The crisp, classic fall beverage has branched out and evolved.
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When people think of drinks made from apples, they tend to think of sweetness. But these days, centuries after hard cider started to become popular in America, it doesn’t have to bring the one-note sugary rush of apple juice. Cider has a surprisingly long history in our country and others, and has had a long time to develop nuance. Cider, too, has gone through a modern revival in the last decade, coming in new styles and with new flavors.

At its core, though, apple cider remains a simple drink.

To taste, it is crisp and clean, a brisk afternoon wandering the apple orchard packaged into a bottle. It is apple, an essential flavor of fall, reduced to its most robust and brightest essence. Cider makers don’t need to do much but let that beautiful flavor shine. But their touches can make you see and enjoy cider in new ways.

In fact, the very process of making hard cider improves flavor.

To begin, cider makers pick apples. Not only do they have to pick apples from trees, they must first pick which apples they should source from growers or grow themselves. More than 2,000 kinds of apples grow in the U.S., giving cider makers a whole world of possibilities — and even more when you consider that different varieties can be blended. Once picked, apples are pressed, releasing their juice. To turn this apple juice into cider, cider makers add yeast, kicking off fermentation.

Following fermentation, a cider of between 3% and 11% ABV results.

How does flavor improve during the juice-to-hard-cider transformation? First, fermentation introduces, through its microbial activity, all kinds of flavor nuances. Second, yeasts create alcohol by converting sugar. If they want, cider makers can limit sugar levels by controlling fermentation, giving them a blanker slate for introducing other flavors. Pineapple! Pumpkin! Aromatics like ginger! (If you want an entry point into the world of flavored ciders, consider Ace Cider and Angry Orchard.)

But ciders without added flavors are well worth drinking; they are a cleaner, more straightaway expression of the apple. Some have mild sweetness, letting cider makers shine different lights on the apple’s other flavors. With sugar lower, the bubbles of the carbonation seem to burst more noticeably. Because of this, some lower-sweetness ciders, in addition to having fewer grams of sugar, bring a carbonation and dryness akin to Champagne. (For a cider like this, try Newton’s Folly, a semi-dry canned cider from Vermont, available at Trader Joe’s.)

And many sweet hard ciders are great as well. Sometimes, capping a long fall day with a sweeter hard cider can be nostalgic and satisfying. The best sweet ciders tend to be sold at higher price points, as they come from producers who consider and respect the cider-making process more. Unfiltered ciders tend to pack a little bit more apple flavor, helping to balance their sweetness. (Look for Orchard Gate Gold by J.K.’s Farmhouse Ciders.)

If you look around at grocery stores and specialty shops that stock many brands of cider, you’ll see that they often come in big, wine-like bottles. Some ciders are even aged in wooden barrels, or capped with a cork. We have a long tradition of cider-making in the U.S., and so do places like parts of France and Spain’s Basque country. Cider, like beer, wine, and other drinks, has evolved differently in each of its different places.

This fall, in the wake of the pumpkin spice rush, remember hard apple cider. It’s a drink with deep American roots. It’s a refreshing beverage that, when made right, will kindle the spirit of fall inside of you. More than anything, hard apple cider is apple appreciation and fall’s bounty from a slightly different angle, yet another way of savoring the great season.