Sophisticated dry cider used to be an oxymoron. Once the passion of colonial home brewers like Thomas Jefferson, it was sidelined in the late 19th century by the growing popularity of beer; it all but vanished during Prohibition. In more recent times, it resurfaced as a sweet fizz popular with underage consumers seeking a cheap buzz.
Foggy Ridge Cider is a delicious throwback, a refined sip intentionally bottled like wine to further distinguish it from the six-pack crowd. Prices range from $11 for a sparkling split to $25 for its intensely concentrated dessert cider.
With its apples grown and pressed in southwest Virginia, just north of Pilot Mountain, Foggy Ridge is part of an expanding roster of U.S. producers that has made artisan cider the fastest growing segment of the craft beverage industry.
According to a January report in The Motley Fool, sales of hard cider surged 49 percent in 2013. Over the past decade, "consumption of hard cider has grown globally by 50 percent and sales are running about 6 percent higher annually."
This is good news for Diane Flynt, who owns Foggy Ridge Cider and a vast orchard of heirloom apples with her husband, Chuck. She was in the Triangle recently for an event that paired several of their crisp and complex ciders at Herons at The Umstead.
"Refreshing is what cider ought to be," Flynt said. "It's part of what makes it so excellent to pair with rich foods."
The five courses of cider pairings were curated by sommelier Hai Tran in collaboration with Executive Chef Scott Crawford, who announced May 16 that he is leaving Heron's this month. The event included four sparkling ciders and one apple port.
"When I first tasted them, I was surprised how vintage they tasted," Tran told diners. "I had to keep checking the bottles to confirm they really were ciders."
The evening started on the terrace with a cocktail featuring the light Sweet Stayman Cider, made from Virginia Staymans that ripen in late fall. The citrus notes of the Sweet Stayman Cocktail were in perfect balance with the appetizer, a luxurious spoonful of Border Springs lamb tartare and crisp Rappahannock oyster with basil mustard.
Serious Cider, which was rated No. 1 during a blind tasting conducted last November by Eric Asimov of The New York Times, was paired with the dramatic textural combination of seared Carolina mountain trout, tender blue crab, fish skin crackling and foamed fennel broth. The flavor of Serious Cider mellowed from crisply dry to refreshingly fruity with each successive bite, a pleasing discovery echoed by others at the table.
"I buy it by the case," admitted Linda Marcuson of Creedmoor, who said the UPS delivery man teases her about the frequency of her orders. "I enjoy all of their ciders, but Serious Cider goes with everything."
First Fruit, which not surprisingly takes its name from early season heirloom apples, is said to be made in the style adopted by Jefferson at Monticello. Its bright acidity makes it an ideal gateway cider for the uninitiated. It held its own when matched with the potent aroma, amplified by a deep bowl, of creamy hickory-smoked veal sweet breads on a mash of fresh fava beans.
The main course, a trio of Heritage Farms Pork, was complemented by Foggy Ridge's newest label, Handmade, which is elegantly packaged in mini-champagne bottles. While most of its ciders are blends, this one is entirely Newtown Pippins. Flynt describes Handmade as having soft tannins and a delicate apple flavor with notes of pear.
The apple also plays a starring role in the stunning Pippin Gold, a hard cider-apple brandy blend that recalls fine port. It was served with the dessert course in tulip-shaped stemware that drafted its intoxicating aroma straight to the part of your brain that sparks contentment. The dazzling Earl Grey tea cake with roasted apricots, warm honey caramel and a perfect quenelle of pistachio sorbet from former pastry chef Daniel Benjamin didn't hurt, either.
The following cocktail is provided by Kyle Davis, bar and lounge manager at The Umstead.
1 oz. Lillet Blanc 1 oz. Cochi Americano 1/4 oz. Oleo Saccharum 3 dashes orange bitters Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman Cider
In shaker, combine ice and all ingredients except cider. Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Top with cider and garnish with a wide strip of orange zest.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A foggy notion."