Field Guide: The Best Local Hard Ciders for Every Taste

We sipped more than 30 hard ciders — all hailing from PA — to find the ones worth drinking. Here, your entry into the new world of craft cider.

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Hard cider is having a bit of a moment. Once a niche-y thing enjoyed only by brew geeks and, for two weeks, by your annoying friend who went to the UK on his honeymoon and came back complaining about the lack of proper cider in “the States,” it is now a serious business in and around Philly, with small-time producers ramping up production and local farms putting out excellent, hand-crafted product using their own fruits. What’s more, we keep seeing it show up more and more frequently both on and behind the bars we frequent.

So if there was ever a time to dive in and see what all the fuss is about, it’s now. Craft cider is interesting in that the flavors and styles are at least as varied as with beer (maybe more so), and on par with the variations in wine. And this kind of broad spectrum allows for many entry points into the world of grown-up apple juice. Recently, we sat down and did a massive tasting of some 30 bottles from every local cidery we could find, and assembled this list of the best ways for beer drinkers, cork dorks, spirit enthusiasts and the gluten-averse to get into cider. So check it out below and see if there’s something that catches your eye.

If You Like Wine … 

With their fruit notes, rough edges and powerful smells, many of the ciders we tasted had more in common with wine than they did beer. In particular, the Hogshead from Frecon Farms immediately made us think of wine with its smoky, woody undertones (which come from it being matured on French and American oak) and very dry, almost white wine character. In that same vein, the Helen’s Blend from Jack’s Hard Cider reminded many of us of drinking cold white wine on a very hot afternoon. Also, the Solebury Orchard cider from Stone & Key Cellars should please the wine drinkers in the crowd because it has a powerfully tannic aftertaste — a very distinct sense of being able to taste the barrels in which the cider was aged — and a less pronounced smell than some of the bottles we’re going to talk about later. Finally, there’s a collaboration cider on tap at Clarkville, Coeur, Strangelove’s and Memphis Taproom called “Lose This Skin”. It was made by Brendan Kelly, Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, in conjunction with Bullfrog Brewery, and is absolutely the wine-iest of ciders we tasted. It’s an unfiltered cider, made with wild yeast and steeped with merlot and cabernet grapes, giving it a deep pinkish color and a super-tart, almost vinegary flavor. It’s awesome, funky and absolutely the way in for daring wine drinkers.

If You Want Something to Pair With Your Cheese … 

This one was almost unanimous. Frecon Farms’s winter cider, Waes Hael, is a very full-bodied, dimly sweet and slightly funky choice that everyone on our tasting panel thought would be ideal for pairing with a plate of good cheeses. To be slightly more specific, it should be paired with your best, smelliest cheeses — something with a good amount of funk of its own. Soft cheeses in particular would be good here, because the tartness and bite of the Waes Hael ought to cut straight through any lingering creaminess and scour your palate clean between bites.

If You Like Crap Beer … 

We’re not making any judgements here. We like crap beer, too. Well, some of us do, anyway. And really, what is a stated love for bodiless, watery, mass-produced ales and lagers but a passion for the ease and comfort of drinking something that doesn’t require a half-hour of dialectic analysis to decide whether you like it or not. So for all you Yuengling fans, for all you un-ironic devotees of High Life and Genny Cream Ale, we have the perfect cider for you. While almost everything we drank from Wyndridge Farm Cidery was excellent (see below), their simplest and most straightforward product — called, simply, Cider — is an ideal entry point for those just looking for something to drink. It won’t scare you, won’t gross you out, doesn’t require an understanding of the cider-making process or its styles. It’s just a damn good cider for all occasions. And for as much as we loved the Wyndridge product, we had an equal amount of puffy heart stickers for Big Hill Ciderworks’ Standard cider — a gentle, easy-drinking craft cider with hints of vanilla from an excellent cidery that knows how to do weird just as well as they do traditional. Finally, you could also give Commonwealth Ciders Traditional Cider a spin. It was one of the driest, cleanest-drinking ciders we tried, and had so little aftertaste that it was almost evaporative on the tongue.

If You Like Craft Beer … 

Craft beer fanatics should be all about cider these days. The industry (at least locally) is scrappy and DIY in the best possible way. The blends are daring and weird (also in the best possible way). And there’s an overarching sense of wild experimentation going on which makes for some very interesting products coming off the taps. Little Round Hop from Big Hill Ciderworks is probably the best example of this, a perfectly balanced, dry hopped cider using the “three c’s”: Centennial, Cascade and Columbus hops. They then added a touch of lemongrass to bring out the citrus-y character, and the result drinks like some kind of crazy, dream-IPA that Tired Hands never made. Same goes for the Wyndridge Hopped cider — a semi-sweet, clean hopped cider that’s dangerously easy to drink and goes down almost like a very crisp champagne.

If You Want Something to Pair With Your Sushi … 

Yes, this is a highly specific category. But you know what? I love sushi, but I DON’T love sake. Beer goes just fine with sushi most of the time, but if you’re looking a bit outside the box, the Gregarious Ginger from Commonwealth Ciders is perfect. It is exactly what it says it is: a crisp hard cider with a massive punch of ginger that smacks you right in the mouth.

If You Like It Fruity … 

For you lambic drinkers, there are three solid choices here: The Razzberet Tart from Commonwealth, Cherry Pie from Stone & Key and Wyndridge Cranberry. The Razzberet has a bit of a smell to it, but drinks clean and sweeter than some of the competition without tasting like candy. The Cherry Pie adds dried, tart cherries to the mix and is perfect if you REALLY like cherries. (Not so much if you don’t.) The Wyndridge Cranberry? It doesn’t taste much like cranberry at all (which is why I liked it because I hate cranberries), but it did add a tart sweetness to the winning Wyndridge flavor profile that gentled some of the dry crispness in a way that will make people who are looking for a bit more sugar in their cider.

For the Health Conscious and Gluten Averse … 

Wyndridge makes a big deal out of the fact that all their ciders are gluten free — because they know that celiacs and the otherwise gluten-intolerant don’t have a lot of good beer options when it comes to catching a buzz. But really, pretty much ALL ciders are gluten-free, so you’ve got a lot of options. For those also counting calories, we suggest the Wyndridge plain cider (which clocks in around 165 calories), or the Commonwealth traditional (at 140). By way of comparison, a High Life will run you 143 calories — which isn’t a big difference, sure, but we know some of you out there take those additional three calories very seriously.

If You Just Like It Weird … 

Want to find something to freak out your snobby craft beer friends? Want to drink something that can clear a room just from the smell (but actually tastes good)? This is the wild side of the craft cider scene, but be warned: These bottles are not for everyone.

Stone & Key Ice Apple: SO SWEET. Just seriously so, so sweet. It’s really more the kind of thing you break out at the end of a meal to replace that tired old bottle of port you’ve been nipping at for the past decade. But if sweet dessert wines are your thing, then this pressed and cryoconcentrated dessert cider might be just what you’re looking for.

Kurant Cider Farm: It smells like almonds, tastes like hay, is so dry that it’s like a black hole of sweetness from which no sugars can escape, but is actually delicious once you get accustomed to its strangeness.

Big Hill Barrel Aged Cider: Like sour beers? This is your cider. The initial hit is like liquid Sour Patch Kids, followed by the sharpness and acidity of an aged cider, then a fading flavor of the whiskey barrels in which it was fermented and aged.

Frecon Farms Farmhouse Cider: Just opening a bottle of this stuff can make everyone in the room hate you. It has a SERIOUS farmhouse stank to it that will turn off almost anyone — a kind of rotting, manure-y nose with hints of outhouse and sweat — but if you can get past that? The cider hiding behind the smell is one of the most interesting and complex we tasted.

Frecon Farms Golden Russet: All the complex flavor of the Farmhouse mentioned above, but with only half the stink. Though, again, that’s still A LOT of stink.