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Cider is a refreshing alternative to wine, beer

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Friday, April 13, 2012, 4:06 p.m.

Visit local pubs throughout England, Ireland, Brittany, Normandy and even northern Spain's Basque region, and you'll find regulars imbibing hard cider, a refreshing, generally low-alcohol, and relatively dry apple wine.

England alone produces a staggering 600 million liters annually. The United Kingdom has the highest per capita cider consumption worldwide while accounting for total annual sales of ?2.2 billion (about $3.5 billion) according to Mintel Research.

Colonial Americans also consumed oceans of hard cider instead of often contaminated water. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed cider and extolled its health benefits. The popularity persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Americans leaving the farms began imbibing beers made popular by German immigrants.

Contemporary Americans love mainly sweet, non-alcoholic apple ciders purchased at road side farm stands each Autumn. Hard ciders on draft and in bottles and cans remain a rarity.

But since the craft beer brewing renaissance beginning in the late 1970s, interest in hard ciders reignited. While market estimates vary, by all accounts, American hard consumption has grown significantly since grew 1995.

This growing domestic desire for refreshing, relatively dry ciders has emboldened Hauser Estate Winery and Arsenal Cider House and Winery, two promising, Pennsylvania-based craft cider houses.

In Biglerville, a self-proclaimed "Apple Capital of the World" near Gettysburg, Hauser Estate produces Jack's Hard Cider.

"We produce a farm-to-table cider always made from fresh juice and never concentrates," says Hauser Estate's Shane Doughty. "It creates a better quality cider similar to those that Europeans have been enjoying for a long time."

Doughty says nearby orchards provide fresh apples that previously went exclusively to Musselman's Apple Sauce. Chopping and then pressing the apples yields sweet, brown juice similar to roadside ciders.

Putting the juice in chilled, stainless-steel tanks allows sediment to settle out. Then wine yeasts for fermentation bring out the fruit's terrific aromas.

Jack's Hard Cider carries a modest 5.5 percent ABV -- alcohol by volume -- with a crystal-clear straw color and irresistible apple and floral notes. Mouthwatering acidity and a pleasantly refreshing, light fizziness balance the soft and fruity, but basically dry finish.

To preserve and enhance freshness, Jack's Hard Cider comes in light weight, apple-green-colored aluminum cans.

"The cans cool down faster than bottles, and the colder, the better, with a refreshing cider," Doughty says. Increasingly, Jack's Hard Cider appears locally on tap at many bottle shops and pubs.

Meanwhile, in the decidedly more urban setting of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, Arsenal Cider House at 300 39th St. features 25 varieties of hard apple ciders, fruit wines and grape-based table wines. Vintner William Larkin and his wife, Michelle, have been wowing a steadily growing legion of local hard-cider enthusiasts. Arsenal Cider House offerings sell on site in one-liter, refillable bottles and in kegs for restaurant taps.

After years as an accountant, obsessed amateur wine and cider maker William Larkin made the jump to professional in 2010. He set up shop at the Larkin's row house.

"I really didn't want to do it at first," Michelle Larkin says. "We have twins, and were shrinking our living space. But, after going along kicking and screaming, I'm OK with it now."

The living room and dining room became the public reception and sales area. The basement family room became the winery lined with 24 stainless-steel tanks and a large cooler.

From a business viewpoint, Larkin recognized that nobody else locally produced high-quality, artisan ciders to satisfy growing consumer demand. He credits the late Lexie Hartung, former proprietor of Country Wines, along with other local mentors for providing encouragement and guidance as he took the plunge to commercial production.

The risk has been paying off as Larkin's regular customers snap up hand-crafted ciders named for soldiers and famous participants in the Civil War.

His Picket Bone Dry Cider ferments Soergel Orchard's local, fresh juice with C?e des Blancs wine yeast to accentuate fruitiness. The 8 percent ABV balances beautifully with refreshing acidity and light fizziness. The unique Hop Cider IPC features bewitching hop and apple aromas, crisp, dry fruity flavors and 10.9 percent ABV.

Try ciders with either spicy Thai food or grilled salmon with asparagus.

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