Eleanor Leger and Ryan Burk show off a bottle of their first co-produced cider.
| Credit: Courtesy of Angry Orchard
  • "Understood in Motion" is the first of many cooperative cider projects to come.

I wouldn't consider myself a cider drinker. Sure I've had a pint here, a bottle there, but I'm certainly no enthusiast. And to be fair, that's partially due to the prominence of American cider just recently waxing after nearly a century of waning. Angry Orchard has helped put cider back on bar menus and on store shelves, becoming one of the country's most well-known brands in the field, but smaller producers like Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont have also been popping up to fill in the gaps that decades of nearly forgotten fruit. While it might be easy to pit anyone making anything alcoholic with apples as competitors, that would be a mischaracterization of how this burgeoning community of growers, makers and consumers is banding together to highlight and elevate America’s lost cider legacy.

I was invited to join Angry Orchard’s head cider maker Ryan Burk and Eden Specialty Cider’s CEO and founder Eleanor Leger as they blended, tasted, fine-tuned and ultimately unveiled what would become their first (of likely many) collaborations, Understood in Motion.

1. Cider should be compared to wine, not beer.

That goes for palate and process. Firstly, cider is made from fruit, which is subject to the idiosyncrasies of weather, sugar content, acidity, and cross-cultivation akin to the grapes used in winemaking. Once juice is pressed, it’s fermented, aged, sometimes carbonated, and sometimes blended with other batches to achieve the optimum product. Once again, sounding a lot like wine, right? There’s nothing that more clearly showcases that difference than Eden’s focus on locally sourced iced ciders, which like ice wine are incredibly sweet and cordial-like, and Angry Orchard’s drier specialty editions which read more like a chardonnay.

2. American cider is just getting started. Or rather, restarted.

From the first European settlers in the 1600s, cider was a prominent part of the American drinking landscape. European cider making techniques combined with New World additions to the apple family allowed for a thriving industry. It wasn’t until the temperance movement of the early 20th Century that cider lost its foothold. As alcohol was made illegal, the demand sunk. Orchards dedicated solely to inedible cider apples were now rendered all but useless. As growers switched over to sweeter and more palatable varieties, the cider apples fell by the wayside. With the end of Prohibition, Americans took to drinking again but sadly cider was no longer on their minds. Still, as fruit trees are living, growing and reproducing organisms many of those original cider making apples remain on trees in tucked away forgotten orchards or backyards. Burk and Leger have taken to planting heirloom crops on their respective properties to revive and experiment with these lost fruits. As these new orchards take root, the possibilities for American cider grow exponentially.

Ryan Burk has perfected the Spanish-style aerating pour. (Courtesy of Angry Orchard)

3. The cider making community is closely knit.

Everyone in cider knows everyone else in cider. That’s due partly to the small, but growing, number of people taking on cider making, but also due to the simple fact that the most-desired apples are few and, at the moment, far between. Luckily there are people who have been preserving and cultivating these heirloom varieties like Ezekiel Goodband in Vermont and the horticultural department at Cornell (in fact, Angry Orchard sells a specialty cider made completely from Cornell’s annual harvest of their research crop).

The Angry Orchard and Eden collaboration came about simply because Burk and Leger got to talking after an event in New York. Leger mentioned a crop of apples that she had been wanting to work with and the two eventually decided to partner together on the batch. In the end it was decided that the juice would be pressed and fermented at Eden’s facility in Vermont, then shipped to Angry Orchard’s cider house in New York’s Hudson Valley where it was aged and finally blended. Despite Angry Orchard’s mass-market reputation, the collaboration is meant to not only highlight their commitment to cider innovation but also to promote the work a smaller producer like Eden is doing. To that end, Burk and Leger are not only friends and colleagues, they’re each other’s fans.

4. Blending cider highlights its breadth and depth.

The basic elements used in the process I witnessed showcased how using different apples, different fermentation techniques and different aging processes create wildly different ciders. Some are drier, some sweeter, some oak-ier, some smooth and caramely. The tasting room at Angry Orchard’s Innovation Cider House looked more like a laboratory as Ryan and Eleanor’s respective teams and I sat down to begin blending the results of their inaugural batch. We tasted the cask-aged versus the tank-aged, the immediately difference was detectable, with the Calvados brandy barrel flavor enriching the former. Then we tried a variety of ice ciders to determine which, and in what quantity, would complement the more bitter base. Starting at a 1% the sweetness was increased incrementally until both teams were happy with what they’d produced.

Blending is a precise process that ultimately comes down to taste. (Courtesy of Angry Orchard)

Ryan Burk pours a possible incarnation of the finished product. (Courtesy of Angry Orchard)

5. Cider pairs well with octopus, and just about everything else.

But let’s be clear, not just any cider. As mentioned above, the nuances and depth of possible cider flavor profiles is what makes cider, like wine, pairable with a variety of dishes. At the unveiling dinner hosted by the James Beard House and prepared by Mabel Gray’s Chef James Rigato, no fewer than nine varieties of ciders were served alongside everything from braised pork belly to rabbit cacciatore to manila clams in green curry to octopus. And while pecan pie is certainly a natural pairing, the addition of a maple-y ice cider, like a cordial, made the dessert seem all the more decadent.

The final pour was the public debut of Understood in Motion. The base cider is a blend of Ananas Reinette and D’Arcy varieties, some of which was aged in Calvados apple brandy barrels, and then back-sweetened with a bright, but not sugary blend of bitter and sweet and is still, more like a glass of chardonnay than the sparkling cider you may have precociously sipped from a champagne flute as a child. It was a clean finish to the evening, but could certainly stand on its own at any time.

(Courtesy of Angry Orchard)

A limited number of bottles of Understood in Motion will sell for $25 beginning November 18th, National Cider Day, at Angry Orchard’s Innovation Cider House located on their 60-acre orchard in Walden, NY.