Once upon a time, before the temperance movement, German immigration, and the invention of the six-pack, so-called “hard” cider was more popular in America than beer. It’s safe to say that day won’t come again, but the cider-making craft has seen a domestic revival over the last decade or so. Beverage menus around town reveal the fermented juice of apples and pears in places where you might expect it (the urban-pastoral Braeburn, which offers American, French, and Austrian varieties, and the Brittany-inspired Bar Breton, which pours its elegant French ciders into traditional teacups), but also where you definitely don’t. At Shang, for instance, those abstaining from exotic cocktails can opt for a non-alcoholic Duché de Longueville sparkling cider, and at Keith McNally’s reimagined Minetta Tavern, the house ciders one French, the other a single-varietal West County “Baldwin” made in the Berkshires form a rustic, indeed tavern-esque tableau behind the bar.
Subtly nuanced, often unfiltered and unpasteurized, and more akin to wine than to the sweet, viscous stuff sold by the gallon jug, these ciders are dry and refreshing, low in alcohol, sometimes a bit funky or even a tad sour. They’re also surprisingly food-friendly. To demonstrate the point, on April 2 Park Slope’s Flatbush Farm is re-creating a traditional Basque cider festival, showcasing Sarasola Sagardoa, one of the lean, bracingly acidic still ciders that Spain has recently begun exporting. (Savoy is pouring another, the Isastegi Sagardo Naturala 2007.) These are served with some flair, as they need to be poured from high overhead to create bubbles in the glass. In Spanish cider houses, or sidrerías, the public is welcome to sample cider in barrels after it’s fermented, from late January through early April, at raucous communal suppers that follow a fairly standard progression: cod omelette, local peppers, rare “cider house” steak, walnuts in the shell, and Idiazábal cheese, each course punctuated by social trips to the cider spigot (you can expect something similar, minus the spigot, at Flatbush Farm). Txikito, the Basque restaurant in Chelsea, honors the tradition with its Wednesday-night cider-house steak special, a mammoth hunk of meat that you can share with a friend or three. To keep in the spirit, pair it with a glass of cider one that happens, in this global age of cider sophistication, to come from New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill, a pioneer in the American artisanal cider movement and, in the opinion of some connoisseurs, the equal of any sidrería, Basque or otherwise.