order, buy and pair this en vogue drink like a pro
Beverage vet, Jake Skakun, brings us everything we need to know about this delicious, funky drink.
Renowned Toronto restaurateur, Jen Agg, just opened Grey Gardens, one of the most beautiful spots Toronto has ever seen. Behind the beverage program is Jake Skakun, industry veteran and dreamy cider prince. Jake has curated a beautiful list; look at that cellar though!
He features an incredible selection of wines but also, notably, a broad range of ciders from around the world; there are 18 by the bottle and 3 rotating by the glass, many special-ordered for the restaurant. Jake really appreciates cider and believes in it as a food pairing. It is his secret dream to one day retire from the restaurant world to make great cider in the country. Until then, he buys some really cool ones for Grey Gardens.
I sat down with Jake to chat about cider styles, thoughts on food pairing and why wine lovers need to embrace a new fruit. We nerded out!
While for a second or two here, we get a bit technical, we promise the rewards will be delicious. Because when looking at a list or a store shelf, knowing what the ciders from each region tend to taste like goes a long way to helping you find one you love and to pairing them properly with your meal or occasion. Plus maybe you'll nail a future Jeopardy question!
Basically, when it comes to interesting ciders there are four main categories or regions to know about: Normandy, Basque, English and North American. Let's break it down.
Normandy: Crisp, layered flavours and a fine bubble
A small area in the North East of France, Normandy is one of France's rare regions where wine isn't grown. The climate is too cold and harsh for thin-skinned grapes, but super-famous for its apples – Normandy is also home to badass apple-based spirit Calvados. These are not eating apples, but bitter and bitter-sweet cider apples that give more complex, savoury flavours.
Look for Pays D'Auge on the label for a naturally fermented, unpasteurized, ungasified (aka OG) cider style with a touch of delectable sweetness. The apples ferment with the yeast from the environment and this natural ferment is slower than one induced by commercial yeasts, which creates more layered flavours and a fine bubble. Think golden, cooked apples simmering, bread baking, a field of lilies and a great-smelling foot. The slight sweetness balances the complex savoury flavours and make this refreshing, but interesting. You can treat it like a crisp, unoaked white wine. It's awesome on its own or a super good match for anything lighter like salads or fish courses. At Grey Gardens the rutabaga salad with bitter endive + normandy cider = my dream.
Basque ciders: Bold, rich, tannic
Like Normandy ciders, the ciders from Basque (the autonomous northern region of Spain) are made from bitter cider apples, go through a natural ferment and are unfiltered. Unlike Normandy ciders, Basque ciders are often left for a long time fermenting in oak and are bone dry with no bubbles. They are the orange wine of ciders, perfect for the adventure seekers and those who like something a bit different. If weird-good is your thing, this is your new favourite drink. Jake recommends the bold, rich, tannic flavours of Basque cider with pork. If you visit the region you will find a whole lot of Sagardotegis (quite literally, "apple buildings") that combine cider production and a steak house (take me there!). From January to May you'll find these bursting with visitors drinking cider and eating salt cod omelettes, grilled meat and aged cheese. One of the other rad things about ordering traditional Spanish cider is the big pour from above that functions to aerate the drink plus looks super cool. These are complex, thinking ciders: good for geeking out, great for savoury food matches, bad for a summer day on the beach.
UK Ciders: Richer and nuanced, or light and sweet
UK ciders offer a bit of the beach and a bit of the intellectual. The UK has a long history of cider making and drinking – it's been a part of their culture since Roman times and the Brits are the world's number one consumer of cider (and champagne!). There are two very broad types of UK cider to look for: the West County and Everything Else.
The West County is where cider apples live: think richer tannins, more complexity, less bubble and fuller flavours. Scrumpy is a category once used to reference apples of lesser quality, but is now used by small farmers to indicate more naturally made, smaller production ciders with less carbonation and more nuanced flavours.
The other style, in tall cans everywhere and usually served with ice (please do not drink good cider with ice!), tends to come from dessert apples and to be light and sweet and perfect for a sweltering baseball game or a day at the beach. This kind of cider is easy, breezy and tends to be cheap. Drinking a bunch of beer can be hard on your gut, especially for the gluten intolerant. Cider is a wicked alternative for a refreshing, easy, inexpensive and gluten-free drink.
North American: Fun, varied, running the gamut
Last up, is our home and native land! The North American cider is exploding on the scene with local cider producers popping up in Ontario, BC and around the US. Just like craft beer, there is a whole lot of experimentation happening: oak, other fruit additives and hops, lots of fun and different styles with more coming every year as the category keeps growing. The fact is, some are light, fresh and full of bubble, others are savoury, cloudy and flat and it just depends on the region and producer – both being vast here. Ask your sommelier or store-clerk about a North American cider that you're unfamiliar with to find out the vibe of the place and its perfect pairing. With more ciders on the market every month, take chances, try new products and discover something new and delicious at probably half the price of your favourite wine.
Nicole Campbell has a WSET diploma, runs La Petite, a boutique wine agency from Lifford, as well as a witchy wine party the first Monday of every month at Superpoint in Toronto. She is usually wearing cool pants and screaming about something she loves; she tells us it's charming! Follow her on Instagram at @grapewitches or on her website grapewitches.com.