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No worries, my friends. I’m first and foremost a craft beer guy. But after tonight’s dinner hosted by Crispin Cider at The Happy Gnome, I may be making a bit more room for the cider category.

You know you’ve shown up to an event when local gossip-columnist C.J. is seated at a table nearby.  Aside from the people-watching and local celeb sightings, there was of course excellent fare from executive chef Matt Hinman, paired with Crispin’s three year-round offerings and their soon-to-be released Honey Crisp Unfiltered, the first in a line of planned Artisanal Series ciders. Here’s the menu and critique (and for another perspective, check out Jim Norton’s story at Heavy Table):

DSC02475Amuse-bouche
Braeburn apple crêpe and cured salmon
Chive and cream cheese béchamel, salmon caviar

I was certainly intrigued with this one. The chive and cream coupled with the delicate crepe and smoky salmon really worked. Kind of wished this was more of a full course in some way, as one bite was a cruel teaser (but I suppose that’s the point).

First course
Frisée and fennel salad
Peaches, pancetta, St. Pete’s blue cheese, apple cider vinaigrette
Paired with Crispin Original Light

A great salad. As my friend at the table commented, it was one of those masterfully crafted dishes where every component has its moment in the spotlight. Very tasty, and surprisingly the Crispin Light held up very well to the authoritative blue cheese on the plate.

DSC02480Second course
Achiote poached Alaskan halibut
Green curry and apple cous cous, celery root bisque, yellow curry oil
Paired with Crispin Original

Of the five courses, probably one of the least interesting. The nice level of heat from the green curry was its only saving grace. The halibut could have been a little more intriguing, as opposed to simply serving as a vehicle for the curry, but then again I’m not sure what else you can do with something like halibut. Nice texture combination with the apple cous cous. The Crispin Original really added a nice mellowing touch in opposition to the heat from the curry.

DSC02481Third course
Seared amish chicken breast
Roasted cipollini onions, baby carrots, broccolini, thyme-apple foam
Paired with Crispin Brut

Definitely my least favorite course. Chicken was tender, nicely cooked. But the foam was sort of weird, didn’t really impart much flavor. And the carrots gave me the feeling like I was eating grandma’s pot roast…not in the sense they were mushy or overcooked, but more like they were just “there” and didn’t add anything, kind of lowered the sophistication of what I was experiencing. The Crispin Brut was great, probably my favorite of their three regular offerings. A building astringency in the finish, which was a welcome change of pace from some of the sweeter and more savory flavors on the plate.

DSC02485Fourth course
Cider glazed buffalo
Fingerling potatoes, smoked pork belly, porcini mushrooms, fig brulé, watercress coulis, horseradish aspic
Paired with Crispin Honey Crisp Unfiltered

My favorite course of the night, and the one that seemed to have the highest degree of difficulty in pulling off given all the very unique flavors going on at once. Never had a full-on buffalo steak before, and I found it to be noticeably more dense and “stringy” than beef. The connective tissues in the meat were very apparent, which could have been more about the medium rare serving than the meat itself. But I enjoyed it, very flavorful. The pork and mushrooms also were good, but the fig (while interesting from an execution standpoint using a flame to sear the sugars) was a bit undercooked for my liking. I’ll come back to my take on the Honey Crisp Unfiltered in a moment…  

DSC02493Fifth course
Crispin cider poached apple
Izzy’s ice cream, walnut tuile, cinnamon and crispin caramel
Paired with Crispin Honey Crisp Unfiltered

Dessert was great, as expected. How do you go wrong with Izzy’s? But Crispin’s new Honey Crisp Unfiltered was the surprise of the evening for me. Much more akin to a hefeweizen in its unfiltered appearance, and a witbier in its yeast-forward aroma and flavor. Very bready, with a touch of floral honey and clove. In other words, it was about the furthest thing from a cider that you’d expect. The apple took a serious back seat to everything else going on. According to the Crispin representative at my table, they plan to do more of these Artisinal Series ciders (maybe ginger-infused, maybe Minnesota maple syrup?). I think they have a real winner on their hands with this one, if the goal is to appeal to a wider audience of craft beer enthusiasts that may not have considered cider before.  

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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-