With new producers offering complex varieties and consumer interest waxing, Polish cider is having its trend. Will Poland's forbidden fruit become Europe's new favourite fizz?
Warsaw. From funky barrel-aged dry ciders to fizzy apple based alcoholic beverages, interest in cider has resurged in the first days of August 2014 after Poland's largest export market – Russia – announced a ban on its fruits and vegetables, including pears, cherries, nectarines, plums, and most notably, apples. The country is no newbie to the volatility of exports of foodstuffs to its communist-era overlord but this time, the Russian gesture set the Poles in motion. An InCider look at the story..
The Russian ban will be most bitter to apple-growers. The Eastern country is Poland's number one export market for apples. To circumvent an 'apple-ocalypse' Polish leaders are looking for macro-solutions such as new export markets (China, United Arab Emirates). Inside the country, the Agriculture Minister appealed to the public. If, instead of bananas and citrus fruits, every Pole eats 4,5 kilograms of apples more, "the problem is solved" he said. The reaction has been ebullient. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Twitter and Facebook (hashtag #eatapples) with selfies featuring some form of apple consumption. The Facebook page Eat Apples to Annoy Putin (Jedz Jabłka na Złość Putinowi) also rapidly gathered thousands of fans.
Yet the most palatable reaction has been the rise in consumption, production and interest in Polish cider. Artisan Polish cider not only stands its ground against its French, American or British counterparts but offers new quality: dry, tannic, and assertive cider that brings out the sharp taste of vintage Polish apples. Regardless of political conviction, it is entirely worth it to leave the Strongbow or Somersby aside for a while and try out one of Poland’s finer brands.
Opinionated cider drinking
First of all what is cider? A multipurpose alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of apples. There is a cider for every taste: dry, complex and high-tannin; off-dry with slightly more body than their dry counterparts; semi-dry and semi-sweet which have a solid body and hearty, pronounced apple flavours. Lastly, very sugary commercial cider sweetened to appeal to a clientele reared on cloying beverages.
The juice extraction and fermentation process is DIY simple. Depending on where, with what and how the cider was made determines the quality of the product. Apart from the look of the bottle, two things serve to tell apart cider that was produced with attention to every step of the process from mass-scale produce. The first is the percentage of alcohol in volume. The higher the percentage of alcohol, the more sophisticated the cider is. The sweet fizz has the same level of alcohol as a strong beer 4,5-5%. Dry assertive types have as much alcohol as light wines - around 8%. The second factor is residual sugar. Because fermentation eats up sugar, low levels of residual sugar (0,5%) indicate a cider that was left to ferment almost all the way through. French ciders are sweet because of a particular process of fermentation traditionally used in the country called keeving. But in Poland level of sweetness sets the best ciders apart from run of the mill. Vintage quality won't be sweet (unless it was made with honey).
Quality cider begins with quality cider apples. Although the beverage can be made from almost any type of apple, in The Cider Maker's Handbook from 1903, cider authority J.M. Trowbridge pointed out that,
Whoever thinks that any apple is good enough for cider had better not engage in the business.
Apples for eating and apples for cider can be as different as table grapes and wine grapes. Apples for cider making must be high in tannin, acidity and sugar. Few apples match this ideal on their own and most European and American ciders are a blend of apples. But in Poland, local liqueur and cider manufacturer from Greater Poland, Hieronim Błażejak uses vintage wild apples like the Kronselska, a French apple variety from the 19th century or the very old Russian Antonówka which can very well be used on their own. While very few cider apples match the ideal composition of sugar, malic acid, tannin, amino nitrogen, starch, pectin, these apples do. As a result Mr Błażejak's single-variety ciders exhibit the distinctive and sophisticated taste of a particular apple type.
They are sweet enough to avoid adding sugar to the fermentation process, but vintage wild apples aren't for eating. Their taste, and also durability has been affected by the cold Polish climate. Polish apples withstand cold and harsh winters. A four-month growing season, heavy glacial soils, extreme temperature swings in Fall between day and night all, along with October frosts, contribute to intensification of flavours. Flavours which taste great with a selection of Polish dishes. Poland is an old hand at cider production. Cider recipes can be found in cookbooks from the 16th century.
Cider is a multipurpose beverage because it can be a refreshing aperitif, a drink in its own right or a crisp companion to fiery or hearty food. There are two principles to pairing it: match or contrast. Some people enjoy a sip of dry, assertive and slightly bubbly cider in between courses as a palate cleanser. Others recommend dry ciders with Asian dishes: both sweet and fiery. Cider also pairs well with hearty food like beef or venison. The latter makes it just right for Polish cuisine where hearty dishes balance out the cold of the winters. Cider is also used for cooking.
The best thing about cooking with cider is perhaps the "Cook's Measure", the sips set aside for the chef, but it can be used to braise pork and venison, poach fish and shrimp, steam vegetables and mussels. According to a traditional French recipe from Normandy chicken sautéed with shallots is finished with a little cream and Sweet Stayman cider.
Cider in Europe
It's no coincidence that the recipe is from Normandy. Alongside Bretagne, the region has more apples than grape plantations. France, the proud, though not number one, European cider producer channeled European love for cider after the drink traveled there from Spain centuries ago. Tracing back even further, cider was introduced to Europe by the Moors. It was a cheaper and easier alternative to wine. Europeans brought the tradition with them to America. Reporting on the revival of dry cider in 2013, the New York Times looked back at the history of cider in America,
If there was a national beverage in colonial America and through the first century of independence, it was cider. But it declined in popularity in the late 19th century, as waves of German immigrants brought a taste for beer, which could more easily cater to a nation that was industrializing and beginning its transformation from rural to urban.
Prohibition tore the country away from its cider traditions and the word cider came to refer to sweet, unfermented apple juice. The alcoholic variant eventually acquired a modifier, hard cider, to differentiate it. Presently, the UK is the number one producer of commercial cider followed by France, Ireland, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. So where will Poland position itself?
Poland could become the new European cider Eldorado. With 3 million tonnes of apples grown every year, Poland produces as many apples as Spain produces grapes. A 100% increase of cider production in 2013 bids well for the future of the beverage in Poland. With the Russian embargo of apples, this year's numbers will shatter records. But whether Polish cider will cross the border and compete with European bottles depends on whether small-scale producers will be able to spread their product.
A few big companies have added ciders to their selections of spirits. Their well-distributed products are cheap, fake, sugary, often made of apples bred for appearance and durability rather than flavor or even worse from concentrate instead of pressed juice. Conscientious consumers Poland have turned towards quality artisanal cider makers who aim to put the apple in the bottle with minimal manipulation. When looking for a Polish cider, avoid large brand names and look for the wide assortment of non-industrial gems. Quality names are Cydr "Jabcok", Cydr Polski Rumiany, Cydr Kwasne Jablko by Marcin Wiechowski and Cydr Lodowy from frozen apples (a type of ice cider). Another treasure - Cydr Ignaców - uses several apple varieties grown in the orchards of the Hermanowicz family whose orchards have 180 years of history. The fruity almost see-through cider with 5,5% alcohol can be bought in a dozen small places in Warsaw. All listed on their website.
Author: Marta Jazowska 08/08/2014