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5 Top Ciders from Chicago Cider Summit

21st March 2014

Henry's Travels

My recent trip to Chicago inevitably involved plenty of cider tasting; there was such an array of products – over 90 ciders to taste in all. There were some crackers there; the breadth was extraordinary - here are my top 5….
  • No.1

    EZ Orchards 2011 vintage

    The Zielinski family have been growing apples in the Willamette Valley in Oregon for nigh on 150 years. In 2000, one of the current owners Kevin planted French bittersweet varieties and in 2007 the first EZ Orchards vintage was produced. Kevin is an extremely accomplished cider maker; all of his fermentations are spontaneous – he doesn’t pitch with a controlled yeast, and he doesn’t use sulphites. A recipe for disaster more often than not. Well, maybe so if you are a volume player, but in the case of Kevin, he has made it an art form.

    This is a classic French style bottle fermented product; an enticing apple aroma seductively rises out of the glass, there is a soft astringency balanced by some residual sweetness and a fine mousse from the natural carbonation. At 6% abv, it is extremely well balanced with a clean yet lingering finish. Truly delightful.
  • No.2

    Uncle John’s Melded

    Mike Beck is the larger than life and extremely charismatic owner of the Uncle John brands. I came across this cider the first night I was in Chicago at the fabulous Globe pub where we launched our still cider John Barrington. The Globe’s owner Adrian, has one of the finest cider lists I have seen anywhere, and this is a fabulous addition. This is a cider in Wine’s clothing if I have ever tasted one – and I’ve tasted a few.

    The first aroma is one almost of caramel and honey. It has a mousse with the character of a sparkling wine and is creamy in texture. There are caramel and citrus notes and a hint of oak on the finish. The balance is great, not overly dry and with a soft astringency that works very well with the strong apple freshness. At 6.5% this has a super drinkability.
  • No.3

    Prima Most Brut

    The Bertscher family have been making cider “out of their basement” since 1980 and had so much good feedback for their dry cider from people who came to visit, they decided to make more of a business of it. The family’s roots are in Germany, and their cider has a distinct Frankfurt feel to it. If I’m honest, German cider is not a style I naturally gravitate to; Prima do it extremely well though, and nothing speaks greater volumes about their skill as cider makers than the Most Brut, a “Methode Champenoise” style cider, twice fermented - once in the bottle, and is then cellar-aged for a minimum of 18 months. Finally, it is painstakingly riddled and disgorged a la Champagne. This is an exceptional product. Thankfully Pete Brown tipped me off, otherwise to have missed this would have been a tragedy.

    It has a rich nutty aroma so redolent of Champagne, the mousse is super fine and carries the delicate apple and citrus flavours so effectively. The acidity is pronounced yet soft, giving this product a gravitas sparkling wines have. I could have stood there drinking it all day. Magnificent.
  • No.4

    Sea Cider Pippins

    Sea Cider aren’t actually American; they’re an artisan cider making organic ciders on the Saanich Peninsula in Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This is a cider I found extremely alluring. The apple used is primarily Newton Pippin with Winter Bananas as well as Sunset; the appearance is pale straw; the aroma has notes of tropical fruit, most notably ripe banana with hints of pineapple – not something I have tasted in a cider before; and whilst not a tasting note I would ordinarily expect, there was something about the atmosphere that gave me a more open mind to it.

    It is a dry cider that is clean and fresh; the balance is good with decent acidity balancing a tannic astringency. The full body is enhanced by a hefty but not over powering 9.5% alcohol.
  • No.5

    Vander Mill Hard Apple Cider

    I first came across Vander Mill when in Chicago in July 2013 at Au Cheval. I could write a whole column on that experience alone, but will save that for another day. Vander Mill are based out of Spring Lake Michigan and are probably the largest craft cider producer in the area; you certainly find plenty of their product in Chicago. Whilst their use of cans as a packaging format is questionable for me from a shelf life perspective, they have managed to create a distinct identity for their liquid and brand. I tasted this liquid from a keg, a semi sweet cider which un-pasteurised and un-filtered; it is not as complex or challenging as the other ciders in this list, but that does not belittle its quality.

    The aroma is of tart green apples atop a bright pale straw colour. It has good blend of apple fruit flavour and acidity – indeed it is bordering on sour but not in an over challenging way as it has a high alcohol of 7% to balance it off. This combination makes for a very racy cider and gives it a high drinkability.