Mr. Reynolds, who began bottling in 2013, is one of dozens of American farmhouse cider makers to experiment with fruit other than apples. In the Hudson Valley, Aaron Burr Cidery is making an elderberry-flavored cider. Art & Science in Rickreall, Ore., which also began cider making in 2013, produces both a blend of apple and quince and a 100 percent quince cider, as well as a perry made from foraged wild pears. Blackduck’s Finger Lakes neighbor Star Cider, which began bottling in 2014, makes tasty ciders blended with rhubarb, strawberry and sour cherry.
“Some people see adding anything besides apples as blasphemy,” Mr. Reynolds said. “Then there’s wild experimentation. I guess I see myself as somewhere in the middle.”
“The sky’s the limit,” he added. “But the question always will be, ‘When is it not cider anymore?’”
That’s a question being asked all over, as cider’s popularity explodes in the United States, and producers large and small stray ever further from classic apple cider.
Federal labeling rules supply one answer, which isn’t very satisfying to cider makers. Only fermented apples and pears may be labeled cider, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. If a bottle does not contain apple or pear cider, and is more than 7 percent alcohol, it must instead be labeled “fruit wine.”
That’s one reason so many flavors are being added to basic apple cider. Art & Science, for instance, is allowed to label its apple-and-quince blend as cider, but it must call its all-quince cider fruit wine. “The laws and regulations have not caught up with cider making,” said Kim Hamblin, who with her husband, Dan Rinke, owns Art & Science. “It really confuses the consumer.”
Big brands like Woodchuck, Magners Irish Cider and Crispin Cider Company (owned by MillerCoors) have leapt headlong into nonapple ciders, as well as ones with added flavors.
“Straight-up apple ciders can be one-dimensional in taste,” Jeffrey House, the owner of California Cider Company, told the drinks trade magazine Market Watch last summer. “People can get tired of them. They want more flavors — a wider variety of fruits.” Mr. House’s brand, Ace, makes ciders flavored with pineapple, honey and pumpkin, among others.
But many craft cider makers are not impressed. “Some people use the other fruits to mask low-quality cider,” said Melissa Madden of Finger Lakes Cider House on Good Life Farm, overlooking Cayuga Lake. “It’s a trend none of us want to get involved with. It’s become a circus. It’s frustrating.”
Finger Lakes Cider House, which Ms. Madden owns with her husband, Garrett Miller, has become a hub of New York’s growing craft cider movement. It pours ciders from five acclaimed producers, including its own Good Life Cider.
“We’re proud apple growers and cider makers, just like winemakers who are growers of wine grapes,” Ms. Madden said.
Having said that, she sheepishly poured a glass of Nor’easter, a Good Life cider flavored with cranberries. “This is where we go down a slippery slope,” she said with a chuckle. “But we do have a friend on Cape Cod who has a cranberry bog. And we home-juice the cranberries. I guess the question for us is: Who’s growing the fruit?”
The identification with winemaking is important for many craft cider producers, including Andy Brennan at Aaron Burr Cidery.
“Flavoring ciders or creating these ‘recipe ciders’ is similar to beer making, where it becomes about the prowess of the brewer, or the cider maker,” Mr. Brennan said. “With wine, there is still a model for remaining faithful to quality farming practices.”
Mr. Brennan is an outspoken critic of flavored ciders and what he calls “the ease with which cider can be manipulated.” Still, asked about his best-selling ginger-carrot-apple cider, he replied: “I stopped making that two years ago out of concern for how cider was portrayed. Admittedly, that’s a dumb reason.”
Dan Pucci was the first “pommelier,” or cider director, at Wassail, the cider-obsessed restaurant on the Lower East Side (before recently leaving to start Wallabout Hospitality, a beverage consultancy). He advocates a “wine-based approach to making cider, with estate-grown fruit.” Still, Mr. Pucci keeps an open mind and insists that great cider can be made with many different types of fruit.
“Our consumers have no preconceived notion of cider,” he said. “People don’t have set opinions yet. They’re open to whatever.” But, he added: “I don’t carry things that are flavored for the sake of flavor, or are synthetically flavored. We won’t have a mango-habañero cider.”
Wassail has more than 20 nonapple ciders on its menu, including one fermented with red currants (from Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont) and Aaron Burr’s elderberry-flavored cider. Pear cider, or perry, dominates its nonapple offerings.
Perry has a long tradition in the English counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and its French cousin, poire, has historically been produced in Normandy alongside cider and Calvados. Brands like Oliver’s Classic Perry from Herefordshire and Christian Drouin Poire from Normandy are mainstays on cider lists around the country.
But for enthusiasts, there is a key difference between what many companies call pear cider and authentic perry, which must be made from inedible, tannic, bitter varieties. “Perry pears differ from eating pears in the same way cider apples differ from eating apples,” said Tom Oliver, the cider maker at Oliver’s.
Mr. Pucci says producers have only scratched the surface of pear’s potential. “There’s so much apple research,” he said, “but we’re so much further behind with pears.”
“Cider is in a dynamic place right now,” he added. “But cider’s big challenge moving forward is all about identity. For example, we’re not sure if we want to be like beer or wine.”
Here are some unconventional ciders to try. All bottles are 750 milliliters unless noted.
Cider’s wild edge, with flavors and aromas that suggest mythic, old-time fruit.
Pure, fresh pear flavor; almost like fine wine in its balance of tannins and acidity.
Crisp, subtle, elegant and low in alcohol, from a renowned Norman cidermaker. (B. United, Oxford, Conn.)
Rich, with notes of baking spice and baked pear. Classic British perry. (Shelton Brothers, Belchertown, Mass.)
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