Judging Beers by Sam Fitz – Vol. 7 – Cider

Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel. Read Sam’s take on the Boilermaker here.

Autumn in the District is unpredictable and too often too short. 2011, though, has brought us an unexpectedly pleasant fall to complement the multitude of Oktoberfest, Pumpkin, and other tasty seasonals that abound in the city. But as the weather changes and the beers get darker, I’m finding it difficult to abandon my summer fling: refreshing, high quality, gluten-free fermented cider.

Woodchuck, Doc’s and other American long-standing American cider makers have painted the consumer’s image of cider: sweet, sticky, bubbly liquid produced from apple juice of undefined quality. The residual sugars, usually from cheap ingredients and not apples themselves, are what define these products, and the fact that they are technically made from apples is experienced by the consumer as little more than an image conjured. This is all quite a shame as there are many notable Old World ciders, as well as a burgeoning group of American producers, seeking to redefine the perception of their craft.

Cider’s history is as ancient as that of beer. England, France and Spain have been producing this beverage for thousands of years. Hundreds of different apple varieties have been cultivated specifically for its production, providing astonishing diversity for a product that usually relies heavily on a single ingredient (water and yeast round-out the recipe). Old World ciders can be a little difficult to find stateside and are certainly pricey, but if you can get your hands on them, such as anything made by Etienne Dupont, you’re in for a real treat. Fortunately, the American craft beer movement has begun influencing domestic cider production and the quality is improving every day.

The end of 2010 saw the introduction of Crispin Ciders to the nation’s capitol. Based in Minnesota, Crispin started with a range of ciders called the “Blue Line”. Original, Light and Brut are nice products that are reminiscent of the super sweet, sticky, cheap hard ciders of the 1990’s but are created from better ingredients (fresh-pressed apple juice instead of concentrate) with more care. Made to be familiar and accessible to the general public, they are a nice entry into the world of craft cider.

Continues after the jump.

The “Artisanal Reserve” ciders are where Crispin really shows its brawn. “Honey Crisp”, the most popular, is about as refreshing as it gets. Like all of Crispin’s ciders, it is made from fresh-pressed apples, but it is then finished and smoothed by the addition of organic honey. The sugars of the apples and honey are thoroughly fermented, leaving the pleasant flavors of both ingredients with almost no residual sweetness. Crispin emphasizes that their ciders are crisp, not sweet, and the “Honey Crisp” really showcases this.

The other three products in the Artisanal Reserve–the Saint, Lansdowne, and the new Cho-tokkyu–take innovation to a new level. Each utilizes a different organic sugar as well as a beer or sake yeast. Cho-tokkyu is made with organic rice and sake yeast, resulting in a product that is reminiscent of that famous Japanese beverage. Lansdowne is a spoof of Irish Dry Stouts. Organic molasses is added to deepen the color and body of the cider, and of course the appropriate yeast is used. As interesting and tasty as these are, The Saint outshines them all.

Delivered in a 22-ounce bottle and served on the colder side, The Saint pours a hazy straw yellow. The cloudiness is due to Crispin’s “unique Cloudy Filtration process” which leaves a layer of apple sediment at the bottom of each bottle. Turning the bottle over before opening encourages small apple flakes in every glass, with delicious results.

The Saint draws its monastic name from its fermentation with Trappist ale yeast. The influence of this is subtle, largely being masked by the other sensory contributors, but it does give The Saint a noticeable Belgian quality. Apple is most prominent in the nose, adding a bit of bitterness, but citrus and pepper notes from the yeast round-out the experience.

Organic maple syrup is used to smooth The Saint, and while it is fairly undetectable in the nose, it is certainly relevant in the flavor. At 6.9% The Saint is scarily drinkable, and the hearty but not sweet lingering taste of maple syrup is very pleasant and seasonally appropriate. Apple bitterness from the nose is completely erased on the tongue as the maple syrup seems to engulf it, transforming the flavor into one of more caramel apple without the stickiness. The depth of flavor, the delicately smooth profile, and a nice acidity from the apples make The Saint a pleasure to consume.

Unfortunately, only the Original cider from the “Blue Line” is available year-round on draft. The Saint would be a true treat from the tap but, as of now, this author is unaware of plans for wide distribution. Crispin does, however, release specialty drafts from time to time. “Desert Noire”, a cider aged 50% in Tennessee whiskey barrels and the other half in red wine oak barrels, then finished with agave and prickly pear nectar, was a particularly interesting recent release.

Browns Lane, an authentic English dry cider that is actually imported from that country, rounds out Crispin’s portfolio. Browns Lane is a great example of a truly dry cider and is fairly unique in the world of craft cider as it is delivered in a 16-ounce can. Whether it is canned, kegged, or bottled, Crispin cider is more than deserving of a taste, regardless of the time of year.

21 Comment

  • Great review Sam. I can attest that as one who used to turn my nose up at the mere mention of cider, that changed when someone twisted my arm into trying a Crispin. Seriously drinkable stuff (scarily drinkable, indeed).

  • Does anyone know of stores that carry Crispin (any flavor)? I know they sell it by the bottle at The Pug but that’s the only place I’ve come across it, and sometimes I’d rather drink on my couch than go to a bar.

  • D’vines on 14th st. usually carries most of them.

  • Welp, looks like I’m stopping at D’vines tonight.

  • Also, Whole Foods on P St. Thanks, Sam! I was enjoying the Saint recently, but thought the Cho-tokkyu was a little too subtle for my palette. Clearly I have to work on that…

  • claire

    I’m a huge fan of tart crisp ciders! Have tried a couple different Crispin offerings before, and they were good but didn’t blow me away. Now I’m thinking I definitely need to get my hands on the Artisanal Reserver offerings. And that Desert Noire one sounds really enticing too.

    For anyone who’s interested, it’s actually pretty easy to make your own hard cider. You need to get unpasteurized cider (available at some area orchards) and then seal it up. If you brew beer, use a fermenting bucket with an airlock, then add sugar and carbonate in bottles; otherwise, twisting the cap tightly on a gallon jug should work and carbonate it at the same time as it ferments. Let ferment for a month or so (can store at room temperature or in the back of your fridge) and boom, delicious tart hard cider! I also add some simple syrup to mine at the beginning to up the resulting alcohol, and this year, I’m also oaking one batch. If you bottle it, the hard cider really improves with age (mine from last year tastes kind of like a dry white wine now).

    • claire

      Oh, and if you can’t find unpasteurized cider, you can still add some ale yeast to pasteurized cider to get the job done (will need to be fermented at room temperature, not in the fridge).

    • My brother and I used to make our own. We would use unpasteurized cider, honey and champagne yeast. Very easy to mix and ferment.

  • Love me some Crispin. I bought it the first time from a store in Montreal. Refreshing, easy to drink, and some really good flavors. Not an alcopop by any means.

  • Anyone know if JK’s Scrumpy is back on the shelves yet? I was told that they were all recalled after stores were picking bits of glass out of the ceiling from a bad batch of bottle bombs.

  • very cool. if I decided to go all the way and press some apples myself, that would good to go, right?

  • sammy smiths organic is a far superior product IMO!

  • I stopped by Meridian Pint the other night and was recommended the Cho-tokkyu by the waitress. My girlfriend and I enjoyed it, but it is quite the departure from the normal cider, leaving a sake aftertaste throughout your mouth that lingers, and draws you into having another crisp, dry, yet completely refreshing drink.
    Really want to try the Honey Crisp and the Saint as well.

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