Thanksgiving is a wonderful meal. What’s not to love about a tender turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, gravy, and pie? There is one element of the meal that has always felt… under considered. So much thought goes into food at the most festive meal of the year, that when it comes time to grab a drink most of us tend to reach for whatever is handy. Beer? Sure, as long as it’s cold. Wine? Yup. Bourbon? Just cut to the chase and make it a double. But, let’s be honest, none of these beverages seems to fit with the seasonal glory and bold flavors of the holiday table. Even seasonal craft brews often come up short. After all, does anyone really want to drink a beer that tastes like pumpkin pie with, well… pumpkin pie? The rise of craft ciders is the answer we have been waiting for. They provide one of autumn’s essential flavors — apples, which though they may be a crowd favorite when incorporated into pie, are far too often overlooked in our Thanksgiving spirits. Light and acidic cider cuts through the gravy and provide a palate cleanser in between bites, and its relatively modest alcohol content ensures that everyone will be awake for the fourth quarter.
North Carolina is embracing the craft cider boom, so we paid a visit to Carolina’s top cider evangelist, Mattie Beason, who gave us the lowdown on cider and why it works so well with Thanksgiving. Beason, who offers upwards of 90 different ciders at his restaurant, Black Twig Cider House, in Durham, gave us a shopping list of five North Carolina ciders that are sure to perk up your tastebuds for that third helping of stuffing.
Beason fell in love with cider on a trip to Spain. He was travelling with a wine importer through Europe to meet winemakers and establish relationships with vineyards, but it was cider that caught his eye — particularly the cider of the northern coast of Spain in Asturias and Basque Country. There cider is part of a distinct style of establishment called a Sagardotegi, a cider house crossed with a steakhouse where guests are served a still cider directly from wooden barrels. “There was such a tradition there that it was almost like fantasy,” he recalls. “They were so in love with what they did and had been doing it for so long that it was hard not feel their excitement.” For Beason, the highlight of the Basque cider experience were the cider barrels called txotx. Patrons gather around the txotx and catch the cider in their glass as it gushess out of a small tap in the barrel. The still cider hits the glass with such force that, even though it is a still drink, it becomes fizzy. It’s dry and sweet and wonderfully effervescent all at once. It’s not like anything else.
Beason wanted to bring that cider tradition back to North Carolina. He also wanted to help resurrect the hard cider tradition that existed throughout America prior to prohibition. Cider flourished in Colonial America where European apple trees quickly took root and thrived. Cider was then, as it is now, an agricultural product, but it’s popularity extended into the cities where it was drunk as a substitution for water of questionable quality. John Adams began every morning with a tankard of cider. Even children were served a weaker version called ciderkin.
“Prior to prohibition, we weren’t growing apples to eat, we were growing them to drink,” says Beason. In the 19th century, beer supplanted cider in the urban centers, thanks to a group of German immigrant with names like Budweiser, Coors, and Schlitz. In rural America, cider remained an essential beverage until the prohibition movement really took hold.
“Prohibitionists went after growers,” Beason explains, “you had people going into orchards with axes and cutting down cider apple trees.” The success of prohibition in the early 20th century made cider apples an endangered commodity. Farmers had little reason to grow cider apples, which are too bitter and tannic to be attractive hand fruit.
After prohibition the production of other spirits resumed, but because of the paucity of cider apple trees, cider didn’t. This left America without a distinct, continuous, cider-making tradition. Countries like Spain, France, or Britain had been producing cider and cultivating cider apples uninterrupted for many centuries.
Today, US cider makers are not bound by tradition, and that has made ingenuity the name of the game for producers who know they need originality to make a mark. “Domestically it’s the wild, wild west. We can do whatever we want to,” Beason says. In contrast to Europe, many American cider makers have followed the lead of craft brewers and have started to experiment with flavors and blends.“The newer makers are adding everything from berries to hops to create brand new flavor profiles that are acceptable to any number of different palates,” says Beason.
North Carolina is very much in the game, with over a dozen hard cider producers centered mostly in the western part of the state, but extending as far east as Fishing Creek Cider in Whitakers, near Rocky Mount.
This boom in cider production gave Beason the products he needed to open the kind of cider house that had been dreaming of, and the interest in cider gave North Carolina importers and distributors a reason to carry a full range of local and international ciders, “We have 90 selections and that’s not me buying absolutely everything,” he says. “I’m now able to be picky and still have 90 selections that I think are great.”
Beason is excited by the quality of North Carolina cider. “It’s a pure product and the cider here is true to form.” The market for cider is growing and local cider is, according to Beason, only getting better, more unique, and easier to find, “We’re continuing to push our farmers and orchardists to grow apples and more interesting apples for us to use.”
Beason says his vision for hard cider is something akin to the explosion of locally-minded breweries North Carolina has seen over the last decade, “It would be really cool to get to a point where, at least in the western part of the state, you had multiple cider producers across multiple communities.” He believes the market here could sustain that kind of production, “I think we could support them, and my hope would be be it wouldn’t just be supporting them to the point where they were just getting by, but have cideries that are thriving, and making money, and living well.”
So, why choose cider on turkey day? Beason says cider works with all those rich fall flavors. “Thanksgiving as a meal, especially the way we make it in the South, is really savory but also really sweet. We love to put our sweet stuff on our savory table, we love sweet potatoes and marshmallows, some sort of funky vegetable cobbler, or corn pudding? That stuff is as sweet as a dessert.” With all that richness Beason says you need something that balances rather than overpowers your tastebuds. With wine, beer, or a hard liquor you run the risk overpowering all those wonderful flavors, “Pretty soon your palate loses track of everything.”
Cider gives you the opportunity to start new every time, “I want every bite to be different. You might have 9 different things on your plate. You want to taste all of them.”
Here are Beason’s recommendations for five North Carolina ciders that will magically pair with everything on your Thanksgiving table:
McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks, Thurmond
McRitchie offers a variety of semi-sweet and dry ciders inspired by the Brittany in Northern France
$17.99 per 750ml Bottle
Fishing Creek Cider Company, Whitakers
Fishing Creek makes a slightly cloudy relatively dry cider that is packed with bubbles, and pairs well with everything
$17.99 per 750ml Bottle
Bull City Ciderworks, Durham and Lexington
Bull City has many flavors and seasonal options. Start with their Off Main, a crisp, slightly sweeter option that is the flagship of their line
$2.29 per 12oz bottle $17.99 per growler
Noble Cider, Asheville
Try their Standard Bearer, or for something different The Village Tart, which is made with cherries
$6.89 per 500ml Bottle
Urban Orchard, Asheville
Try their Kalikimaka which is infused with cranberry for a tart pairing
$19 per growler including a refundable $3 deposit
Distribution on these ciders varies throughout the state. Try your local wine or bottle shop, or contact the cider makers directly. (The prices listed reflects what we found at our nearest retailers.)
For more of Mattie Beason's cider expertise visit Black Twig Cider
House, 2812 Erwin Road, Ste. 104, Durham NC.