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The 15 Best Hard Ciders (apple and more)

November 1, 2012  |  12:40pm

In the mountains of North Georgia—just like the wooded lands of Washington State, Michigan, and countless other regions across the country—fall means apple-picking season. Our family recently picked apples for apple dumplings, apple crumble and even to shoot out of an apple cannon. And we drank delicious fresh apple cider—the typical grocery-store hard ciders just don’t compare.

But this is Paste, and we’re never content to just keep swilling whatever the bar wants to serve. So we scoured several liquor stores around Atlanta to taste every cider we could find. Out of 29, we found 15 worth commending. But first, here are the four worst:

The Four Worst Ciders We Tasted

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The Worst: Kopparberg Strawberry/Lime
City: Kopparberg, Sweden
ABV (Alcohol By Volume): 4%
Balance: Ridiculously sweet
Tastes Like: Unmixed Jell-o powder
The Verdict: As fondly as I remember those summer-day swim meets as a kid when we’d pour Jell-o mix straight into our hands for that burst of sugar energy, I don’t want the alcoholic version of that. Way. Too. Sweet.

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The 2nd Worst: JK’s Scrumpy Hard Cider
City: Flushing, Mich.
ABV (Alcohol By Volume): 6%
Balance: Very sweet
Tastes Like: Apple syrup
The Verdict: Scrumpy goes big—really big—with the apple flavor, but the result is almost undrinkable unless you’ve got Johnny Appleseed tattooed on your neck.

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The 3rd Worst: Kopparberg Pear
City: Kopparberg, Sweden
ABV: 4.5%
Sweet or dry: Very sweet
Tastes Like: Green-apple Jolly Ranchers
The Verdict: Another sugary concoction from Kopparberg. We didn’t drink the Swedish Kool-Aid…well, we kind of did, we just didn’t like it.

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The 4th Worst: Jack’s Hard Cider
City: Biglerville, Penn.
ABV: 5.5%
Sweet or dry: Slightly dry
Tastes Like: Apple-water
The Verdict: Props to Jack’s for growing its own apples, but this was the lightest in color and lightest in flavor of the bunch. Apple cider for people who don’t like apples.

The 15 Best Hard Ciders We Tasted

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15. Crispin Artisinal Reserve Lansdowne
City: Minneapolis, Minn.
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Dry
Tastes Like: Cider mixed with Scotch ale and molasses
The Verdict: This one split the judges who either loved or loathed the dark beer-like qualities of this super-yeasty, smokey cider. “Tastes like a perfect fall day,” wrote one. “WTF! Ew!” wrote another.

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14. Fox Barrel Pacific Pear Cider
City: Colfax, Calif.
ABV: 4.5%
Sweet or dry: Sweet
Tastes Like: Pears. Lots of pears.
The Verdict: Even most pear cider (perry) is apple-juice-based, but Fox Barrel’s Pacific Pear is both the pear-iest and tastiest of the six we tried.

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13. Woodchuck Amber Draft Cider
City: Middlebury, Vt.
ABV: 5%
Sweet or dry: Slightly sweet
Tastes Like: The best grocery-store cider
The Verdict: The best of the mass-produced ciders, Woodchuck’s Amber tones down the typical juice-box quality of its peers.

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12. Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouche Brut de Normandie
City: Victot-Pontfol, France
ABV: 5.5%
Sweet or dry: Very dry
Tastes Like: Champagne
The Verdict: The dryness turned off a few of our judges, but this French cider was one of the most interesting we tried—effervescent and crisp.

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11. Woodchuck Farmhouse Select Original 91
City: Middlebury, Vt.
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Very sweet
Tastes Like: White wine
The Verdict: One of the strongest ciders at 6.9%, this full-bodied, very apple-y cider is sweet without being overly cloying.

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10. Crispin Stagger Lee
City: Minneapolis, Minn.
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Balanced
Tastes Like: Cider spiked with whiskey
The Verdict: Aged in rye whiskey barrels, this unfiltered cider still manages not to be too boozy, with a sweet apple flavor at the forefront.

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9. Woodchuck Private Reserve Ginger Cider
City: Middlebury, Vt.
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Slightly sweet
Tastes Like: Apple cider with a ginger kick
The Verdict: One of the biggest surprises for us was how well the ginger worked with the apple, creating a unique flavor combination that still goes down easy.

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8. Crispin Honey Crisp
City: Minneapolis, Minn.
ABV: 6.5%
Sweet or dry: Balanced
Tastes Like: A mimosa.
The Verdict: Honey sweetness and a soda-like effervescence make this cloudy cider from Crispin’s Artisinal Reserve a surprisingly good choice for your next brunch.

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7. Ace Pumpkin Hard Cider
City: Sebastopol, Calif.
ABV: 5%
Sweet or dry: Balanced
Tastes Like: Pumpkin bread
The Verdict: Cinnamon and nutmeg flavors work surprisingly well with the apple cider base, making this a standout fall beverage.

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6. Crispin Browns Lane Natural Hard Apple Cider
City: Minneapolis, Minn.
ABV: 5.8%
Sweet or dry: Very dry
Tastes Like: Champagne
The Verdict: The best of the ultra-dry ciders, the Browns Lane is crisp and refined.

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5. Aspall Perronelle’s Blush English Draft Cider
City: Stowmarket, England
ABV: 5.7%
Sweet or dry: Sweet
Tastes Like: Red wine
The Verdict: The best of the sweet ciders, Aspall adds a dash of blackberry juice for a full flavor as much like a blush wine as a cider.

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4. Thistly Cross Scottish
City: Dunbar, Scotland
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Balanced
Tastes Like: Lass o’ Gowrie, The Tower of Glamis, the Bloody Ploughman and other wonderfully named Scottish apples.
The Verdict: Dry and flavorful up front with a nice sweet finish, this Scottish apple cider is clearly one of the best.

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3. Woodchuck Winter Oak Aged Draft Cider
City: Middlebury, Vt.
ABV: 5%
Sweet or dry: Balanced
Tastes Like: Apple bourbon
The Verdict: More oak-aged ciders, please. The hints of bourbon and vanilla result in a unique, smoky-but-smooth flavor.

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2. Crispin the Saint
City: Minneapolis, Minn.
ABV: 6.9%
Sweet or dry: Slightly dry
Tastes Like: A Belgian Trippel with apples
The Verdict: The best of their Artisinal Reserve ciders, The Saint is fermented with Belgian Trappist yeasts. It smells like beer—like a Belgian Trippel, to be precise—but the maple syrup gives it a fruity sweetness.

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1. Samuel Smith’s Organic
City: Tadcaster, England
ABV: 5%
Sweet or dry: Perfectly balanced
Tastes Like: What I imagine hard apple cider should taste like.
The Verdict: Leave it to one of England’s most beloved breweries to make the stand-out cider. It tastes like a refined adult beverage instead of a kid’s juice box, with just enough sweetness to go down easy.

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