The days are still warm, but the nights are getting cold enough for cider. Patrick and I hail from the Northeast, and this time of year starts us hankering. I didn’t make it up to Julian, but I did make it to the Smit Orchards tent at the Little Italy farmers’ market, held Saturdays on Date and India from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Patrick wanted to start experimenting by adding bourbon, but I made him wait until after we assessed.
That night I poured us both some Trader Joe’s Spiced Cider ($2.99 for 64 oz.) and perused the label. “Well, it says the apples are fresh, but there’s lemon-juice concentrate.” We sipped. “The apple flavor is a bit light, and the finish is watery,” I offered. “It smells great,” countered Patrick. “Cinnamon, cloves, and something tangy — maybe the citrus. But when you sip, it’s mostly cloves, with a cinnamon pucker at the finish.”
There was no spice to speak of in the Wallula Organics Cider ($4.99 for 64 oz. at Henry’s). There wasn’t enough apple flavor for my tastes, either. “There’s bright acid up front, but the finish is flat,” I said. “Still,” argued Patrick, “I like the unfiltered character of it. The little particles of apple when I swish it around in my mouth give it a heavy richness.”
R.W. Knudsen Cider & Spice ($4 for 32 oz. at Whole Foods) knocked out the previous contenders with a one-two combination of citrus notes and solid apple flavor. “I smell orange peel,” said Patrick. “And I taste clove, cinnamon, and ginger. I like the balance of the spices.” “The body is light,” I added, “but the apple taste is still long and strong — this finish goes on longer than either of the first two.”
Patrick was less admiring of R.W. Knudsen’s other offering, a Crisp Sparkling Apple Cider ($2.89 for 25.4 oz. at Henry’s). “The flavor is uninteresting. The only thing going for it is the bubbles. There’s no cidery pleasure, but it makes a decent nonalcoholic champagne substitute.” I disagreed. “The bubbles prickle my tongue, but so does the acid. It’s like a Granny Smith apple. I found the first taste shocking, but in a good way.”
Poor Patrick. I knew what he really wanted was the stuff from his childhood: fresh-pressed cider. Unpasteurized, the real deal. So I cracked open the Smit Orchards Cider ($2.50 for 16 oz.; $7 for 64 oz. at Smit Orchards’ Little Italy farmers’ market display). He sipped. “Ha! That’s just what you do with good cider.” I sat back and let him wax poetic. “The first sip sets up a pang of longing. Partly for the next sip, partly for something else, something beyond. The apples are just alive in your mouth. There’s an almost unbearable sweetness — you keep trying to reach past it. It’s the sweetness of fruit just before it starts to rot.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied, surprised at my own sympathy. “It’s like when you drop an apple and then take a bite of the bruised part before it starts to turn. It’s honeyed and complicated.”
I wondered if our next cider, Chadwick Farms ($7.99 for 64 oz. at Whole Foods) could stand up to the Smit’s. It was, after all, flash-pasteurized. As Patrick shook the caramel-colored liquid inside the jug, he admired the sheet of tiny, creamy bubbles that crawled up the side.
“That’s a good sign,” he said. “It almost looks like the head on a beer.” I waited for him to sip. “It’s clean. Really beautiful, and there’s a long finish. But it’s more tannic than the Smit’s, as if the apples were pressed harder and more tannin came out of the skin. Maybe that’s why it’s darker. It’s better than any of the other pasteurized stuff, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t make me swoon like the Smit’s.”
Finally, I cracked the pale, golden Martinelli’s ($4.99 for 50.7 oz. at Whole Foods). “It’s made with fresh apples — no preservatives,” I chirped. “And there’s good apple flavor up front. But the finish tastes like apple peels. Not good apple peels — Red Delicious apple peels. There’s that unpleasant tinge.”
“It’s a poor-man’s version of the Smit’s,” said Patrick. “I’m digging the candied sweetness, but it’s not honeyed like the Smit’s. Now howsabout we make a few cocktails? I hear a little ginger beer helps give it a sparkle.”