Once upon a time, in some foreign pub I can't remember, I drank a cider that haunts me until this day.
It was a hard cider, but it looked more like a beer. A cloud of yeast and fruity bacteria made the drink too dense for me to see through, and it had an impressive head. But the dry, husky flavor was what made me check with the guy behind the bar to make certain what I was tasting came from apples. The fermentation had transformed the bitter cider apples into an earthy blend of flavors balanced between bitter and tart, not sweet but pleasantly sharp, like a kind of fruity ginger beer.
I remembered the cider had "scrumpy" in its name, and after only one pint, I left the public house with the mental note to keep an eye out for "scrumpy" elsewhere in my travels. Quickly I learned the term was used ubiquitously to describe particularly dry ciders that were less filtered than the clearer varieties. While I found I generally enjoy dry, scrumpy ciders, nothing matched that mystery drink.
This fall, I asked Dan Shelton of Shelton Brothers beer importers in Belchertown whether he could identify my dream cider. He was familiar with the style, but he wasn't certain they imported anything like it. He was more than willing to check, though. We tried a number of dry ciders, all of them pleasant, but only one held my attention, Weston's Old Rosie Cloudy Scrumpy. It was less robust and a bit sweeter than the ideal I searched for, but it was good.
Shelton recommended West County Cider. I'd often heard West County's hard ciders, which are produced and bottled in Colrain, referred to with reverence by drinkers I respected. When I complained that I'd found them too sweet, he reminded me they offered several varieties using different apples. He suggested I keep an eye out for cider tastings, or try holding one myself.
Earlier this winter, when my neighbor Caleb Rounds asked me if I could supply him with a few empty growlers to bottle the cider he'd been brewing since October, we got to talking. Rounds has a doctorate in plant sciences, he maintains an epic garden, and he is intrepid in his mission to explore new and strange ways to consume local flora. I told him of my cider quest, and we agreed to have a tasting. We would sample what he'd been working on and try some locally available varieties.
Inspired in part by Annie Proulx's book, Cider: Making, Using and Enjoying Sweet and Dry Cider, Rounds regaled his fellow taste-testers with a little back history about cider. He pointed out that the drink was once was far more popular and widely produced than it is today. John Adams was said to drink a tankard each morning. The apple saplings Leominster native John Chapman (popularly known as Johnny Appleseed) planted were mostly for producing cider-making varieties, not apples meant for eating, and until Prohibition made it illegal, many New Englanders grew apples for drinking. According to the book, cider is making a comeback and is the fastest-growing segment of the liquor industry.
By and large, though, many of the more popular varieties have the taste and appearance of wine coolers: copper-colored, sweet and lightly fizzy. For our sampling purposes, I steered clear of ciders such as Woodpecker (England) and Woodchuck (Vermont) with which I'd already had less than ideal experiences, but many of the alternatives we found to be equally lightweight and lackluster. Some of these limp beverages included ciders from Harpoon, Original Sin and Magners Irish Cider, and even one called J.K. Scrumpy Hard Cider. Common amongst them was an overwhelming sweetness at first sip, but then the flavor and drink would dissipate, leaving little lasting impression.
We particularly enjoyed Samuel Smith's Organic Cider, thinking it much hardier and complete, finishing with a nice tartness. Doc's Draft Cider from Warwick, N.Y. was our runner-up favorite of the nine store-bought varieties we tried. Though sweeter than ideal, it had a good deal of fizz and a comforting earthy smell and taste.
The two West County Cider varieties we tried excited us the most. Their Dry Baldwin cider was almost as dry as the ideal I sought, and their Pippin Cider exceeded my expectations. Instead of boozy apple juice, the blasts of bitter and tart flavors West County ciders offer are a testament to the complex microbiology going on in the bottle.
We sampled from two batches Rounds had made. The first, started in October, was made with apples meant for eating, and it was particularly sweet. He had another one made more recently with cider apples, and though it hadn't been aged as long or "racked" (had the sediment filtered out) as often, it tasted drier than the first batch. It had that sour fermenting flavor I'd been looking for, and as Rounds added some sugar to the carboy full of it, we all eagerly anticipated trying it again in a few weeks.