Despite her love of Basque and Normandy ciders, Vera's beverage director Liz Mendez doesn't recommend them to cider newbies.
"You would never take your friend out for sushi for the first time and have them try uni and roe," Mendez said. "You're going to give them tempura and California roll to ease them into it so they'll go out for sushi with you again."
Yes, European ciders are the uni of the hard cider world—a delicacy for some but a bit, well, weird for the uninitiated. As the category of cider continues to grow, though, more enthusiasts are looking for flavors beyond the sweet carbonation of Strongbow or Angry Orchard. That search leads them straight to European-style cider.
"Americans' flavor palates are changing," said Brian Rutzen, cider director at The Northman, Chicago's first cider bar, which is set to open this summer in Ravenswood. "They're becoming more adventurous, more willing to take a chance. Spanish cider is for the adventurous. It's something that really speaks to its locale."
That's a polite way of saying that Normandy, Italian and especially Basque ciders can taste ... earthy. Mendez uses the word "mushroomy" to talk about the funky flavor of unfiltered, cloudy Spanish ciders.
But despite how different these ciders taste from their English or American counterparts, there are plenty of reasons cider fans love them. From the sparkling, dry crispness of a Normandy cider to the pleasant acidity of a Spanish cider, European styles appeal to drinkers looking for an alternative to sweet varieties. If you enjoy cider in general, Rutzen said, you should at least give these bottles a try.
"It's not like doing a malort shot," Rutzen said. "It's certainly not so intense that you wouldn't enjoy the experience. A lot of times, it's about the setting, the food, the performance of pouring it. That can have a big impact on the taste."
While English and American ciders traditionally are served in pint glasses, you might see a sparkling French cider served in a champagne flute, or a Basque cider in a water glass. It's not pretension; these ciders' flavors open up only when aerated and served in proper glassware.
"That may be why people don't necessarily like some of these ciders, because they're not in the right type of glass or they're not poured right," Mendez said. To give guests the best experience, Mendez busts out the porron, a type of glass pitcher that's designed solely for serving Spanish ciders. Pouring the cider from the porron at a height—as much as three feet from the glass—takes steady aim, but it opens up the apple flavors and helps distribute sediment that is a hallmark of unfiltered cider.
While these ciders—and their impressive-looking vessels—have their roots firmly in European tradition, local cider makers are trying their hands at these styles, too. Michigan-based Virtue Cider, headed by Goose Island alumnus Greg Hall, makes a Spanish-style cider called Sidra de Nava as well as three French-style ciders, Percheron, Cidre Nouveau and Lapinette. Long Grove, Ill.-based Prima Cider also produces a sparkling cider called Prima Brut, which is created in the French traditional method and then aged for two years to allow its flavors to develop.
"People are starting to realize there are different styles of cider," said Erich Bertsche, son of Prima's founder, Richard Bertsche, who has been making cider for 30 years. "They actively search them out now."
Demand for new styles of cider, notes The Northman's Rutzen, has increased noticeably even within the past year or two. "Two to three years ago, when I was trying to sell cider to bars, 80 percent of the time people's words were 'Thanks, we already have a cider.' " Rutzen said. "That's one cider." His forthcoming bar, The Northman, plans to stock more than 100.
Five Bottles To Try
Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouche Brut de Normandie
Buy it at: The Beer Temple, 3185 N. Elston Ave. 773-754-0907
Buy it at: West Lakeview Liquors, 2156 W. Addison St. 773-525-1916
Ribela Natural Cider
Buy it at: West Lakeview Liquors
Buy it at: The Beer Temple
Txopinondo Sagarnoa Basque Cider
Buy it at: Binny's locations
Buy it at: Eataly, 43 E. Ohio St. 312-521-8700
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