A few weeks ago I wrote about my ongoing search for a hard cider that could match one I had in England years ago ("A Certain Cider," January 13, 2011). While I came up with some contenders, my ideal remained out of reach; still, the column helped spark some discussion and memories of ciders gone by, and it reminded me of a one-time favorite beer cocktail that includes the stuff.
While cider is making a comeback in the United States, elsewhere in the world its popularity never waned. I first discovered hard cider as a teen, backpacking with my best friend in England one summer.
Just about every pub we visited had a cider on tap. As a pair of beer lightweights, we were scared by things called "bitter," and we gravitated to the sweet, bubbly fermented apple juice. We felt very sophisticated sipping our sickly-sweet pints in the pub. We fretted over what would happen when we returned home, where attitudes about teens drinking and the availability of cider were very different. Our solution was to pack our luggage with two-liter bottles of the stuff.
This, I might add, was before the invention of wine coolers in America. To my friend and me, all fizzy alcoholic beverages were grown up, and drinking them was a sign of cultivation and maturity. It didn't seem any less elegant that our new favorite beverage came in plastic two-liter bottles; we simply thought this convenient.
No special packaging was required to transport the bottles and protect them from shattering; we just wrapped them in our clothes and stuffed them in our duffle bags. It seemed like a perfect plan until our bags appeared on the luggage carousel at JFK airport, dark with dampness and reeking of cheap alcohol. Under pressure at high altitude, the bottle caps had burst.
Only on subsequent visits to England did I learn that long before America discovered Zima, Brits were marketing lame-ass boozy drinks for featherweights and the financially strapped, Woodpecker Cider being chief among them. But by my next visit to the United Kingdom, my taste had developed, and instead of transparent, sparkling drinks, I was downing pints of Guinness.
I spent a year of my undergraduate education in England, and a good deal of that time was passed at the Chester Arms, a pub within stumbling distance of my bedroom. As I was drinking there on New Year's Eve, the barkeep's wife suggested I try a Black Velvet. She filled a pint glass half full of cheap, dry champagne, and then, taking a spoon and holding it over the glass, she filled the remaining space with Guinness, pouring it over the back of the spoon. The results were picturesque—a band of gold topped by a band of black—and delicious. The smoky Guinness and the sweet bite of the dry champagne complemented one another perfectly.
(Note: the order of operations is essential, though the spoon is not. If you pour the Guinness first, the champagne begins to foam on contact, creating something closer to a science experiment than a beverage.)
I believe, as I drank my first one, I was told that Black Velvets were the official drink of the Oxford crew team, but I've not been able to verify that. According to Wikipedia, the drink was invented in 1861 after the death of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert; its appearance was supposed to pay homage to the black and purple armbands worn by mourners. Supposedly Otto von Bismarck drank it by the gallon.
That New Year's I'd thought I'd found a new favorite beverage, but after a few more encounters with Black Velvets, I began to recognize certain hazards associated with their consumption. Downing several half-pints of champagne in an evening can severely limit your ability to do anything the next day (nothing like a champagne hangover for making you swear you'll never drink again), and imbibing even a cheap champagne in quantity can pack a wallop to your wallet. I decided to keep it as something to sample on special occasions.
Noting my return to straight Guinness, the ever-helpful barkeep's wife had another suggestion. With cider instead of champagne, she could make me something known as a "poor man's Black Velvet" or a "Snakebite." With a dryer cider than Woodpecker (Strongbow works fine), the drink is very similar to its more upscale parent, and like a Black Velvet, it goes down incredibly easily. Which, I believe, is the reason many of the college bars in England refuse to serve it—like the men sleeping under bridges with a few plastic bottles at their feet, students who drank them were blacking out far too frequently.
Used with caution, though, hard cider and Guinness can be a tasty treat, and if you make certain to raise a pinky while tipping the glass back, everyone will be impressed with your sophistication.