In the 1800s, cider was the most popular drink in America. By the 1980s, it was basically unheard of. But now it’s starting to push back into the spotlight, following the popularity of the craft beer and craft cider movements.
And there are few places in the South where you can find a larger selection of ciders than at the Black Twig Cider House in Durham, which boasts a menu of 90 ciders.
That’s a good thing. Because as ciders continue gaining popularity and shelf space in grocery stores, it’s worth getting better acquainted with this beverage.
Black Twig celebrated its one-year anniversary on April 1 and will host its second Txotxfest this fall, an intriguing nod to cider’s Spanish traditions.
As Black Twig continues to prove its staying power, other bars and bottle shops in the Triangle have started offering more ciders. And in the past few months, one new cidery has opened in the Triangle – Chatham County Cider Works – while Bull City Ciderworks has re-opened.
Yet most people are still relatively unfamiliar with craft cider, including yours truly. So I visited Black Twig for a crash course from owner/fanatic Mattie Beason.
The most surprising thing about this bar, off Erwin Road a stone’s throw from Duke University, is the size of the menu.
The cider list is bigger than the wine list at all but some of the Triangle’s nicest restaurants, and a handful of ciders cost as much as a bottle of wine. There’s a beer and wine selection, too, but cider is clearly the star.
Beason, who is both a sommelier and a certified cider expert, stepped onto his soap box when I asked how it made sense to have 80 or 90 different ciders on the menu.
“There are 200 varieties of apples,” he said. “So imagine everything you can do with wine, with far fewer kinds of grapes. So why couldn’t you do that with cider?”
He then proved his point with a flight of a half-dozen different pours.
One was spicy, one was sweet with ginger, others had notes of cherry or cinnamon and plum, almost like a pie, and others were just classic, crisp ciders with varying levels of sweetness.
Some ciders, you could easily chug on a hot day at a picnic. Others are more champagne-like and dry, made for sipping.
“It’s all subjective,” Beason said, explaining why he wanted a wide variety in prices, flavors and styles on the menu.
“I mean, have I had more cider than anyone in North Carolina? Probably yes,” he said. “But I realize everyone has different tastes.”
A week later I went back with some friends who proved him right. Almost every one of them disliked the cider that Beason had told me was his favorite, but they all liked some that he said he keeps on the menu, even though he wouldn’t necessarily order them himself.
We also experienced the “txotx,” which is a Spanish cider tradition where cider spews out of a barrel in a wall, and your group catches it in glasses, one by one. (A grate is in the floor to catch leftovers.) The cider itself wasn’t my favorite, but the fun is undeniable.
Black Twig is at 2812 Erwin Road, Suite 104, Durham.
New local cideries
North Carolina’s newest cider house is Chatham Cider Works in Pittsboro.
Chatham Cider Works opened in January and, although it’s usually not open to the public, you can get a sneak peek on April 15 from noon to 5 p.m. at its Lorax Lane facility for an open house. On other days of the year, you can find the drinks at local restaurants.
Just don’t expect anything like what you’ll find at the grocery store. Maureen Ahmad, who owns the cidery with her husband, Jim Crawford, said their drinks are made with “cider enthusiasts” in mind.
“They like to have something they aren’t accustomed to drinking,” she said. “Ours is more alcoholic than most, which top out at around 5 percent (ABV). Ours is around 10 percent, more like an apple wine.”
For a more standard approach, Bull City Ciderworks is back in town to the delight of many residents who missed it.
The cidery left town for Lexington last year after losing its lease on Elizabeth Street. But business was good enough that the company was able to keep that Lexington location open and also return home to its eponymous city. It re-opened last month at 305 S. Roxboro St., around the corner from its original location and just outside the American Tobacco district, with a crowd out the door.
The owners were a bit excited and wrote on Facebook: “We love you Cider Heads and couldn’t be more excited to be BACK IN THE BULL CITY!!”
Finally, there’s a bit of intrigue surrounding one Raleigh cidery, The Naughty Penguin. It announced in January that it would be temporarily stopping production to move to a bigger facility, writing on Facebook: “We will be back later this year with even more naughty than before.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran