The Case for Serving Cider with Thanksgiving Dinner
Cider makers explain why swapping out wine for cider makes a lot of sense.
Last week, I revealed ten of my favorite Thanksgiving ciders, specifically with pairing in mind. But I also reached out to some of the people behind those bottles to explain why they believe cider is a natural choice for holiday meals.
Gregory Hall, founder of Michigan's Virtue Cider, knows something about swapping out one beloved drink for another. Before launching Virtue in 2011, he spent 20 years as the highly-influential brewmaster at the Goose Island Beer Company. But after a chance encounter introduced him to the delights and complexities of truly artisan cider, he found his second act. "The apple rules autumn, thus cider is naturally the drink of the season," he continues. "Wine is a fine choice for many meals, but its European-ness makes it inappropriate for the American fall feast."
Luke Schmuecker, director of business development for Vermont's Shacksbury Cider, also turned to the drink's heritage. "There's history and a story behind cider in the United States that makes sense to celebrate at Thanksgiving," he tells me. "Early European settlers came to North America with apple seeds, and in planting those seeds, they kicked off an incredible number and diversity of apple trees in what we now know as the United States. A lot of that early fruit was turned into hard cider, which settlers drank in huge quantities."
Of course, as important as history is to Thanksgiving, it doesn't guarantee that flavor profiles will match for pairing. But Schmuecker points out that cider has that covered. "The saying is a little cliche at this point, but it's true: What grows together, goes together," he adds. "Cider isn't a monolith, so if you do decide to serve cider at Thanksgiving, it's important to remember that there are so many choices. I'll be starting with something a little funky and sparkling during appetizers, transitioning to a crisp dry cider through the main meal, and ending with an ice cider. Just like wine, cider has so many expressions, and there's plenty of room to play with pairings."
"Cider is more versatile with food than wine, especially at a dinner like Thanksgiving," explains Dan Rinke. He should know: The Oregon label he launched with his wife Kim Hamblin—Art+Science—makes both cider and wine. "It's tricky finding a wine that pairs well with turkey, stuffing, and cranberries, but cider does well with them all."
Ryan Burk, the head cider maker at America's largest producer, Angry Orchard, agrees. "Cider can stand up to all of the dishes served at Thanksgiving," he says. "For example, the robust flavors and earthiness of Angry Orchard Unfiltered are powerful enough to pair well with the entire meal, and will really shine with traditional side dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes."
And as Hall hammered home to me, traditional farmhouse styles "enhance the flavors of your Thanksgiving dishes without overwhelming your palate." Specifically, he says, "Craft cider with good fruit, tartness from acid, and a bit of tannin will cut through all those mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy."
Launching in 2001, Eve's Cidery was ahead of the curve in foreseeing a resurgence in traditional cider, and founder Autumn Stoscheck offers another compelling reason to serve cider: Its lower alcohol levels won't put a dent in your evening. "In my family, a festive meal means many courses and a long convivial evening spent at the table," she says. "Well-made ciders from small producers can offer the same level of interest and intrigue as wine but with less ABV. That means plenty of tannin, acid and savory flavors to refresh and excite our palates without all the alcohol to make us sleepy."
Burk takes that advice one step further, jokingly telling me that cider's lower ABV "should help you avoid any family strife around the table!"
And speaking of family, strifeful or not, Rinke provides one more solid plug for why cider might appeal to stodgier relatives. "You can probably get Uncle Bob to put down his Budweiser for a glass of cider, but likely not for a glass of wine," he says with a bit of jest.
Even Food & Wine Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle was willing to sing cider's praises. "As a bona fide full-time wine guy, I'd never suggest people give up on wine—but I do have to admit that for Thanksgiving it's hard to come up with a better alternative than cider, especially a dry cider from an artisan producer," he tells me.
Overall, Stoscheck sums it up nicely. "Don't get me wrong, I love wine, but if you haven't explored the way flavors found in dry ciders made from true cider apples can pair with food, you are in for a real treat," she concludes, "and the fall harvest meal is the perfect time to discover food-friendly ciders."
Let's be honest: As much as we look forward to Thanksgiving dinner, it can be a pretty by-the-book affair. Why not mix things up by trying some nice ciders this year? It's a good place to take a risk: If the far-out turkey or mashed potatoes recipe you try is a bust, you definitely won't have time to redo the dish, but if the ciders are a flop, fixing the issue is as simple as uncorking them same bottle of wine you were going to drink anyway. Then, worst case scenario, you're left with a bounty of extra alcoholic beverages to consume. That actually sounds like something to be thankful for.
Check out our list of ten ciders to pair with Thanksgiving dinner here.