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Monday, March 26, 2007

Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider

I got an e-mail from a fella back in February, saying he'd seen my writing, and wondered if I'd be interested in trying some very special ciders from New Hampshire: Farnum Hill Ciders. I was, and said that if he sent them, I'd have a taste.

I'm kinda picky about cider. I'm not a big fan of the mass-market stuff; Woodchuck Dark & Dry's okay, and Magner's a decent thirst-quencher, but even they just seem like apple sodas with booze-o in 'em. What I do like is the Norman cidres, like these from Etienne Dupont and Christian Drouin, and the Aspall cyders of the UK, also made in the Norman style. They're dry, almost austere, and don't shy away from the tannins in more bitter varieties of apples. I also like Bellwether Cider, from Trumansburg, NY, but it's really hard to find.

Farnum Hill, as you can see if you take a look at the site, is serious about their cider and apples. So I opened up a bottle of their Semi-Dry and tried it. The interesting cover letter from Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer includes this: "Kindly note that the term "extra dry" on a Farnum, Hill label means literally what it says: genuinely, even radically dry. Similarly, our use of the term "semi-dry" means: not very sweet at all."

Well, they were right. I was expecting a cider that was still fairly sweet, having been rooked by various small Pennsylvania and New Jersey vineyards that make their living off fruity, sweet wines, and throw in a "semi-dry" in an attempt to make you think "semi-dry" doesn't actually mean "mostly sweet" as opposed to their other wines, which would be best described as "mawkishly sweet." I was wrong, should've believed the letter.

The Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider was not up to the best Norman ciders I've had, but it was definitely in the room. It was indeed dry, the apple flavor was not buried in sweet juice (many cider makers use table apples like Red Delicious -- I'm not sure if this is because they're cheaper, or because reading "Red Delicious" on the label increases some consumers' comfort level at making such a radical choice as buying cider...yes, I'm being sarcastic), and the tannin was plainly evident, and welcome in the nicely astringent finish. It reminded me somewhat of a steely-firm gueuze, kind of the tang without the fuzzy edges of funk.

I started out drinking the Semi-Dry with some Prima Donna, which went nicely if not famously. But I wound up finishing the bottle simply standing out on the deck in the cool evening air, satisfied with the stuff head-to-head, just me and the cider. I'd still like more from this cider, more depth, and maybe I'll find that in the Extra Dry.

I'm looking forward to the others; I've got an Extra Dry and and Extra-Dry Still left (I had another, a Farmhouse, but...someone drank it. 'Nuff said). I'll let you know how that goes.


Stonch said...

Lew, I'm so sorry to hear Magners has been inflicted on the US market. Over here, we've been bombarded with marketing, and it's now up there with the adjunct lagers as drink of choice for the non-discerning boozer. I tried it once and between us, myself and my girl couldn't finish the bottle. However, it's not all been bad news - producers of real, live cider have reported increased sales. Consequently, they're are popping up frequently alongside the cask ales on hand pumps across Britain.

Lew Bryson said...

B'lieve it er not, Magners is better than much of what we get here. But we're seeing the same kind of "real cider" phenomenon here. I'm just concerned that it's mostly wine drinkers and makers that are behind it, which means bottles of cider that cost upwards of $15 each. Erk.

Stonch said...

Erk indeed. I will hold my hands up right not and say the Magners situation is just like the Guinness situation - there isn't a single lousy pub that doesn't sell it, and it's a lowest common denominator beer. I do however accept it's better than Strongbow, Woodpecker etc. What it isn't better than is Aspall's cider, which is sold on keg over here and distributed to good pubs by Adnams, along with Bitburger lager. A lot of our better real ale pubs in London have that combination on keg dispense alongside the hand pulls, and both are very welcome.

Lew Bryson said...

Aspall's in many pubs, you lucky booger! If I could get Aspall regularly, I would probably be drinking less beer, truth be told. Not more cider than beer, but I'd be picking cider more often.

Anonymous said...

Seeing as how Farnum Hill is literally 2 miles from my house (and that the owner is both a friend AND my city councilman), I'll see if I can get you some of the Kingston Black varietal when it reappears.

Stunning, stunning stuff.

Anonymous said...

Next time your find yourself heading north, Mr. B., do yourself a favour and stop in at Farnum. I did (at the behest of Mr. Tim Wilson, ex of the Norwich Inn and Brewery, to whom I am thus indebted), and was mightily impressed. Good people, great passion, very fine ciders. And I feel the same about most of the North American products as do you.

Lew Bryson said...

Andy, Stephen,
We're hoping to vacation in New England this summer, so that might just be in my future. And Andy, if it is, well, y'know...we might as well just pop the Kingston Black (the description of which in Farnum Hill's press shtuff had me salivating) and do the booger right out in your backyard, eh?

Anonymous said...

But of course!

I'll have to pester Steve to see if they've got any lying about ... I seem to have consumed all mine!

(Wonder if I can wangle a bottle of Esopus Spitzenberg out of them? That one blows my mind, but it's not a release cider ... just a component.)

Anonymous said...

If you'll be in New England anyway, you should stop in at West County Cider ( They make several local varietal ciders, all with great apple flavor intact. Their retail locations are mostly in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. They got me hooked on cider, leading to an unfortunate experiment with Magners. Ugh.

Lew Bryson said...

If I'm in western Mass, I can get Berkshire Brewing too -- sounds like a plan. Thanks for the tip!

Lew Bryson said...

Esopus Spitzenberg -- from the Esopus river in NY? I've had Northern Spys from that valley that were tremendous. Work him, Andy!

Loren said...

Sort of on topic...but maybe not. Remember that Apple Brandy you were secretly giving out sippies of at the Kennett Fest? Well, Scott @ Captain Lawrence has their barrels and has Smoked Porter and American Tripel aging away for future 750ml releasing.

Haul that Passat over to his place, soon.

Now back to your friendly neighborhood cider adoration.

Lew Bryson said...

That was, for the record, folks, Laird's Bottled in Bond Apple Brandy, something I've been enjoying since buying a bottle on the way home from visiting their New Jersey aging facility and headquarters. Triumph New Hope uses some of those barrels, too, and I'm excited to see folks using something besides wine barrels and bourbon barrels. Anyone in New England using cider barrels? Anyone in New England using barrels to age cider?

Anonymous said...

Farnum Hill's ciders are aged in barrels -- not entirely, but much of the volume.

They use plastic, stainless, and wine barrels that are steamed like crazy to get rid of any residual flavors. The purpose of the barrel is the aging characteristics of a vessel that breathes, rather than what used to be in it.