Hard cider isn't so hard to make

If your concept of hard cider is something akin to Hornsby's bubbly, super-sweet, quaffing brew that offers non-beer drinkers an alcohol option at autumn tailgating, then you're missing out on the tantalizing segment of the genre.

How so? Think white wine with an apple finish. Something that a lot of folks are pleased to be serving alongside many of their favorite autumn foods, such as cheese panini, roast pork loin, spicy boiled shrimp and hearty stews. Indeed, the easiest style to make in your own home — an elegant, dry (that's "unsweet" in wine speak), non-bubbly sipper — can be likened to an Oregon pinot gris or pinot blanc, with a bit more apple on the palate.

From that concept, you also can move toward sweeter and bubblier options. But the point is, it's a sophisticated taste, one that embraces the autumn apple harvest on levels far above what you most likely think of as hard cider.

Of course, the only way such quality can occur is by starting with really good, sweet cider. And the only way to obtain a really good glass of sweet cider — cider that stands up on your palate and says "APPLE! APPLE! APPLE!" — is to make your own. Or be really good friends with someone who does. Or be lucky enough to have a nearby farmers market where apple growers are selling their homemade juice.

Romans were doing it in 55 B.C., and by the mid-19th century, it had become a popular American pastime as well. These days, however, it's a select few who are willing to devote themselves to obtaining the pure, unadulterated juice from the autumn apple crop.

Granted, there's an unavoidable amount of time and energy involved, but it doesn't have to be a chore. Not with a group of friends in the same fix: so many apples, so little time. Gather them together for a day or evening of apple pressing and send them all home with jugs of homemade cider.

Turning that sweet cider into hard cider gets you dabbling in the area of fermentation science, which is fairly straightforward but comes with its own list of dos and don'ts. Making cider is relatively simple, but you'll need to rent or purchase some pieces of equipment you probably don't have. It's an investment you can consider once you're sure you want to go through with the activity.

Meanwhile, for the uninitiated, a basic understanding of hard cider styles is a good place to begin your education. Its alcohol content generally is between 5 and 12 percent, just like beer and wine.

In a broad way, there are two basic styles: still (no bubbles) and sparkling (which has a more Champagne-like personality). Beyond that, the styles swing wildly across a broad range from dry (not sweet), all the way through to very sweet (dessert-wine sweet). What all styles will have in common, however, if they're made properly, is a clean, apple flavor.

When purchasing hard cider, know that English ciders tend to be dry and well-aged. French hard ciders are typically less potent than other ciders, with an alcohol content in the 5 to 6 percent level. American hard ciders fill in the broad middle of that spectrum. Some, like Hornsby's Pubdrafts Draft cider, are fresh and crisp with a delicious apple aroma. Other makers are producing mellow, sweet and delicate offerings.

The following recipes are ones that will give you an idea of the types of foods hard cider complements. For the most part, think apple-friendly fare. Like I already mentioned, cheesy dishes are dynamite with the dry styles, as are robust stews, seafood and pork dishes.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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