It was nearly 16 years ago, but Stephen Patterson can recall the day with piercing clarity. An Irish expat living in New Orleans, Patterson was eagerly anticipating a visit from his sister-in-law, who was toting along some tastes from home. One of those should have been a bottle of Strongbow, a hard cider that was Patterson’s favorite drink at the time. Alas, it was not to be.
“She left it somewhere along the way in transit. I was just devastated,” he said. “I mean, what I always told people coming from overseas was to pick up a newspaper from the airport and bring along some cider. That’s what I missed and you just couldn’t get it here back then.”
The days of asking relatives to mule cider over international borders are long gone, however. Cider is surging across the U.S., and in New Orleans it’s increasingly common to find the beverage close at hand.
Today, Patterson runs Mid-City’s Finn McCool’s Irish Pub, where he stocks five different ciders. In fact, bars all across town are making room for more cider, from watering holes like Markey’s Bar in the Bywater to the Uptown craft beer palace the Avenue Pub. A few local eateries are even developing a specialty in cider, working it into a role somewhere between beer and wine and praising its pairing potential for different foods.
Made from fermented apples, hard cider typically has an alcohol content similar to beer, though some can be much stronger. It makes a refreshing, lighter-tasting beverage in hot weather, when some aficionados pour theirs over ice, and the drink aligns well with the gluten-free trend.
“It was only the expats before who wanted it or even knew it really,” said Matt Murphy, a Dublin native and chef/owner of the Irish House restaurant and pub on St. Charles Avenue. “Not anymore though. We serve loads of it, right behind Guinness.”
Long regarded as an indispensible beverage around western Europe, cider was also once a staple of early American life before withering in popularity through the 19th century and then practically disappearing after Prohibition. But from a slow comeback that began in the 1990s, cider sales are now growing at a galloping rate around the U.S.
Marketing has been on the rise as larger beverage companies have gotten on board the cider wagon.
Stella Artois Cidre debuted this year from the popular Belgian beer brand, for instance, and since its own launch in 2011 the Angry Orchard brand, from the Boson-based makers of Samuel Adams beer, has vaulted to the top of the American cider market, according to beverage industry tracker Impact Databank.
Most of these bigger brands are based on or inspired by Irish and English style ciders, which tend range from sweet to fairly dry. But along with the greater availability of cider has come access to a much wider variety of styles, with vastly different flavor profiles.
For instance, the retail racks at Stein’s Market & Deli now hold close to 20 different ciders, from familiar brands in tall cans to more exotic examples from Normandy and Spain’s Basque country corked in wine and Champagne bottles. Jez Luckett, who oversees beverages for the Uptown deli, compared the recent evolution of cider to the rise of smaller-scale craft brewers.
“The farther we get from the big, traditional beer brands, the more people see they really can get something that’s a crafted beverage, and the same goes for cider,” he said. “There’s more openness now to trying things that are different.”
The French Quarter restaurant and bar Cane & Table has recently built a niche for Spanish cider in particular, which managing partner Nick Detrich explained as a nod to the Spanish influences on its Caribbean-inspired food menu.
On a recent night, bartender Braden LaGrone poured cider from a bottle of Ramos del Valle through a narrow, spigot-shaped decanter — called a porrón — to aerate the beverage before service. Under this frothy head, the cider had a ripe, yeasty, citrus flavor, which contrasted sharply to the more tart and sour Isastegi cider that Cane & Table also stocks.
Detrich hopes to expand Cane & Table’s Spanish cider offerings from five to seven brands this summer.
These differences across regional styles is one of the joys of sampling newly available ciders, said Richard Sutton, proprietor of St. James Cheese Co. He now routinely uses ciders in cheese pairing seminars and St. James Cheese stocks four brands to serve beside its sandwiches and cheese plates.
“When you’re looking for what goes with cheese and charcuterie, the qualities you get with cider make it a good choice,” Sutton said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.