Supping in Seattle
Here are five I enjoyed on a recent, brief visit...
1.Finn River Methode Champenoise
The prize for “most improved cider since my last visit” goes to Finn River. I discovered them for the first time in San Francisco over a year ago; I bought a bottle to try with friends, and we ended up pouring it down the sink.
Something had gone very badly wrong. It happens; you don’t earn your spurs as a cider maker without managing to produce something utterly undrinkable at least once in your career. So I never have a problem with giving fellow producers a second, third, or even fourth chance. Methode Champenoise is not a process to be taken lightly, but when it’s done well it is an absolute joy. As in this instance. It had a huge CO2 effervescence from the in bottle fermentation; green blonde in colour it offered up a mix of apple and buiscity breadiness. There is a sweetness on the initial taste, balanced by a good acidity. At 8% alcohol the body is quite full and this carries the apple flavour well to a good clean off dry finish.
2. Dragon’s Head Manchurian Cider
A new one on me though they’ve been around a while; they’re super local to Seattle making their ciders in Vashon, Washington.
Like many of the craft ciders available, it’s by no means cheap, but the real question here is why the mainstream equivalents are. Great cider is like great wine – we expect to pay more for it. This premium brew is made with the Manchurian crab apple; we tend not to use crab as part of our blends though they are very effective pollinators as trees. My experience of them in ciders is only when they form part of a blend, so I was intrigued as to what I was going to find. The colour is golden, but not vibrantly so; the aroma is distinctly apple, but with an earthiness that adds complexity. It has a dryness up front and offers a pleasant tartness with good balance in the mid palate; the finish has some tannic structure though it is still quite short. At 6.8%, it becomes a very easy drinker – I kept going back for more sips. It made me think about what sort of cider our pollinators might make. I always like a bit of inspiration, and this certainly gave me that.
3. Snowdrift Cidermaker’s Reserve
Another new maker to add to my ever expanding list; Snowdrift are also a local cider maker based out of East Wenatchee, Washington
These guys appear to be making a heavy nod towards “Old World” ciders with their use of French and English cider varietals. As with the Finn River I tried on this trip, this is a Methode Champenoise cider, all dressed up in cork and cage like a bottle of sparkling wine – which is what it is. After the satisfying pop of the cork, it pours a rich, slightly rosy colour with a good head. The nose offers up bags of cedarwood and apple, and the flavour is no less intense. As you would expect from the in bottle fermentation, there is plenty of carbonation, the bubbles complementing its smooth mouthfeel. There’s not much acid in here, yet the body is big enough to compensate for that, and spotting the 9% alcohol on the label I understood why. The finish is long, complex and moreish. A cracking example of this style of cider. Snowdrift have quite a range to offer, but this seems to be top of it.
4. Wandering Aengus Dry
When you watch a market like America exploding as it is with new brands, new styles and new makers, it is often easy to overlook the pioneers; those that came on to the market first, with a clear vision and the cider making skills to match.
It’s all too easy to be caught up in the excitement of the new, and forget there are plenty of fabulous products that have been around seemingly forever. Wandering Aengus is one of those for me. It was one of the first American craft ciders I tried in the US when I first came over all those years ago. I was impressed by it then, and I remain impressed by it now. Based in Salem Oregon, they have been ever present in the US craft cider movement. Wandering Aengus Dry is exactly what it says on the bottle – DRY! It is as far away from the sweet mainstream styles being peddled by Angry Orchard and Woodchuck as you can get. It is not a step away from them, it is a universe away from them. It has a rich golden colour with a head that disappears almost immediately. There’s a lot of rich tannin and cedarwood on the aroma – typical of the bittersweet apples used. The carbonation is light and the effect of the bittersweet tannins is to give an intense drying astringency that goes right through to the finish. At 6.8% alcohol, it has neither the alcohol content nor the sweetness to be the truly balanced cider I gravitate towards, but it is as consistent in its delivery today as it was when I first tried it. Hats off for that.
Here’s a thing; were you to take a bottle of Anthem, and line it up against Wandering Aengus, you would struggle to spot that they are made by the same company in the same place. Huh?
Well, I’m not 100% sure of my facts here, but my understanding is that Anthem is a more mainstream offer than the Wandering Aengus brand; different target audience who may be confused by the different styles of cider each brand represents. Wandering Aengus is all trad bittersweet and drying astringency – certainly not to everyone’s taste; Anthem represents a more approachable liquid, being made mainly from eating varieties and bottled with a little sweetness. I guess the fear was that a less complex cider would detract from the high end positioning of Wandering Aengus. I get that, we’ve done it ourselves before, but Anthem is by no means a worse cider. It’s still made from heirloom varieties such as Newton Pippin and Winesap – they just don’t have the complexity of a bittersweet. It pours with a light golden colour, and as with its cousin, its head disappears quickly. Nose is light and vinous with hints of green apple skin. I’m guessing there’s a dosage as there is a sweetness up front, but this is balanced by a good acidity which leads to a clean dry finish. This is great cider, well made. By no means a poor relation to the more complex Wandering Aengus brand, and creating a niche and name all for itself. Good job.