Traditional hard ciders are those made from only apples and pears. No adjuncts, which would be anything that augments the color, flavor, or taste of the hard cider. For me, that includes aging in oak. I’ve set out to taste as many hard ciders as I can from all over the world. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to taste every hard cider out there, but I plan to try. So far, I’m approaching 300 and counting.
I always enjoyed the aromas and taste of hard cider. Searching the world for new hard cider recipes and ideas inspires me but it’s also a lot of fun. As I consider my favorite Traditional hard ciders, I sorted them into four subcategories: Farmhouse, Sweet, Tart, and Perry. For each of these, I selected my favorite and two honorable mention choices. Hopefully, you can find one of these and try them yourself. Because these types of hard ciders rely heavily on the apples and pears used, it can be tough to create a hard cider recipe for crafting at home. That is why I planted some cider apple trees and I am looking to propagate other apples I’ve found through grafting. It’s almost as fun as drinking hard cider!
This hard cider subcategory is all about the tannin. Tannins provide the phenolic aromas of leather, bitters, mushroom, or similar earthy notes. The tannins provide that astringent drying that makes you want to drink more cider. Lastly, they provide that bitter finish. To get these elements, you have to use heirloom or cider apples. These contain the tannins that you need. Dessert apples don’t have the tannins needed to make a Traditional farmhouse cider. These hard cider recipes are likely to include apples like Kingston Black, Harrison, Dabinett, Hewe’s Crab, Yarlington Mill, and similar varieties.
Since I’ve visited the West Country in England, this is a hard one. I’ve had so many good farmhouse ciders, some while standing in the “farmhouse”. As is usual, I’m all about the balance. I want something that has a phenolic aroma, good astringency, and a nice finish that doesn’t overpower the apple. My top choice in the Farmhouse subcategory is…. Brut Cidre by Le Brun from Brittany, France. Yes, I went with a French hard cider and a Brittany cider versus one from Normandy. It is extremely smooth with a great balance of bitters, astringency, and acid.
The two honorable mention Farmhouse Traditional hard ciders are… Dabinett & Kingston Black by Whitewood Cider Company located in Washington and Dry Organic Cider by Dunkertons in England. Both can be found in the US but you’ll probably have to visit the cidery to get the Whitewood. A friend brought me one back to sample.
Sweet Hard Cider:
The next subcategory is Sweet hard cider. Sweet is a relative description because it often depends on the amount of total acids in the hard cider. Assuming you don’t add acid to the hard cider, the apples used in your hard cider recipe will define the amount of acid you have. A hard cider made from Granny Smith apples will have more total acids than a hard cider made from Mutsu apples. Yeast can also impact the amount of total acids, but that’s a discussion for another day. The point is that sweetness is relative to your palate. It’s also not just the amount of sugar in the hard cider but the amount of acid as well.
If my choices for Sweet Traditional hard ciders are not sweet enough for you, at least we’ve learned how our palates are different. My top choice for this category is…Fuji Unfiltered by Original Sin in New York. It has a sweetness that isn’t overpowering while providing some tartness. It’s a cloudy hard cider, but that doesn’t detract from the taste.
My two honorable mention hard ciders for Sweet Traditional are… Whimple Orchards by Courtney’s located in England and Blackjack Twenty One Premium Craft Cider by ACE. ACE is based in Northern California. I had to get the Whimple in England but you can find ACE throughout the U.S.
Tart Hard Cider:
A tart hard cider is what you will often find in eastern England and in the United States. Rather than heirloom or cider apples being the base for the hard cider, dessert apples are used. These are generally more modern apple varieties that were cultivated to not brown when cut and to be crispy. As a result, the tannins are diminished and the apple tends to be tart, like Granny Smith or Cripps Pink, sweet like an Ambrosia or Red Delicious, or a combination of sweet and acidic like Fuji or Honey Crisp.
Personally, these are the types of apples that I often use in my Adjunct hard cider recipes. Adjunct hard ciders will be another post but those are hard ciders where other fruits, herbs, spices, or plants are added to change the flavors or color of the cider. Let’s get back to my favorite Traditional tart hard ciders.
Rating hard cider can be like rating music, it is very personal. Again, I seek balance but carbonated balance! I prefer tart ciders that have a high level of carbonation. I think this helps with the mouthfeel as many are light bodied. I also feel this helps with a really dry tart cider. If your palate doesn’t enjoy champagne, you probably won’t enjoy my picks because that’s what I look for in this category. Feel free to tell me how bad my picks are in the following comments section.
My top choice for tart hard cider is… All Made Equal by Hawkes in London. It’s a collaboration with Tom Oliver. It has acid, tannins, and apple aromas. If you get the opportunity to taste it while having a pizza at Hawkes, you will have found a little piece of heaven.
My two honorable mention choices are… Golden Russet by Stoic Cider in Arizona and Wild Washington Apple by Tieton In Washington. Both are dry and let the acid shine through along with the apple.
This last Traditional hard cider is really not cider but perry. Pears and apples are cousins and every style or regulation body that I know around the world allows the inclusion of pears and apples in cider or perry. What makes it a hard cider versus a perry? It is the amount of juice. If you use more than 50% apple juice versus pear juice, you made a cider. If you use more than 50% pear juice versus apples juice, you made a perry.
You may notice that I include pears or pear juice in a lot of my hard cider recipes. If you read my post on making hard cider sweet, you’ll know why. Besides the residual sweetness, there is also the aromas. Pears taste like pears. They bring unique aromas and flavors to perry or hard cider. Personally, I really enjoy perry and like using pears in hard cider. Just like apples, there are heirloom and perry pears that can be tannin filled goodness. One of the most astringent pomme fruits (apples, pears, and such) I’ve ever tried was a pear. If you think finding cider apples is hard, try finding true perry pears.
With farmhouse hard cider, I love the balance of tannins and tartness with the apple flavors. With perry, I’m looking for a similar balance of tannins and tartness but with the added benefit of getting more residual sweetness. You also get the pear aromas. While I don’t care for overly sweet perry, I’m open on carbonation level. My top Traditional perry is… Barrel Aged Pear by Stoic Cider in Arizona. Yes, I cheated because it’s barrel aged but it’s a perry and it’s really good. Look for it in Phoenix.
My two honorable mentions for Traditional perries are Farm Pressed Perry by Burrow Hill in England, which is has fairly clean pear taste with some sweetness, and Organic Perry by Samuel Smith in England. It’s widely distributed in the US and has a lot of pear aromas and some sweetness.
Look for these at your local bottle shops, craft wine and beer stores, or even online. If you are in Europe, I recommend Scrattngs Craft Cider Shop. Here’s the link.
I realize that there are a lot of really good hard ciders and perry out there. Living in the Southwest, my cidery options are limited compared to Seattle, Portland, New York, Chicago, or similar hard cider hot spots. I have to embark on trips to experience cider at cideries. This is part of why I started making my own.
Personally, I focus on organic and no sulfites for my hard cider recipes but I’ll try any cider and love doing it. If you disagree with my choices or want to tell me how right I am, leave me a comment. I’d love to hear about your favorite Traditional hard ciders or perry. If you have questions, or comments about hard cider, check out the other areas of my website or my book.
Also, if you want more hard cider ratings, check out the Cider Expert app that can be downloaded for Apple or Android devices. You’ll find my hard cider ratings under PricklyCider.