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Originally published Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Taste

Northwest artisans are crafting a renaissance in handmade hard ciders

Handcrafted hard ciders are enjoying a renaissance in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to a handful of local artisans and a plentiful supply of specialty apples.

To start, sample some of these

Charles and Rose Ann Finkel (owners of The Pike Brewing Company), Spencer Johnson (my husband) and I gathered for an informal taste-off of 31 Northwest ciders. Here are the winners:

25 POINTS

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks Pommeau. $40, Oregon.

Unlike dry, low-alcohol, effervescent ciders, Pommeau is a viscous, sweetly complex, apple-rich dessert wine made of apple brandy aged 5 years in oak barrels.

22 POINTS

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks Heirloom Blend Cider. $12, Oregon.

A refreshing, medium-weight, organic cider redolent of ripe apples and brown sugar.

20 POINTS (TIE)

Blue Mountain Cider Company Raspberry Hard Apple Cider. $12, Oregon.

This "rose cider" features luscious ripe-raspberry flavors backed by sparkling acidity.

Red Barn Cider Jonagold Semi-Dry. $11, Washington.

This slightly effervescent golden cider is perfect for everyday drinking.

Red Barn Cider Fire Barrel. $11, Washington.

Served on draft at The Pike Pub, this full-flavored cider resonates with aromas and flavors of apples, vanilla and caramel.

19 POINTS

Red Barn Cider Burro Locco. $12.50, Washington.

Hints of cayenne and jalapeño-pepper tease the tongue in this well-balanced, full-bodied cider.

18 POINTS (TIE)

Merridale Ciderworks Cyser. $5 Canadian, British Columbia.

Slowly fermented apple juice and wildflower honey create a cider with pleasant apple-blossom and baking-spice flavors and appealing sweetness.

Red Barn Cider Sweetie Pie. $11, Washington.

Red Barn's sweetest cider displays a pale straw color, fine bubbles and a clean, slightly sweet nose.

17 POINTS

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks Semi-Dry Cider. $12, Oregon.

Ripe-apple flavors, a hint of residual sugar, and top notes of ginger and citrus make for a complex, refreshing cider.

First came the coffee craze. Then microbrew mania. Then the wows over wine and the tempest over tea.

Now it may be hard cider's turn to cause a stir, thanks to crafters such as Drew Zimmerman, co-owner of Red Barn Cider in Skagit County's Mount Vernon.

Zimmerman makes about 3,500 gallons of this apple-based beauty a year, which qualifies Red Barn as a boutique cidery — one that creates small volumes of an artisan, handcrafted product. All told, more than a dozen cideries are sprinkled throughout the Northwest, some with catchy names like Bad Seed Cider Co., Sea Cider and Spire Mountain.

For the rest of us, the WSU-Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center offers cider-related classes several times a year. There is even an impressive Web site for dedicated Northwest "cider heads," www.nwcider.org.

My first taste of Zimmerman's Fire Barrel cider was a revelation. Aged in fire-charred Kentucky-bourbon barrels, it picks up that unmistakable bourbon-y nose of vanilla and caramel. The toasty-warm flavors and an intriguing apple-y bite carry over on the palate, creating a complex yet refreshing beverage with 8 percent alcohol, as compared to many wines' 12 to 16 percent.

Cider making is "like making wine with apples," according to Zimmerman. And much like the difference between table grapes and wine grapes, the apples most often used to make cider are nothing like the Fujis or Honey Crisps we eat out of hand.

Instead, they are small, often misshapen, frequently blemished specimens with woolly or woody flesh. They can be so bitter and astringent that Zimmerman says, "Eating them is like biting into an aspirin and a tea bag at the same time."

True cider apples sport romantic names that come from their heritage in southern England and northern France: Porter's Perfection, Yarlington Mill, Muscat de Bernay, Sweet Coppin, Brown Snout and Kingston Black.

Cider makers use blends of apples to create the taste they seek. "One-quarter of the apples are sweet, another quarter are bittersweets and the rest are bittersharps," Ron Irvine, owner of Irvine's Vintage Cider and Vashon Winery, says of Irvine's Blend. "The cider was fermented in plastic barrels, then aged 1 ½ years in French oak barrels. Prior to bottling, I added sugar and yeast, and started a second fermentation that is finished in the bottle, much like Champagne. The cider is dry and creamy with a hint of bitterness."

You can sample Zimmerman's ciders (along with Tulip Valley Vineyard & Orchard wines) at a picturesque tasting room in the Skagit Valley. Look for an iconic red barn surrounded by 4-year-old vineyards and apple orchards.

Red Barn tasting-room manager Jodi Monroe reports that cider is a newfound option for wedding receptions, thanks to its low alcohol level and reasonable price point. She also likes to pair it with Mexican food.

Zimmerman told me that cider was first brought to the United States by English settlers who drank it, instead of water, which could be hazardous to their health. "It was our culture, drunk by our grandparents' grandparents, so we are a full four generations removed. John Adams drank a pint of cider every day for breakfast, and Thomas Jefferson preferred cider to European wines."

Sounds like it's time to raise a glass to the renaissance of this heritage drink.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of seven books, including "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining," and is a columnist for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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