A Wine Drinker's Guide to Beer and Cider

From pinot to pilsner, here's what you need to know.

Various beers and ciders in glasses
Photo: Getty Images

I used to be strictly a wine drinker. Every once in a while I would spring for a dirty martini, but for the most part, a glass of Malbec on a cozy winter night or a cold Sauvignon Blanc at a summer party was my move. That all changed when I moved to Colorado and was bombarded with the craft beer and cider scene. All of a sudden, tempting flavor combinations like Avery Brewing Company’s Cucumber Hibiscus Sour or Crooked Stave’s Colorado Wildsage Saison started calling my name. But without my go-to wine options, how did I even know where to start? I enlisted the help of certified sommelier Sam Tuttle to walk me through the sometimes overwhelming world of beer and cider.

Beer and cider options are way more expansive than you might realize

Like a true sommelier, Tuttle says that wine will always have his heart, but if you’re looking to try something new, there has never been a better time. “Ciders and beers are in a revolution of experimenting with other non-traditional ingredients to enhance their products," he says. "Beer and cider traditionally are fairly neutral in aroma and flavor, resting on the laurels of the subtle differences of the hops, yeast, malts or fruit you're using. It's a different ballgame these days.” Going for a stroll through the liquor store proves his point—I spotted an entire section dedicated to pumpkin beer at my local store, a phenomenon he said would not have been possible 10 years ago. Which makes it likely that you will be able to find something that suits your taste buds, even if you don’t think of yourself as a beer or cider drinker.

The main difference between beer and cider

At its most basic, cider is a beverage fermented from fruit (most commonly tree fruit such as apples and pears) and beer is fermented from malted grains and often has a bittering ingredient like hops. Cider typically has a sweeter taste (more on that later), while beer tends to be more bitter, especially with brews such as India Pale Ale (IPA). Cider usually has an alcohol-by-volume (ABV) of around 5 percent, which is similar to a standard lager. However many craft beers can go well beyond that percentage. As a point of comparison, a standard glass of wine is around 12 percent ABV, although there is some variance among different types.

For the gluten-avoidant among us, it’s good to know that ciders are gluten-free by nature, although always read labels as it is possible that a cider could use a gluten-containing ingredient as flavoring. Beer is not conventionally gluten-free since it is made from grains such as barley or wheat, though there have been great strides made in the development of gluten-free beers in the past decade.

What to know when switching from wine to beer or cider

According to Tuttle, wine contains a few elements that are integral to our drinking pleasure:

  • Acid: the tart and sour taste.
  • Sugar: the sweetness of wine, often felt on the tip of the tongue.
  • Tannin: the compounds that can taste a little bitter and leave your mouth feeling dry or dusty.
  • Alcohol: the burning sensation that you might feel at the back of your throat.

These four elements vary in prominence to create the difference in taste between, say, a Pinot Grigio (balanced between all four) and a Sancerre (more tart and acidic).

Tuttle says that these same elements are also present in beer and cider, and figuring out which of these are preferable to your unique taste buds is a great way to narrow down your beer or cider of choice. “If you love high alcohol, dark and jammy Zinfandel, you'll probably love the high octane nature of an imperial stout like New Holland's Dragon's Milk or North Coast's Old Rasputin. If you love a dry Riesling, a sour beer like Anderson Valley's Gose or a dry cider such as Stella Cider will probably be your go-to at your next cookout. If you like the buttery, rich style of Chardonnay (looking at you, Mom), you might love the complex, unfiltered full-bodied ciders from Normandy, France, or Spain. Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut is an excellent example of this style, but certainly not for everyone.”

The sweet factor

My main gripe with cider is that it’s typically a bit too sweet for my liking. Tuttle says, in some sense, that’s unavoidable. “Cider is not always sweet from a sugar standpoint, but generally will be fruitier, which can feel sweeter.” This is especially true when comparing cider and beer side-to-side. “Think of eating an apple vs. eating a bowl of oatmeal,” he says.

The good news is that beer and cider companies are much more transparent than wine producers when it comes to disclosing the sweetness on the bottle or can. Terms like off-dry will mean a sweeter cider, while ciders listed as dry will have more floral, but less sugary, flavor profiles. Shacksbury Cider makes an excellent dry, craft cider using traditional methods in Vermont, and the readily available Angry Orchard recently came out with a Stone Dry cider to appeal to those looking for a refreshing, slightly acidic bevvie. Tutlle says that one of his favorite ciders is Colorado-based Stem Cider's A Salted Cucumber. “It's like a salad, but more refreshing and more fun to consume at a concert.”

Never hesitate to ask for help in picking out a beer or cider at your local liquor store. The staff is often well-informed and can help you figure out what you might like based on your wine preferences. Most importantly, trust your palate and have fun exploring the wide-ranging and fast-growing world of beer and cider. Cheers to that!

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