The latest trend in brewing tastes nothing like lager, ale or stout. It's not made from barley or wheat. In fact, it's not beer. Hard cider, the fermented juice of orchard fruit, is on a tear, and brewers are bellying up to the tap like thirsty lumberjacks at happy hour.
The most recent entrant: Molson Canadian Cider, the company's first non-beer spinoff of the Molson Canadian brand since it was introduced in 1959. Launched in May in Ontario and Nova Scotia, the product follows hot on the heels of an array of offerings from big breweries around the world, including Alexander Keith's Original Cider from Canada, Somersby from Carlsberg of Denmark, Angry Orchard from Boston Beer Co. and Michelob Ultra Light Cider, both from the United States. And Heineken of Amsterdam recently took over North American distribution of global leader Strongbow, an English brand that happens to be handled in Canada by Molson under a marketing partnership with Heineken.
In Ontario alone, where the liquor control board launched 20 new brands over the past five years, year-to-date cider sales are up almost 60 per cent in dollar terms, according to LCBO spokeswoman Heather MacGregor. Though the budding category accounts for just 1 per cent of alcoholic-beverage volume nationally, unit sales in Canada jumped 32 per cent in 2012 versus the previous year, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers. And volume this year is projected to grow by 18 per cent over 2012, says Kristi Knowles, a vice-president of marketing at Molson Coors Canada.
Usually off-dry to medium sweet, with light effervescence, cider tends to measure between 4 and 8 per cent alcohol, which casts it as a welcome gluten-free alternative to beer. That sweet profile has proven especially popular with younger adults, who've taken to sipping cider on the rocks, like rum and Coke, Knowles notes. "The millennial crowd is really enjoying cider," she says. So are women, who account for 46 per cent of global cider sales versus about 30 per cent for beer, Knowles adds.
It's not just a big-brand world. The finest ciders, in my opinion, tend to come from small farmhouse operations, which, unlike some large companies, eschew apple concentrate and added flavourings and often mature their products in oak barrels for added complexity.
Coat-Albret Cidre Bouché
Artisanal de Bretagne Brut, France
Score: 94; Price: $11.95/750 ml
This is glorious, hard-core stuff from Brittany, with lively effervescence and rich apple-sauce flavour complemented by bitter astringency and funky aromatic overtones suggesting barnyard air. Like many artisan offerings, it comes in a heavy Champagne-style 750-millilitre bottle. Available only in cases of 12 direct from the Toronto-based importer, Le Caviste, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crémant St-Nicolas Sparkling
Score: 91; Price: $12/750ml
Quite dry, with a whisper of sweetness for a round, smooth profile, this is polished and precise, with a light crackle and flavour of fresh red apples with a gentle floral aroma of blossoms. At just 2.8-per-cent alcohol, it's as delicate as they come.
Sir Isaac's Premium Pear Cider, Ontario
Score: 90; Price: $2.75/473ml
Yes, it's made from pears, a beverage historically called perry in Britain. There's history in the can, too. Made by Puddicombe Cider Co. of Winona, Ont., it takes its name from cidery founder Brock M.A. Puddicombe's great-great-great grandfather, Isaac Brock Henry, a child named in honour of Sir Isaac Brock, a British army hero of the War of 1812. On the dry side, this excellent brand shows farmhouse complexity, with floral aromatics and refreshing tartness on the finish.
Thornbury Premium Apple
Score: 90; Price: $2.95/473ml
Crisp and lively, with refreshing green-apple flavour followed by a note of apple pie. A fine craft effort from Nobleton, Ont.
Lonetree Authentic Dry Cider, British Columbia
Score: 90; Price: $10.65/6-pack
Made from Okanagan fruit, it's light and almost dry, with flavours that suggest candied apple and candied pineapple, lifted by lively carbonation.
Stutz Premium Craft Cider,
Score: 89; Price: $2.95/473ml
Sweeter than off-dry yet framed by fresh acidity, this modestly effervescent, light-golden liquid strikes a compelling balance between baked and fresh apple flavours. Made entirely from Nova Scotian apples.
Molson Canadian Cider, Canada
Score: 88; Price: $2.90/473ml.
A surprise. As a craft-cider die-hard, I like this more than I had expected. And, true to its name, it's made with all-Canadian apples, with medium sweetness answered by good tartness. But it's an oddity, with a flavour that mainly suggests apples (of course) with a hint of popcorn-like grain on the finish. A beer-lover's cider, which I suspect is what Molson was aiming for.
Score: 82; Price: $14.15/6-pack
The world's most prominent brand, this tastes a little too much like simple apple juice with alcohol to me, though there are other ingredients in the mix, including glucose syrup, sugar, lactic and citric acids. It lacks mid-palate body.
Seagram Apple Cider, Canada
Score: 79; Price : $2.95/473 ml
Quite sugary, and that's not my thing. Baked apple, medium effervescence and a cloying profile that may satisfy sweet-toothed drinkers who might be caught with a vodka-based cooler when they're not craving cider.