In apple cider, a hard life with sweet rewards

Passion fruit: There's lots to love about hard cider, according to food-and-beverage connoisseur Ambrose Clancy.

You know cider, right?

That’s the stuff in plastic jugs you buy at a supermarket or a roadside stand out east when the leaves begin turning in October. When you’re home, you take a taste and begin wondering how to spell “hyperglycemia” so you can immediately Google it. It goes in the refrigerator, and before Thanksgiving has turned cloudy and vile. Right?

Ambrose Clancy: Cider houses rule.

No, you don’t know anything about cider.

Americans are just getting around to the fact that cider, in its low-alcohol form known as “hard cider, has been a mainstay in Europe since the time someone figured out how to ferment apple juice – a very long time ago – and create a soft, not-too-sweet drink that pairs perfectly with food and provides a gentle buzz.

It’s also available year-round, and many cidermakers are springing up around the country – and here on Long Island.

Summer is a good time to get acquainted with cider, to drink on hot days as a beer substitute, pack for picnics at the beach and have with a meal. These days, drink it cold, but not icy, since you want the flavor to speak to you, not be silenced by permafrost. Never add ice cubes, which weakens the hit and spoils the bold taste, and plus you’ll be taken for a hick.

Hot cider is also a treat, but I’ll circle back to you at the beginning of autumn for that one.

If today’s Americans are just beginning to recognize the joys of lightly boozed cider, we haven’t always been that way. In America, cider was once a drink of choice for everyone, right along with beer and ale, because we were once a mostly rural country and orchards were everywhere.

Also, brewed and distilled drinks were the safe choice when public sanitation was an iffy thing, and well water could easily go bad.

Hard ciders usually have about 4 to 6 percent alcohol content, similar to beer. With a taste for the stuff growing in the States, the big-boy American brewers are turning it out in a big way, with Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and others tapping into what has become a $500 million industry.

Crowd pleaser: There’s something for everyone (including outragous hard ciders) at the Riverhead Cider House.

Like beer, there is a booming craft cider industry, with several crafters on Long Island, including the Riverhead Cider House and Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue. The Riverhead operation is worth a visit, if you’re lucky to get there when it’s not besieged by buses or wedding parties on a vineyard tour.

The Cider House, located in Calverton, has its own orchard with more than 200 trees producing 15 varieties of apples. Their cider is sold in a large space, formerly a warehouse, that now has several small restaurants, cafés and tasting rooms. There are also game rooms to keep the kids busy while you’re expanding your knowledge of what the humble apple can do for your taste buds.

It’s a perfect place to get a taste of different ciders, decide what you like and fill some bottles for home.

Woodside Orchards also has several ciders for sampling, with less glitz and more of a feel of a clean, well-kept barn. They also have their own orchards and offer a flight of ciders that includes several choices, including apple-raspberry, apple-lemon and ginger-apple. All will wake up your palate with clean, vivid tastes.

What to eat with cider? One easy and delicious answer is to remember that pork and apples have a long and happy marriage, and some potent apple juice is always a perfect complement to any pork dish. The same goes with cured, baked ham and roasted chicken.

Also, if you’re trying any kind of game dish – rabbit, venison, duck – cider’s light and sweet taste, balanced by gentle acidity and notes of a blossoming orchard, go down especially well.

Cheese and apples make another perfect pair, and cider is often a better choice than red wine to savor with almost any kind of cheese. Guests at your table will be delighted by a crisp and bright glass of cider to go with an after-dinner cheese course, or before the meal instead of a cocktail.

Now you have a bit more cred when someone asks you if you’d like to have some cider. And the pleasure will be all yours.

Ambrose Clancy is an award-winning writer/editor and veteran Long Island journalist. He currently serves as the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter.