You could say cider and I haven’t really been the best of friends.

My first exposure to strong cider was in Ireland when, amidst many pints of Guinness at a small pub in Galway, I was challenged to a drinking competition by a local who thought a kid from Minnesota couldn’t outdrink a seafaring Irishman in a test of chugging ability. Well, he was right, as I proceeded to quickly down an entire glass of hard cider (I’ve suppressed which brand) in less than five seconds, narrowly being beaten by my nearly incomprehensible competitor (real Irish accents are tough enough to discern, let alone after a dozen drinks). I then proceeded to stumble to the back of the pub in search of the restroom so I could discretely get sick, only to discover that the door marked “Lads” actually opened up to the alley behind the establishment where several other drinking compatriots were relieving themselves on a stone wall. Classy.

Fast forward about 10 years. My palate has improved, while my tolerance has not. So I thought it was time to give this category another go to see what the world of strong cider, at least locally in the Twin Cities, had to offer. If it was good enough in 14th century Ireland to baptize babies in (weird, but true), then I guess it deserves another look.

Crispin Natural Hard Apple Cider
Crispin is a local company, in the sense that they’re headquartered here in Minneapolis. They don’t use Minnesota apples, but rather produce their cider out in northern California. According to the company, they take the high road compared to competitors by refusing to use any malt, spirits, grape alcohols or additives like sugar or colorants. Just pure, wholesome apple juice blends. They naturally ferment with classic red wine yeasts to give it its unique flavor. And wine is a pretty apt descriptor, as it reminded me much more of a fine white wine than what I’d assumed would be a cloying, sappy cider. Crispin comes in three varietals, the original, brut and a light version. I went with the original for this taste test.

Poured with a very quickly dissipating head, almost like champagne. Light golden coloring, reminiscent of a very light lager. Beautiful bouquet of apple, pear and other delicate fruit in the nose. I found it interesting that the aroma actually reminded me of a mellow apple flavored Jolley Rancher candy. Not a knock, just what I associated it with. The taste is unique, a nice tang up front with soft apple that gently fades into a smooth finish. Not overly tart or aggressive in the least. I did notice a slightly perceptible bit of alcohol in the finish.Comes in at just 5% ABV, so you could certainly sit down with a few of these on a warm summer evening. I enjoyed this one, and look forward to trying their other two offerings.

Rating: A- 

Magners Irish Cider
This is Great Britian’s number one selling hard cider. Made in County Tipperary, Ireland, the company uses 17 different apple varieties to make their unique blend, and are in fact one of the largest purchasers of apple crops in the country (both Republic and Northern Ireland).

Poured a comparatively darker color than Crispin, more like a ruddy orange. As a beer guy, the aroma of Magners was surprisingly more pleasing to my sensibilities, having a very woody, almost hop-like character. Definitely not as much of the overt apple smell. Taste was relatively sweet, not as delicate as Crispin. More of the earthy, woody character as well. I notice the ingredient listing on the side of the bottle rattles off sugar, malic acid, preservatives and added coloring. Hmm, I guess Crispin wasn’t kidding. Magners is 6% ABV, which wasn’t very noticeable. Not bad overall, reminded me more of a beer in some ways. A very different cider than the first one in the line-up.

Rating: B-

Original Sin Hard Cider
This one comes out of New York, although it appears to be contract brewed down in Florida by Indian River Brewing. They use Granny Smith apples and champagne yeast, which is very evident in the pour. Very light and effervescent, with a watered down lemonade coloring. They also claim no additives, and I’d buy that as the apple aroma comes off much better than Magners. I can definitely tell they use Granny Smith, as you get some of that biting ester in the nose. The taste is surprisingly not that bitter, but what is there tends to linger throughout the finish. Another one that comes in at 6% ABV.

Rating: B+

White Winter Hard Apple Cider
Brewed up in the Bayfield Peninsula of Wisconsin, White Winter  is apparently more of a winery and mead maker. Poured very light, just the slightest tinge of straw coloring. A bit of that woodiness in the aroma mixed with apple, but not as evident as Magners. I was a little disappointed with the taste, as there really didn’t seem to be much to it. Fairly watery, not much apple, but you do get a definite bite in the finish. They use a touch of honey to brew this cider, and you can tell in the distinctly dry quality throughout. Only 4.5% ABV, so the lightest of the bunch.

Rating: B-