This article was originally published in Issue 19 of Malus. Copyright 2022 Ian McFaul. For a print version, you can order a back copy. And please subscribe!
by Ian McFaul
In 1986, inspired by protests sparked by McDonald’s’ arrival on the ancient Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Italian activist and journalist Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food Arcigola, now known simply as Slow Food. While stories of penne pomodoro thrown against the Golden Arches may be apocryphal, Petrini’s experience writing for Italy’s communist dailies and three years of fermenting and fomenting were the perfect recipe for a Slow Food Manifesto. The movement against fast, cheap, and easy and in defense of Slow Food took its next step in December 1989, in Paris, as delegates from 15 countries gathered to take the movement to the wider world. The goal was the preservation of the traditional and regional–food, plants, seeds, and a way of life. A decade after it was first envisioned, acting in response to the continued loss of biodiversity, tradition, and flavor in our global food system, Slow Food launched the Ark of Taste project, a catalog of unique animal breeds, plant varieties, and food products in danger of extinction. The Ark of Taste catalog encourages people to re-embrace these precious pieces of our food history, helping to ensure they will also be a part of our future. To further this goal, in 2000 Slow Food launched the Presidia project, from the Latin praesidium (“to guard, defend”). Its focus is on a relationship, a community of co-producers, growers, and makers aligned together to preserve, protect, and defend an endangered local food.
While the Ark of Taste and Presidia do much to bring more public awareness of individual foods, there are other Slow Food programs that highlight larger endeavors. The Snail of Approval, for example, recognizes restaurants and like companies that are pursuing and practicing the values of the Slow Food movement in their businesses, not just in sourcing but in their commitment to their community.
In 2010, the Slow Food movement took another step by releasing the first Slow Wine Guide. Instead of just listing wineries in a given area and focusing on tasting notes, the Slow Wine Guide gives greater weight and importance to biodiversity, growing, and production methods as well as a focus on regionally important grape varieties. This was a bold departure. At the time, Slow Wine was the only guide in Italy (if not the world) that actually visited the wineries they were writing about. Reviewers saw to it that winemakers didn’t just send in samples but stepped up and engaged in real conversations about how and why they made their wine. Buyers and readers of the guide seemed to embrace making the agricultural and human connection to winemaking. It has since become Italy’s most popular wine guide, and expanded its reach into Slovenia in 2016 and the United States, starting with California, in 2017. The 2022 U.S. Guide now also features wineries from New York, Oregon, and Washington.
Cider and apples have both been celebrated by the Slow Food movement. There are Presidia for Northern Basque Country sidra, five distinct Italian heirloom apples and regions, and the Sebastopol Gravenstein in Sonoma County, California. Apples and perry pear varieties on the Ark of Taste list include Arkansas Black, Ashmead’s Kernel, Esopus Spitzenberg, Green Horse, Harrison, Hewe’s Crab, Irish Peach, Newtown Pippin, and many others which don’t (yet) have Presidia to support them. Isn’t it obvious that the time has come to develop a Slow Cider Guide?
In the year before COVID upended just about everything, I put this same question to Malus editor Darlene Hayes, and together we came up with what we called The Slow Cider Manifesto, which I subsequently shared with Slow Food Director Paolo Di Croce and a handful of other senior people within the organization. The response was positive, and we were asked to take a run at what the criteria for inclusion might be. Here’s a somewhat edited version of what we wrote.
A Case for Slow Cider
Cider, the fermented juice of apples, has been made since humans abandoned the wandering ways of the hunter-gatherer and settled down to farm. Over time cider developed distinct regional variations tied to unique local apples, environment, and culture, such as the natural ciders of northern Spain recognized in the Ark of Taste.
Apples and cider naturally joined European expansion, taking root in North America and other parts of the New World. The incredible genetic diversity of the apple insured an explosion of new cultivars with regional cider cultures growing up alongside them. Always, working with the seasons, using apples at peak ripeness, and fermenting to maximize flavor and complexity was crucial.
As with so many foods and beverages, in the 20th century, the old ways of cider making fell to the pressure of industrialization and mass markets. Instead of embracing the production of cider in its season, industrialized cider became a homogenized product that could be manufactured year round, dependent on the use of concentrate and bulk juice made from apples kept in cold storage. Though the older approach never completely disappeared, industrial cider eventually became the norm.
The reliance on cold storage is a particular problem in the United States. There the vast majority of a limited number of apple varieties are grown in a single area, losing any connection to regional flavor differences. They are often harvested before becoming fully ripe, and have been selected primarily for their ability to withstand cold storage’s harsh environment while maintaining some level of flavor when eaten fresh, though most certainly not when fermented. In Europe, the issue centers more around the practice of adding masses of sugar to the original juice during fermentation, creating a higher alcohol product suitable for long storage that can then be diluted down with water, packaged, and flavored as needed to be sold throughout the year.
The market for and interest in cider has grown explosively in the last decade, first in the United Kingdom and U.S., and now throughout much of the world. This has been both bad and good for the cider category as a whole. To the good, more consumers are becoming aware of and trying this ancient beverage, and many are making it their drink of choice, at least some of the time.
To the bad, however, is that the cider that most consumers are likely to encounter first, and often exclusively, will have been made by an industrial producer, one that uses concentrate or undistinguished bulk juice that has been fermented as quickly as possible (sometimes in as little as two weeks), sacrificing flavor and complexity for a quick turnaround and low price. Needless to say, this type of producer is not interested in apples of regional importance or historic significance.
And yet, there are many small producers that are. They approach cider making the way their forebearers did. They harvest and press apples at the peak of their flavor, then ferment them slowly over many months, often using just the yeasts that come with the fruit or that reside on the cidery equipment. They employ the same sort of techniques used by a small winemaker–careful blending, aging, often on the lees, and carbonating naturally by ancestral or traditional methods. Their universal goal is to select apples of character and coax from them a fabulous range of aromas and flavors, embracing and celebrating their unique personalities.
It is these slow cider makers that are working with specific regional apples, giving growers a reason to plant them, or to keep the trees they already have in the ground. Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Sonoma County, California, for example, was the first modern cider maker in the county to use the Gravenstein apple, which was given Slow Food Presidium status almost 20 years ago, and it is now one of their mainstays. They also craft ciders from Ark of Taste apples such as the Newtown Pippin and Arkansas Black, among many other locally grown varieties. Practitioners of traditional production techniques, their ciders take anywhere from one to three years from harvest to release.
Two other American Ark of Taste apples, Harrison and Hewe’s Crab, are favorite apples of the small regional cider maker, Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden, Virginia. Both of these apples are American originals whose fame as cider apples went far and wide, until a combination of changing demographics and Prohibition in the 1920s effectively destroyed the American cider market. Harrison, the apple responsible for “Newark Champagne,” was thought to have been extinct until a few remaining trees were rediscovered in New Jersey in the 1970s. Several years ago, Albemarle was one of the first to grow enough Harrison apples to make a commercial cider. They, too, embrace slow and deliberate fermentations and aging, knowing that these methods develop a more delicious cider.
One can find examples of these slow producers in every country where cider is made: Iduna in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige, Find and Foster–Devonshire and Oliver’s Cider and Perry–Herefordshire, both in the U.K., Obstof am Steinberg outside of Frankfurt, Germany, Ramborn Cider Company in Luxembourg; the list can go on and on. They have much in common. They often own their own orchards, and work closely with local orchardists to grow incredible fruit with the fullest flavor. And they share a passion for making cider in ways that are the antithesis of the industrial.
These slower methods are a more expensive way of making cider, however, and the companies that embrace them can struggle to compete, for the majority of consumers expect “cider” to be of the industrial type, fermented quickly, having minimal character, and being relatively inexpensive. There is a significant need for consumers to be able to easily identify these ciders as different than their industrial counterparts and understand the value that comes with them–incomparable deliciousness. The promotion of a Slow Cider designation may be just the distinguishing factor that would make a difference and help these producers to thrive.
The minimum requirements of Slow Cider and Perry:
• apples or pears sourced locally/regionally, no more than 250 miles from the producer
• grown with sustainability principles (and use for fermentation) in mind
• apple and pear varieties often, though not exclusively, of local/regional importance and selected for their unique ability to create
wonderful aromas and flavors upon fermentation
• harvested at or near peak ripeness
• stored a minimal amount of time before processing
• no additions of sugar to the juice prior to fermentation or acid/isolated tannins either before or after fermentation
• fermentation and maturation time is a minimum of 4 – 6 months before product release
• producer shows a clear commitment to producing cider that meets the other criteria as evidenced by regular ongoing production,
multiple examples, etc.
The process of developing a Slow Cider Guide came to a halt during the last several years, but as the world is getting back to normal, it is time to take up the project again. The vision is a guide that mirrors the one available for Slow Wine, perhaps in digital form. It could become an indispensable aid to the cider drinker who wants to go deeper, the one who is looking for cider that align withs the Slow Food values of good, clean, and fair. There is nothing inherently wrong with industrial cider; it serves a purpose. But cider can be, and is, so much more, and a Slow Cider Guide could be an amazing tool to help more people discover that truth.
Slow Food has volunteer leaders and organizations in over 160 countries, but this will be a significant undertaking, even with the backing of Slow Food International. If you would like to learn more, or help us create and develop Slow Cider, please reach out to me directly at email@example.com.
You can check out the latest version of the U.S. Slow Wine Guide at https://slowfoodusa.org/product/slow-wine-guide-usa-2022/
Ian Z McFaul found his way to food activism from Phoenix and back again spending grade school summers in an apple orchard in Door County, WI, time that planted seeds for a future connected deeply to both farming and apples. After moving to California he volunteered at Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley and at markets with Foodwise in San Francisco. Volunteering at the Gravenstein Apple Fair led him north to the apple orchards and vast foodshed of Sonoma County. Ian is now the Slow Food USA Regional Councilor in California, Board Co-chair of Slow Food Phoenix, and Board Member-at-large of Slow Food Russian River.