It’s not at all unusual to have a single ingredient, maybe a spice or a vague white vegetable, baffle our taste buds. But it is rare and interesting to taste something wholly elusive. Something that’s neither delicious nor unpalatable, something so strange that even after the second or the fifth or even the tenth swallow we still can’t pin down the flavor — or how we feel about it.
This happened to us recently. We had been out ambling in the cornfields and fishing streams around Stockholm, Wisconsin, and decided to visit Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery, the orchard and brewery of Herdie Baisden (above) and Carol Wiersma. It was an oppressively hot day, so the apple orchard was perfectly still and empty, but we found a nice-size crowd milling in the cool of the cidery’s big red barn. We too were tempted to linger — the tasting room is very pleasant, lined with pine and filled with all kinds of goodies, including ciders, wines, and jams — but in our waders and boots it didn’t seem like the thing to do. We picked out a few semi-dry ciders to try and headed home, where we lined them up for a side-by-side tasting.
The Honeycrisp Hard ($69.90 / 24 case) was just what we would have expected from the apple, honeyed and sweet with a crisp, tart finish. Its lush apple flavors made it a great dining companion, and we liked it alongside a ripe sandwich that included a 15-year-old aged cheddar and strong mustard.
Next we tried Scrumpy ($62.91 / 24 case), a classic English farmhouse cider. The website describes it as less filtered, “more robust, darker and cloudier than most ciders.” When we popped the cap, it smelled earthy and musky, like a bushel of ripe apples, and we expected it to pour like unfiltered apple cider or the murky stuff at the bottom of the vinegar. Instead, it was quite refined. A shade or two darker than the Honeycrisp Hard, it was clear and tasted like dry champagne, very mellow with a subtly sweet-tart flavor and only a hint of apple. Although very refreshing and agreeable, this one wilted under too much pressure from food; we thought it might go well with a plate of fruit and a triple cream brie. (Note: If you like a hard cider float, try a scoop of ginger-basil ice cream. We did, and the Scrumpy brought out the sweet, perfume-y side of the ginger and foamed up beautifully.)
And then came the mysterious and complex Golden Russet ($12.95 / bottle), a flat, semi-dry cider made with an American heirloom apple of the same name.
The Golden Russet is known for its potato-like skin, sweet, nutty flavor, and juiciness, which apparently makes it great for eating and drinking. Yet, in all the different flavors we pulled out of the cider, sweet and apple were not among them. In fact, it was pretty tart, more like a rich, mild vinegar than a citrus fruit, but without all the sweetness of a balsamic. And under that, there was a something pungent and musky — mushrooms, leather, or wood. We couldn’t place it, but the flavor reminded us a little of the Greek wine, retsina.
It tasted intentional, like an acquired taste, and we couldn’t decide if we liked it or were simply fascinated by it. We decided to give Baisden a call and see what he had to say about the apple and the cider. When we described how it tasted to us, he gave an encouraging, “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.”
And then he explained: “Most ciders are a blend of apples, but the Golden Russet is one of the few rare apples that has enough acid, enough tannin, and enough sugar to make a balanced cider. So this is a single-variety cider, and that’s what produces all those flavors — I call it depth, and it comes from those tannins — that you are tasting.”
For example, the Honeycrisp Hard cider is fermented down, and then honey is added to it to balance out the sweetness with the apple’s acid and tannins. The latter two are just as important as sugar, Baisden said.”The tannins give us structure and mouthfeel, and the acid helps us with sprightliness — it helps keep the cider from tasting flat.”
With the Golden Russet, the cider is fermented off the apple juice alone; there’s no sugar added. It is aged in bulk for three months and in the bottle for one, time enough to mellow out those sprightly acids. Still, Baisden said they do classify it as a bitter-sharp cider. When asked what he tastes in the cider, he too mentioned its complexity, citing a slight apple aroma and hints of pear.
Bottom line, would we buy it again? Yes, absolutely, when we feel like something thoughtful, maybe a little challenging, to drink rather than the universally pleasing Honeycrisp Hard, so easily quaffed.
Note: Prices listed are for online purchases. Ciders can also be purchased at the cidery in Stockholm in six packs or as single bottles, in the case of the Golden Russet.