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Wild Culture: Elemental Cider

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Wild Culture: Elemental Cider

Humans have been fermenting for centuries. Today we think of brewing beer or making wine as a science, something that we are able to master if we have the right tools and the right knowledge. It was not always so.

Stephen Harrod Buhner writes in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation about the first fermented drinks made tens of thousands of years ago: “They came out of a worldview in which the sacred is ever present with us, where all things possess a soul, the rocks are alive, and in which rabid destruction of the rainforest is inconceivable. The ancient beers came from cultures that, on every continent on earth, say human beings did not discover fermentation at all. They say it was given to humankind through the intercession of sacred beings, and they insist that these ancient beers contain within themselves some of the essence of the sacred source from which they come.”

Even for today’s non-believer, there’s a bit of magic every time a wild culture takes hold in one’s kitchen. To turn a jar of sweetened tea into kombucha or a little flour and water into a loaf of bread is to take part in an incredible process, one that can change depending on the day, the weather. The natural world is at work in ways that we cannot see, and often, can’t fully control.

If we’re open to it, for those of us who love libations, that natural world has a lot to give. “I have a funny thing I like to say about how we are so darn lucky to live on a planet with fruit! Mars, for example, would not be a fun planet for anyone who likes to eat or drink,” says Crystie Kisler, co-owner of Finnriver Farm & Cidery, situated on the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. There, they “gather and ferment the flavors of the land,” turning the fruit of their organic orchard into bottles of fermented goodness.

finnriver with sign.jpg Photo by Anna Brones
Like many lovers of libations, as I came of drinking age in the United States, for many years my understanding of cider was sweet, not very flavorful, and only sought after if you were looking for a gluten-free alternative to beer. It was not until I lived in France that I got to know cider in a different way, understanding the complexities that could be found in a bottle, from tart and dry to as funky as the smell of a barnyard.

Cider making dates back centuries. Romans made it, and it’s also in our own American heritage, a favorite drink of early colonists. While American drinkers may have veered off course for a while, artisan cider makers across the country are bringing us back to our roots. “I like to say that cider is both very old and very new,” says Kisler. “It reminds us of our heritage and old traditions of homesteading and fermenting, and it also highlights a lot of contemporary innovation and an adventurous spirit.”

In the last few years, more and more drinkers have been tempted by that adventurous spirit. Between 2010 and 2014, the cider industry grew from a $50 million industry to a nearly $300 million industry. While in the United States, our palettes have tended to have a propensity for overly sweet and predictable flavors, we’re learning to branch out and embrace the flavors that fermentation is known for. “Cider has hit its stride in the past few years, and I think cider makers can thank the craft beer world for the boost,” says Lucy Burningham, author of My Beer Year. “For one, people are more familiar than ever before with the process of fermentation thanks to craft beer: the most informed drinkers can talk about yeast strains, lactic acid bacteria and sediment.”

For the fermentation lovers at home (those of us obsessed with that magical, mystical process), food and drink writer Emma Christensen points out that brewing cider is even easier than brewing beer. Her book Modern Cider comes out later this year, devoted to helping people make cider at home. Long interested in homebrewing, when she started making cider herself and realized the simplicity of it in comparison to beer, she tells me that her immediate thought was. “Why don’t people know about this? Why is everyone into making beer?” As she points out, once you have apple juice, “as long as you have a container that will hold it, you can make cider.”

Christensen is convinced that with the growing cider industry, we’ll also see cider homebrewing take off. Think back about a decade or two ago and what the beer selection looked like at a grocery store. Compare that to today. Craft beer transitioned from fringe to mainstream, “then you saw the homebrewing trend take off,” says Christensen, “It takes time for it to trickle down [to homebrewers.]” She sees the same trajectory for brewing cider at home. “[Today] there are more craft ciders available at places like Whole Foods than there ever were before,” says Christensen. “Now that is going to start to trickle down to the home level.”

The beauty in cider lies not just in the fact that it’s simple to make. There’s also a simplicity to the drink itself; get a good cider and you can almost taste the orchard it came from. “How simple and natural, how elemental is cider? This is how you make it: liberate the juice from the fruit. That’s it – cider makes itself.” That’s how Cider Made Simple by Jeff Alworth begins, a nod to that elemental natural world that we have to thank for fermentation in the first place.

sur la mer cider.jpg Photo by Anna Brones
That gives us a different connection to cider than to beer; few of us eat hops or barley on their own, or even know what they taste like before making their way into beer form. “For beer lovers, cider brings in a whole new ingredient—apples—which makes it a delicious bridge between beer and wine,” says Burningham. “There are heirloom varieties, organics, local sourcing and seasonality … apples are a way to make an easier connection to agriculture, something so many of us still crave in this world of over-processed foods.”

Cider then isn’t just another drink, but the chance to connect with an ingredient as well as a place. It’s a drink that’s a reminder of the natural world, and that’s what makes it special. “We are keenly aware of the abundant food we can grow in this landscape and the fact that something as marvelous as an apple grows in quantity on trees that we can foster and harvest,”says Kisler. “Our cider is our love for the land in a bottle.”

Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.

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