Craft cider makes a comeback in B.C. with diverse new varieties

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      There’s a stirring happening within Vancouver’s craft-beer revolution—and it’s not about beer. It’s about apples, or more specifically, cider, and the new craft beverages on liquor-store shelves this season might just change the way you think about this alcoholic drink.

      On a sunny Saturday in March, 250 people spent the afternoon sampling ciders inside the WISE Hall, just off Commercial Drive. The CiderWISE event, which brought together seven cideries along with a handful of gluten-free craft brewers, was sponsored by the Vancouver chapter of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), and Clinton McDougall was on hand to educate imbibers about the joys of fermented apple juice.

      McDougall, who co-owns the sausage shop Bestie, is an amateur cider-maker, a cider enthusiast, and a member of the Northwest Cider Association. (He’s taken several courses on cider-making at Washington State University.) He knows that many people have preconceived notions about what cider tastes like. “The name has been slightly tarnished,” he tells the Straight by phone, referring to the coolerlike “alcopop” beverages made from concentrate with added sugar and artificial flavours. Craft cider, however, is different. “It’s not sweet, it’s not syrupy, it’s not artificial; it’s just this really lovely drink.”

      Cider’s bad rap, however, is starting to change as there’s a renaissance in craft cider in the city. McDougall says he’s been observing the trend in the Pacific Northwest for the last three to five years, but it’s really picked up in Vancouver over the last year or two.

      For example, 33 Acres Brewing Company came out with its first cider in February (called 33 Acres of Cid3r, available at the tasting room at 15 West 8th Avenue). Surrey’s Central City Brewers + Distillers launched its Hopping Mad Dry Hopped Apple Cider in March; it’s available both on tap at the brewery and in cans at private liquor stores. This month, B.C. Tree Fruits Cider Co. released Broken Ladder cider, available in cans at B.C. Liquor Stores. (The brand is an offshoot of B.C. Tree Fruits, a cooperative of Okanagan fruit growers.) And a handful of new B.C. cideries have opened recently, such as Victoria’s Tod Creek Craft Cider and Oliver’s Howling Moon Cider House, which both launched last summer. (Their products are now on private-liquor-store shelves.)

      “There’s this huge interest in craft cider that’s happening now,” McDougall says. “People want to explore different beverages, and they like the fact that it’s gluten-free and less bloating than beer, and that it’s a natural product made from apples and can support local agriculture.”

      Samantha Ingham, CAMRA Vancouver’s new events coordinator, stated at the event that both craft-beer fans and those who don’t drink beer at all for health or dietary reasons are interested in cider. “The craft-beer scene is very well established, and we wanted to help people who can’t drink beer find out about other craft beverages,” she said.

      So what exactly is craft cider? Like craft beer, that’s a matter of debate and a “hot topic amongst cider-makers”, McDougall says. “It’s made from whole apples and juice and not made from concentrate,” he asserts. There’s no added sugar and generally no artificial and natural flavours. (Cider is naturally gluten-free.)

      Despite cider’s reputation as sweet and fruity, the taste of craft cider varies enormously. “Cider is incredibly diverse.…Craft ciders can be dry, they can be bitter, they can be winelike or beerlike,” he explains. Their flavours vary depending on the apples they’re made with (traditional tart cider apples, sweet dessert apples, or other eating apples) and a host of processes, such as wild fermentation of the yeast.

      “In the Pacific Northwest, there are a lot of craft-beer enthusiasts who are experimenting with cider much like they would with beer by using beer yeasts or hopping them,” he explains.

      Tod Creek, for example, produces a bottled dry-hopped Mala-Hop cider that’s delicious, one of three of its products on Vancouver shelves. According to owner Chris Schmidt, who was pouring at CiderWISE, the cidery sources its apples from Kelowna and small producers on Vancouver Island; this year, he’ll be harvesting apples from the cidery’s own orchard. (He’s also organizing the first B.C. Cider Week for October and aims to hold the opening festival in Vancouver.)

      Other ciders on offer at the CAMRA event showcased the diversity of fermented apple juice. Merridale Estate Cidery, located in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, makes a strong, sharp English-style “scrumpy” that Scotch drinkers will appreciate. Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse, which is based in Sa­anichton near Victoria, offers a sweet, rich Rumrunner cider that’s aged in rum-soaked bourbon barrels: it’s got a toffee aroma and some effervescence, to boot. Then there are brands originating outside of B.C.: Isastegi Cider House—from the Basque region in Spain—produces a puckeringly tart cider that’s reminiscent of a sour beer. (All products mentioned here are available at either B.C. Liquor Stores or private liquor stores.)

      Over at Bestie, McDougall has the crisp, refreshing Little Dry Cider on tap from Left Field Cider Co., which is based outside of Merritt. He notes that pairing cider with food is as complex as pairing wine or beer with food. “Cider is an incredibly versatile drink, and it’s hard to put in one box,” he says.

      Sip a few, and you’ll see it’s true.