Hard cider comes out of hiding in Pennsylvania

Before last week, the last time I tasted hard cider, I was about 9. Granny was in the kitchen cooking up some possum stew, and Uncle Jed was out by the cee-ment pond, whittlin’ his stick.

Me and Cousin Jethro snuck into the root cellar and found Granny’s jug, threateningly marked XXX. Talk about “bubblin’ crude,” that cider had us flying for the rest of the afternoon.

My family, naturally unnerved by this boyhood episode, loaded up the truck and spirited me away to Pennsylvania, land of the America’s most regressive booze laws. In these parts, hard cider is stashed in a hiding place even more forbidding than Granny’s cellar: the dusty shelves of your local State Store. Only a few crusty, unsmiling clerks in short-sleeved shirts know the hidden location of those cider-filled bottles.

But that’s about to change.

Last week, the guv’nah signed a bill to legalize the sale of hard cider in bars, takeout stores and distributors. Thus, Pennsylvania joins the rest of the civilized drinking world in regarding hard cider as a beverage that is closer to beer than wine.

Already, cidermakers are gearing up distribution. Within days, you’ll be able to pick up a chilled six at your deli, or down a glass at the corner taproom.

Joe Sixpack is a proud supporter of any change that makes it easier and cheaper for the responsible adults to consume their favorite alcoholic concoction. In a state where anti-consumer laws prevent customers from buying less than a full case at a distributor, to cite one inane rule, removing cider from state stores is a veritable emancipation proclamation.

Secreted away in the cubbyholes of those unpleasant state-run liquor stores, hard cider was nearly invisible. Last year, I’m told, the Liquor Control Board sold an average of one bottle per store a week.

As the juice becomes more available, though, I’m still not certain who is actually going to drink the stuff. Jethro and me notwithstanding, hard cider may take some time to develop a loyal following.

Though the law now treats cider like a malt beverage, many drinkers will find that mainstream cider tastes closer to Bartles & James wine coolers.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see Bud drinkers popping open bottles of Seven Sisters pear cider, a fruity, effervescent brew I guzzled by the pool this weekend. More likely it’ll appeal to wine drinkers who don’t like beer; they can drain hard cider easily for a fine happy hour wallop.

William Reed, head brewer at Samuel Adams Brewhouse (1516 Samson St., Center City), believes hard cider will attract women and craft brew fans willing to experiment with cider’s variety of flavors.

“A well-made cider has a complexity beyond a sweet, apple-y soda-pop flavor,” says Reed. (Like many other Pennsylvania brewers, Reed has previously cooked up cider-like ales, which contained portion of malt so that it could be sold legally as a malt beverage.) He presses his apples at an orchard in New Hope, where the fruit’s sharp aromas are so potent they grab your cerebellum and shake it to the core. “You can get some really incredible flavors out of apples,” says Reed.

Today’s mass-brewed ciders are considerably smoother than the tonic ol’ Jethro and I discovered down in Bug Tussle, Tenn. But if you want to duplicate Granny’s brew, it’s as easy as buying a bottle of unfiltered apple cider. Drain off a glass and leave the cap slightly ajar; store it in a cool, dark place. In a month or so, it’ll ferment into hard cider.

Pour it into a jug marked XXX, and – wellll . . . doggie! – that’s some fine cider.

Industry experts predict that within the next 10 years, cider will account for 5 percent of the domestic beer market. The prospect of all those sales (and taxes) no doubt drove the Legislature to finally OK the cider law.

Ironically, the nation’s biggest cidermaker, Gallo Wineries, will be blocked from selling its George Hornsby’s Draft Cider in the state.

A last-minute change in the cider bill – reportedly authored by a senator who had a grudge against Gallo’s Harrisburg lobbyist – limits alcohol content to 5.5 percent; Hornsby registers at 6 percent. The senator, James J. Rhoads of Schuylkill County, told the Inky’s Russell Eshleman Jr. that he added the amendment to protect the market for Woodchuck Amber Cider, produced by Stroh’s of Allentown.

In fact, Stroh’s owns only 50 percent of Woodchuck, and the cider is actually made in Vermont.

The bottles, however, come from Connellsville, Pa.

Joe Sixpack (written this week with the aid of a bottle of Seven Sisters Raspberry) appears every other Friday.


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