A little before 5 p.m. on a chilly Saturday in the Lower East Side, a young and trendy couple walked into Wassail, one of the country’s few cider-centered bars, and looked unsure. The Women’s March rumbled outside, reverberating throughout Manhattan. But the sun was going down and the crowd inside Wassail had a calm, if sleepy air about them. Behind the bar was Dan Pucci, the resident cider expert and one of the few so-called pommeliers in the country, who welcomed the newcomers by handing them a drink menu.
“What is a cider bar? Like, hard cider?” the man asked.
“We serve hard cider, yes,” Pucci said. “But we serve other drinks too. Let me know if you have any questions.”
The couple looked over the menu and whispered to one another, before heading for the door; they waved to Pucci on their way out.
Despite cider’s historical relevance — it was the drink of choice for the earliest European settlers — the scene was representative of cider’s stature in contemporary America. That is to say, near last place, behind by wine, beer and spirits. An alternative, at best.
But at Wassail, and a few other bars across the country, barkeeps like Pucci are doing what they can to reposition the drink. Their thesis? Cider is special in its own way. It’s an agricultural product that, when done well, can express more than just the “apple” flavors people have come to associate with Yankee Candles. It’s a culmination of fruit and fermentation, with near-endless possibilities in the realm of flavor and aroma.
Pucci’s curly-haired and quiet. He spent years in the Italian wine world, but burnt out, moving on to cider. He’s dedicated the last two years to understanding apples, fermentation and cider making and has been preaching the gospel of cider since by creating one of the most ambitious bars in America. I spoke to the 28-year-old about cider in America and the possibilities ahead.
Q: What are your go-to ciders?
A: My go-to is not a producer, but a style: Finger Lakes. The ciders have a ton of character, ripe rich fruit with loads of secondary flavors. They’re a glimpse at the future, expressive and driven by personality. I think the producers out there are ahead of their time in terms of understanding the quality of the product coming out of there. Eve’s Cidery is one of my go-to’s — it’s commercially available around the country and at a great price point.
Second for me is EZ Orchards in Oregon. Kevin [Zielinski], is doing fantastic work there. In a sea of mediocre ciders, he’s doing stuff that is really fantastic. He takes care of his trees and he is so passionate about his product and his farm. I spent time with him there last year, and his approach and style and his thoughtfulness when it comes to cider-making is amazing and second to few people.
Finally, Farnum Hill and Eden Specialty Ciders. The things they are pumping out there are great. I was at Farnum Hill this fall and we drank some ciders that were unbelievable, stellar and spectacular and a totally different experience than what I associate with other ciders.
Q: How should we drink cider? What is the proper glassware?
A: We’re not sure yet. Most of our ciders are served in a wine glass or we have a larger, goblet wine glass. Basically, the difference is a six-ounce glass and an eight-ounce glass. Eight ounces is, I think, a good serving size for cider.
Steve Wood [at Farnum Hill] has these ideas of some weird cider-glass-thing. I don’t think we’re there yet. I prefer stemware. Eight-ounce pours is a really good serving size — that means it’s about the same alcohol by volume as a glass of wine would be.
With stemware you can feel it, smell it and get those aromas. It’s not a pint glass. It’s enjoyable.
Q: Why not serve it in a pint glass?
A: Some people do. I think there are certain ciders that definitely lend themselves to that style. I always have Hudson Valley Farmhouse Scrumpy, which is a delicious, naturally fermented fresh style of cider, in a pint glass. A lot of English-style ciders are served in a pint glass, or a ten-ounce glass. I think there are ciders meant to be enjoyed on an easier basis; they don’t necessarily have the complexity of aromas or bouquets.
Q: What are we seeing on the horizon for cider trends?
A: Here in the Northeast, cider is growing. We have a huge number of producers coming on board right now — a scary number. In New York State, we have around 85 producers, where we had just 35 two and a half years ago.
I think there are a lot of trends right now as the cider market is still figuring itself out, and what its future is going to look like. For example, we have very trendy things like what Kyle [Scherrer] is doing up at Graft Cider up in Beacon. They call it “beer cider.” They do these sour beer inflected ciders — they’re very reminiscent of sour beers, and that is a huge trend that is rising.
At the same time, another trend is a refocusing of the orchard and a push towards a real high-quality product and the transparency of the orchard and the fruit into the glass. For me, that is my interest, those ciders, which are translucent from the apples to the glass. Talking about the diversity of the industry based on the apple varieties that are used, and where it comes from, and where it’s made, for me, is infinitely more interesting and more mysterious than what kind of hops you add to it.
Q: It’s moving towards wine. It’s made like wine and not beer.
A: That’s my bias, for sure. Before I got into this cider thing I worked in Italian wine for five years. I love cider because of that excitement and energy, that we’re still figuring shit out right now — what apples grow where, how they produce and which make the best cider. But we’re not to that point yet and we’re not sure how to market that or sell that. But we’re developing a new tradition, which is super exciting.
Q: So what is “American” cider?
A: American cider is that hodgepodge of diversity. I think that is very much what we’re going through right now. Some producers have found success in their own styles, whether that be people making draft commercial cider and other people copying that business model; other people are finding success in the kind or orchard-based approach. We don’t have a clear voice yet. We’re not anywhere close to it yet. I’ve had various cider talks about how there are these amazing regional styles, but they’re emerging slowly. If you drink cider from the Finger Lakes, it has a very pronounced acidity to it, a very pronounced structure that is different from apples grown in the Hudson Valley. Hudson Valley is much broader, more textured — it’s a depth thing. We’re still figuring it out.
Q: What makes cider interesting for you?
A: It is that lack of understanding, and that we’re not sure yet, and that we’re trying to figure out and build something for the future. I think is really fascinating. It makes it really different than other industries where we’re rehashing things. It is real obvious that we’re not there yet, and we’re not going to make it in 100 years. Now, we’re going to have really great cider, but we’re not quite there yet.