Where To Find Great Local Ciders — Even If You Don’t Think You Like Cider
Whether you’ve never tried cider or are just overwhelmed by the variety, here’s an entry-level guide to local PA ciders — just in time for Philly Cider Week.
Mike Landers is a Philly-based bartender. You may recognize him from Martha, or maybe Emmanuelle, The Yachtsman, Bloomsday, Pennsylvania Libations in the RTM, or his current gig at Forest & Main Brewing Company in Ambler. If you’re ever in doubt of what to drink, Landers has you covered with tips on what to try.
It’s apple season y’all! Did you know that Pennsylvania is one of the top apple-growing regions in the country? 300 years ago, cider was one of the most consumed beverages in the New World. Because ingredients for beer and wine were harder to grow than apples, cider flourished. It was generally a local, rural product with home production common. But as industrial, state-of-the-art lager breweries increased across the country with waves of German immigration in the 1850s, cider began to decline. Beer became widely available and was embraced as modern.
And yet, in an ironic twist, it might be the craft beer movement that is helping bring cider back. Consumers have become more adventurous in their beverage selections in recent decades, altering the drinks landscape.
One sign of the rising popularity of cider? Big brands are entering the market. Woodchuck has been around since 1991, but there weren’t many other large, national cider brands until 2012 when Sam Adams released its cider brand, Angry Orchard. Smaller regional producers followed in the next decade.
Today, most cider producers in our state either grow their own fruit or source it from orchards in their region. So by drinking PA cider, you’re supporting regional agricultural communities. And as they are supported, many orchards are planting cider-specific varietals, which in turn increases the quality of cider in the region. Everybody wins.
For those of you out there who’ve never tried cider, or regular cider drinkers who are looking to taste something more local but are overwhelmed by the variety, we’ve put together this entry-level guide to local PA ciders. There’s a little something for every kind of taste, so let’s dive in.
Cider for Beer Nerds
These days, nearly everyone produces hopped cider. This is different from an IPA in that cider processing doesn’t involve heat, so all the hops are dry-hopped, or cold infused — meaning you can get that intense hop aroma and flavor but not the characteristic bitterness of a classic IPA. So even if you don’t like beer, you might still enjoy hopped cider. I have two local favorites.
Big Hill Ciderworks
While Big Hill in Adams county has lots of ciders and wide distribution, Little Round Hop is my favorite hopped cider in the region. It’s a citrusy, 5.5 percent ABV cider containing Cascade, Columbus and Centennial hops with the addition of lemongrass to sharpen the flavor.
Young American Hard Cider
Young American makes a seasonal hopped cider with Citra hops and grapefruit. It’s juicy and zesty and gets a little extra bitter bump from that grapefruit. Their ciders are only available at their Germantown tasting room, but they’re worth making the special trip.
Cider for Wine Drinkers
For wine aficionados, large format, still ciders may be more appealing. In the current cider scene, these are less common than carbonated cider, but there are still several interesting examples in the region.
If you’re into natural wine, you should absolutely check out Camuna from Northeast Philly. They produce wine and cider — and co-ferments of the two! (All cideries are actually licensed as wineries in Pennsylvania.) Camuna sources from a variety of farms in the region, uses native yeast from the fruit and bottles without filtration. Their ciders are available at small bottle shops and restaurants all over the region, so just check the website for stockists or to order directly.
Dressler is another cidery taking a wine-maker’s approach. They make cider in a wide variety of styles from Spanish (dry, sparkling and made with wild yeast) to New England, barrel-aged and with brown sugar added prior to fermentation to increase total alcohol. Their Modern Still was the first still cider I ever tried, about five years ago at Martha, and it was a revelation.
The Best Local Ciders No Matter Your Tastes
The best place to drive to and get both an apple cider donut and a variety of cider bottles is Frecon. It’s about an hour outside the city, but you can make a day of it because they offer U-pick apples, pears and pumpkins on weekends in September and October. The farm itself has been around since the 1940s but has recently gotten into cider production. They have cans and bottles available, but the bottles are where things get really interesting. They produce still ciders, single varietal apple bottlings and barrel-aged versions. One of my favorites is the Scrumpy — a classic Western English style. It’s dry and complex, made from a huge list of apples. And Frecon also makes Cyser, which is a blend of honey and apples. It’s called Crabby Granny, and it clocks in at a nice, round 10 percent ABV with a sweet, tart flavor profile.
Ploughman Cider is the best in Pennsylvania, hands down. Three Springs Fruit farm is located in Adams County and began their cider company in 2016. As a sign of how cider-serious they are, they make five different plain ciders regularly. Some are blends; some are single-varietal. They also make small, experimental one-offs (which are often the most interesting). The Stark is a mix of Stayman and Spitzenburg apples and is strong with a hint of farmhouse yeast. On the other end of the spectrum, the Arkansas Black is a single-varietal offering that could proudly sit on any table in place of the champagne. It’s clean, light and elegant. Ploughman also makes flavored varieties including some of the most unique, and surprising offerings in PA. Cucumber, quince, autumn olive, hops and two different peach ciders all make regular appearances. Especially interesting is the Distelfunk, their all-peach, no-apple, sour cider. Fans of farmhouse saisons should really give this a try with some stinky cheese. They have a tasting room in Gettysburg, sell at the Headhouse and Clark Park farmers markets, have wide distribution in cans and bottles around the region, and are regularly found on tap at good beer bars.
Hale and True
Hale and True is one of the very best small urban producers in the region. Their Standard cider is a beautiful example of what can be made locally with care and patience. It is fermented cool and slower than their other varieties to produce a clean, crisp taste not unlike some of my favorite easy-drinking beers. Plus, the pandemic forced them to ramp up their canning production, so now there are several options to buy for takeout, including Headhouse and Northern Liberties farmers markets, their tasting room in South Philly, online sales and Bella Vista Beer Distributor. (Pro tip: Bella Vista Beer Distributor actually offers a shockingly wide range of cider options from Pennsylvania, New York, New England and Europe. Several of the smaller bottle shops around the city have interesting cider selections, too, including Bloomsday’s Fancy Wine Shop, Tiny’s, Cork, and Richmond Bottle Shop.)
And finally, if any of this has piqued your interest, Philly Cider Week is starting October 21. There are events, tastings and educational opportunities all through the week. Also, be sure to check out the PA cider guild website for even more small-batch, regional offerings. Bonus: Many brands are set up for delivery.