One was black as the night with a foamy crown for good measure. Another was beet red. Some had fizz while others were amber-gold and sparkled under the bar lighting. Many glowed in various shades of red while others were perfectly golden.
They came in all colours and styles on this night at WVRST, a popular King St. sausage and beer hall. WVRST turned over all its beer taps on the Wednesday night of a week-long celebration of all things cider to the newest beverage craze that is getting the full attention of drinks lovers: Ontario craft cider. One thing was made very clear on this night: This is NOT your grandma’s apple cider.
The new cider, as demonstrated by the Ontario Craft Cider Association’s cider week festivities in early June, is a quickly emerging trend (heck, not even a trend anymore) that is rapidly taking over taps in Ontario and shelf space wherever they can get it.
On this night at WVRST, billed “Flight Night,” consumers could customize their own flight from the 18 ciders on tap and match the cider with exclusive food pairings by the talented kitchen crew.
When I arrived to the event, the line to get in snaked down King Street. When I finally got in and found a spot at the bar to start tasting what all the hype is about, I was amazed to look around and witness an entire room packed with tables of cider. I saw people holding the ciders up to the light, discussing, debating, sniffing, swirling and tasting.
It is clear that cider — good, local apple cider and perry (pear cider), not the mass produced fake ciders made from concentrate we see crowding LCBO and Beer Store shelves — is a thing, a big thing that is clearly here to stay.
And it ruled for at least one week in June with events that included “Meet the Cider Maker” at The Loose Moose with 16 taps dedicated to Ontario ciders, “Scrumpy Night” at Tequila Bookworm with 12 taps dedicated to alternative and funky Ontario ciders paired with appropriately “funky” food, “Flight Night” at WVRST, “Buck a shuck oysters, charcuterie and cider” at Bar Hop, and the grand finale “Tap takeover” at barVolo with all 32 taps pouring nothing but Ontario ciders.
I could only attend the Wednesday event at WVRST but talked to others who attended pretty much the entire week. If the goal was to shine a light on the diversity of Ontario craft cider, proving conclusively that it is not a one-dimensional drink, than that goal was met.
The event started a touch slow and gained momentum as the week progressed. Organizers were thrilled with reaction from consumers and overwhelmed by the crowds as the week progressed to the epic conclusion at barVolo.
Cider is an interesting drinks category that aligns itself somewhere between wine and beer. There are no rules with cider, unlike wine, other than (this is my one and only rule, by the way) it should be made from Ontario-grown apples (if it’s from Ontario) or pears. Adding Ontario fruit, wine and other ingredients is fine, but the cider should begin with local apples or pears.
In many ways it is following in the craft beer movement with wild and whacky concoctions finding their way to taps, bottles and cans. At cider week, a wide range of interesting styles were there to taste.
The purpose of the week was to show consumers the myriad styles of cider being made today, West Avenue Cider owner, and one of the organizers, Chris Haworth, said before the event. From lovely, fresh and vibrant house styles to single variety, single-orchard, French style, barrel-aged style cider, and Champagne-style sparkling ciders. There were even ciders blended with beer, Pinot Noir, other fruits, high alcohol, low alcohol, crabapples … you name it, they were trying it. That is what makes cider so interesting.
Cider is the Wild, Wild West of the beverage industry and it’s emerging from every corner of Ontario from small, craft producers hell-bent on creating a sustainable industry. It is being driven by innovative cider makers, marketers and pioneers who have an adventurous spirit when it comes to creating new and interesting drinks.
Typical is the story about how the West Avenue Schoolyard Crab cider came to be.
Haworth dreamed up this “sour” style cider while waiting to pick up his daughter at her Toronto school and noticed some gorgeous crab apple trees on the property. The family (and daughter’s friends) picked the apples and Haworth made a “bloody sour but bloody good” single variety cider with what he calls just the right amount of brett (brettanomyces) that wine geeks will find intriguing.
From the schoolyard to a tap at WVRST and joined by 17 other ciders all with their own stories. You have to love it.
Here are some of the highlights from the WVRST cider event.
Hoity Toity Cellars 66 Pickup Cider (7%)
Made from locally grown apples from Bruce & Grey counties, it shows soft apple flavours, not overly acidic and is made in an off-dry, lightly carbonated comfortable style. Introductory cider made for a warm summer’s day by the pool.
Thornbury Premium Apple Cider (5.3%)
Made from fresh-pressed Ontario apples and shows bright apple, refreshingly dry on the palate and a light spritz. Clean and fresh.
The County Cider County Hopper Cider (6%)
A very interesting elixir from one of the original cideries based in Prince Edward County that’s driving the industry forward. Made with estate cider apples grown at the family farm with hops added to the mix. This is complex and interesting, made in a super-dry style that combines fresh apple and a hoppy note through the core. Excellent food cider.
Spirit Tree Mergers and Acquisitions Cider (8%)
This Caledon-based cidery is turning heads with its dynamic portfolio. I couldn’t find any information on what went into this dry, English-style cider but I noted a hint of oak, which gave the drink a lovely texture and feel on the palate. This was delicious, a thought-provoking style that takes cider to a new level.
The County Cider Blood Orange Cider (6%)
I love how cideries are expanding the boundaries of experimentation. This wasn’t my favourite but it sure had personality with flavours of blood orange, vanilla and apple in the backgound. It’s crisp and balanced with racy acidity and a cream soda thing going on.
West Avenue Cherry Beach Cider (7.5%)
This defines the new style of ciders coming out of Ontario. A blend of Ontario apples, Niagara Montmorency cherries and aged in used Pinot Noir oak barrels. The result is a highly stylistic beverage that combines lush red fruits, bright apples with a plush texture. Delicious and unlike anything on the market.
West Avenue Barret Fuller’s Secret Cider (9%)
Another star of the tasting, this bourbon barrel-aged cider had incredible depth of flavour and a rounded texture that was soft on the palate yet still maintained balance. An extraordinary experience for a cider.
Shiny Apple Cider avec Pinot Noir (9%)
Another unique concoction, this time from Niagara, that combines Ontario apples with Pinot Noir wine and made with relatively high alcohol. Delicious and truly innovative with notes of cherry, berries, subtle honey and sparkling citrus that is refreshing from start to finish. One of my favourites of the night.
West Avenue Nitro Black Velvet (7%)
OK, definitely the most unique cider of the evening. Made as a collaboration between West Avenue and WVRST, it’s cider meets Guinness with a very cool and flavourful hopped up and malty taste with added Espresso bean, subtle apple flavours and notes of dark chocolate and mocha. A beer lover’s cider.
Speaking of cider …
Another cider I have had lately is the sophisticated new creation from Prince Edward County’s The Old Third Winery. This is primarily a Pinot Noir producer but winemaker Bruno Francois (above) decided to add a cider to his portfolio this vintage. It is gorgeous.
The Old Third Golden Russet Cider Cuvee Yquelon 2013, Prince Edward County, ($20 for 750 ml, released at the winery, 92 points) — Ontario craft cider has exploded onto the drinks scene in the last couple of years and this predominately Pinot Noir producer has jumped in head-first with this stylish méthod traditional offering made from local golden russet apples. The nose shows aromas of pear, toasty citrus, lychee and fresh apple pie with subtle vanilla nuances. A lively mousse sparkles on the palate with complex fruit and an explosion of flavours. Careful, made with 9.5% alcohol.
A couple of best bets from the Vintages release Saturday
Bachelder Niagara Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($45, 91 points) — Pure Beamsville Bench minerality on the nose with pear, spiced apple, lemon and lovely creamy vanilla. This is a voluptuous Chard in the mouth with rich, layered fruits, a vein of stony minerality and touches of nutmeg-cinnamon spice that’s all propped up by fresh acidity.
Gruhier Cremant de Bourgogne Extra Brut 2010, Burgundy, France ($21, Vintages, 87 points) — An enticing nose of lemon curd, apple, creamy butter and toast. It hits the palate with a vigorous mousse, rigid acidity and lemon biscuit that echos on the palate. Very nice and affordable sparkling wine.
Also being released but not reviewed:
• Creekside Laura’s White 2012 ($19)
• Angels Gate Mountainview Riesling 2009 ($17)
• Norman Hardie Riesling 2012 ($21)
• Peninsula Ridge Beal Vineyards Inox Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($19)
• Pondview Cabernet/Merlot Reserve 2011 ($19)
• Union Squared Red 2012 ($18)
• Pondview Cabernet Franc Rose 2013 ($15)
• Tawse Sketches of Niagara Rose 2013 ($16)