We deeply respect talented winemakers for the passion they infuse in every barrel, every bottle, every glass they bring to life. Less well known, but possessed of equal passion for their craft, are the cider makers whose barrels, bottles, and glasses do with apples what winemakers do with grapes. At Big Hill Ciderworks in Gardners, Pennsylvania, cider makers Ben Kishbaugh and Troy Lehman draw apples' fine wine from 35 varietals and 25 acres.
Listen to these guys talk, and you might have to remind yourself that your talking about apples instead of grapes. Says Ben, "Standard, Summer Scrumpy, and Little Round Hope are intended to be drunk fresh, while some of our other dry ciders age well." He goes on, "...think of cider just like a wine with three basic components - brix (sugar), acidity, and tannins." (Take a moment to let Liz educate you on what this means.)
Meghan, Liz, and I paired our lineup with a hearty meal of pierogies, kielbasa, and Brussels sprouts. Our tasting notes are below.
Barrel Aged Reserve
The wood is very faint in the nose, despite the barrel aging, but we'd describe the first whiffs with pear notes. Nice acidity makes this a good paring with food, bringing out the butter of the caramelized onions and the maple syrup used to cook the Brussels sprouts. We suspect that some of the wine-like characteristics are imparted through barrel aging, in a pleasing way, as we found that this one acts a bit like a Chardonnay without being thick and heavy. While there is a degree of sweetness, we wouldn't call it sweet by any means, rather comparing it to the sweetness you sometimes find in champagne. This is a wonderful food cider without being heavy as good food alcohol can sometimes be.
Nose is a bit more bold than the barrel aged, which initially surprised us. Standard is, unsurprisingly, less complex, more straightforward and juicy, sweeter like a red delicious apples (to our untrained apple palate), and almost reminiscent of a Vinho Verde wine from Portugal. The musically inclined might think of this as playing at higher octave than the Reserve. There's absolutely no tartness or bitterness, which is refreshing (quite literally).
Little Round Hop
We're not ashamed to say this was our favorite in the lineup, unanimous and hands down. The hop aroma is striking, but not overpowering, and there's a little feeling of an IPA beer. The tropical fruit situation is quite nice, reminiscent of the fruit and flavor profile you find in a German Riesling... we also were reminded of an Albarino or a mildly grassy Sauvignon Blanc. Little Round Hop is green and herbal, with notes of lemon grass and white tea. It paired nicely with cheddar, and we had a notion that it would pair very well with a coconut-based mild curry, perhaps with fish. Really nice!
Scrumpy is most definitely the dessert wine of the lineup. It's sweet and "apple-y", with notes of peach that mix up to remind us a bit of the bite you get when you first sink your teeth into a good piece of fruit. We had less to say about this than the others, mostly that it is playful and easy to drink, though some may find it too sweet for the personal taste.