ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro.
Feeling extra American this week? Want to keep that post-turkey glow going? Well, how about a very American beverage? Cider. We're not talking about the hot mulled stuff that steams up your kitchen or the sweet pub draft in a pint glass. No, this cider is more like sparkling wine.
GREG ENGERT: This is a phenomenally funky, sour, even mildly smoky cider that has to be tasted to be believed.
SHAPIRO: Greg Engert is one of the owners of a bar in Washington called ChurchKey. He's pouring cider from a tall, champagne-style bottle that retails for around $15. ChurchKey is a bar known for beer but lots of people tonight are drinking cider. Tom Diliberto has celiac disease, so beer is out for him. Cider, on the other hand, is gluten-free.
TOM DILIBERTO: I actually find that when - if I'm either the first or kind of middle part of the group of ordering a drink and I order a cider, that someone on the other end will eventually order a cider because they want to or they feel like they have to (unintelligible)
SHAPIRO: They don't want to be the first.
DILIBERTO: They don't want to be the first. So I kind of break that social barrier and be the first one to order cider. Kind of opens up their mind, like, oh, I can order a cider. That's great.
SHAPIRO: Cider is still a small part of the overall alcohol market but it's growing faster than any other category, according to Donna Hood Crecca. She's an adult beverage analyst with the company Technomic.
DONNA HOOD CRECCA: In 2013, I mean, we're not to the end of the year yet, but we are projecting that we'll finish the year at 14 million cases, which will be a 46 percent increase.
SHAPIRO: Most of that comes from major beer makers that have jumped into the cider game. The companies that brew Sam Adams, Coors, and Budweiser have all started fermenting apples in the last couple of years. But just as craft microbrews have taken root in the beer market, artisanal ciders are now growing in the shadow of the big guys. Albemarle orchard is just around the bend from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia.
CHARLOTTE SHELTON: If we were crows, we would get there very shortly. But it would take us probably 20 minutes by the way the roads go.
SHAPIRO: Charlotte Shelton and her brothers grow some 200 varieties of rare American apples here, fruit with names like Ashmead's Kernel, Arkansas Black, Burford's Red Flesh and Geneva Crab. America's Founding Fathers grew some of these varieties, more often for drinking than for eating.
Do you think Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, George Washington would recognize the taste of the ciders that you're making here? Does it taste like what they drank back then?
SHELTON: We think so. We are very attentive to the particular varieties that we use and the blends and the single varietals that we're experimenting with. We think Mr. Jefferson would've been proud to put this on the table at Monticello.
SHAPIRO: So a pie made with Granny Smith apples won't taste like a pie made with Red Delicious apples. You're saying the same is true of cider, that a cider made from...
SHELTON: Absolutely. And I wouldn't make a pie with Red Delicious if I were you.
SHELTON: But anyway, you need acidity for your cider just as you need acidity in the fruit to stand up to heat when you're cooking.
SHAPIRO: While Charlotte works the finances at the orchard, her brother turns the fruit into cider. We meet up with him in a breezeway.
CHUCK SHELTON: Hello. I'm Chuck Shelton. I'm cider maker here Albemarle CiderWorks.
SHAPIRO: Chuck, like his sister, is in his 60s. Despite the near freezing temperatures, he's wearing shorts.
Let's step into the sun.
SHELTON: Sure. Probably going into the press area.
SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.
This whole cider thing started when the siblings gave their dad, who's now 93, an old, hand-cranked cider press for Father's Day years ago. It's irresistible to try out.
SHELTON: So apples, you feed by hand into this hopper. They're crushed by that wheel with the teeth on it because to get cider from apple, you got to get it into small chunks called pomace.
SHAPIRO: Today, the hand crank is more for display. The real cider-making process is far more high-tech.
SHELTON: Yeah. You almost need ear plugs. Some of us wear ear plugs when we're in here because when this is going, it's continuous. That's making all the noise, and this one makes a little bit noise. This is a pomace feed pump that we...
SHAPIRO: Pomace is the chunks of apples you said.
SHAPIRO: And what's through these doors?
SHELTON: This is going into the tank room. This is where we ferment.
SHELTON: Now we're in the winery.
SHAPIRO: This is awesome. This is like...
SHELTON: This is the same as a winery. This is why they say cider is a wine. It's classified as a wine. These are called white wine fermenters but - because cider is essentially white wine.
SHAPIRO: It looks like a chemistry lab in here.
SHELTON: There's chemistry involved in making cider. But I'm not saying I'm a chemist.
SHELTON: But you have to know a little bit about what you're doing. But really, cider just happens. If you press juice out of an apple, it ferments. And then the harder part is just being able to guide it to get a high-quality product in the bottle.
SHAPIRO: To find out what it tastes like out of the bottle, we head to the tasting room. Chuck pours a cider called Jupiter's Legacy. It's named after one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, Jupiter Evans.
SHELTON: Jupiter passed away, I think, in 1798 and things started - bad started happening with the cider and like they bottled too early, and the bottles were exploding. So Jefferson wrote this letter, you need to find someone with the skills necessary to take over the bottling because we can't have our cider, you know, crop exploding. So there's a letter to that effect. And we call it Jupiter's Legacy.
SHAPIRO: Let's give it a taste.
The apples are sweet but none of that sweetness comes across in the cider. All that yummy sugar in the fruit turns into yummy alcohol during the fermentation process.
If I had grown up drinking six packs of hard cider and a pint of cider over the bar and I showed up at a supermarket and bought this without knowing what was inside the bottle, I'd be pretty shocked when I first tasted it.
SHELTON: Well, that's true statement. People come in here and haven't had cider other than those ciders of macro or commercial ciders. And they said, ooh, and...
SHAPIRO: And do you get people making a face and walking out?
SHELTON: Very few. Most people come in here and buy a bottle. Now maybe that's just being courteous for taking up your time, but a lot of people buy two or three bottles. But when they do that, they actually like something it seemed. And when they buy a case, well, you know they really like it. When they come back over and over, that's even more rewarding.
SHAPIRO: Chuck Shelton of Albemarle CiderWorks. So when you're ladling out your turkey soup or piling up your turkey sandwich, maybe now you'll think about a new old American drink to go with it: cider.