Menu Decoder: The Crisp Appeal of Dry Cider

In less than a decade, cider has gone from pub pariah to belle of the bar. Made in a range of styles, it’s the dry stuff that gets drink nerds salivating the hardest. Here’s the skinny on the leanest of ciders.


In our new series Menu Decoder, Billy explains the exciting – and likely unfamiliar – terms and ingredients you’ll encounter on your travels.

Ten years ago, cider lovers would be lucky to get a pint of Strongbow at their local chain pub. Today it’s a much different story. Restaurants are finally recognizing cider’s rightful place at the table, and most pubs dedicate at least one tap to an apple-based libation.

Cider’s steep ascent has a lot to do with the fact that it’s a demilitarized zone between the beer and wine camps. Beer geeks love cider for its effervescence and refreshing crushability; wine wonks embrace it for its farm-to-glass production and vibrant acidity.

And it’s the dry stuff that gets drink nerds salivating the hardest.

A good introduction to the world of dry cider can be found at the increasing number of cider bars popping up in major North American cities. Toronto is home to Her Father’s Cider Bar and Kitchen and Cider House. Chicago has The Northman in Lincoln Square and the soon-to-open Eris Brewery and Cider House. In New York there are many options including Wassail in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and The Owl Farm in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood.

Among the best ways to develop a tastes for dry cider is at a Basque-style Sunday sidrería lunch, which take place four to six times a year at the acclaimed Toronto restaurant Edulis.


Dry ciders lined up at Edulis

“[Spanish] dry cider is very different to what’s been typically available here,”. “It’s effervescent rather than aggressively sparkling, it’s funky, it’s barn-y, it’s bone dry, and full of character,” says Tobey Nemeth, who owns Edulis with her husband Michael Caballo.

Dry cider may be an acquired taste and a tough sell, but Nemeth says it’s amazing how well it goes with a wide range of foods including grilled beef.

“It’s a beautiful pairing for so much food … It’s magic with meat, it’s wonderful with fish, lentils would be really good, wild mushrooms, cabbage-y things, and pork in any format is extraordinary with cider.”

Dry cider contains less than 0.4% residual sugar (or thereabouts; it depends on who’s defining it), which is what you’d find in a typical Sauvignon Blanc. The reality is that cider with less than 1.5% residual sugar will taste quite dry to the average palate. It gets more confusing because some big producers market ciders with upwards of 5% residual sugar as “dry,” when they certainly are not.

On the extreme end is sidra from Spain.

Cider has always enjoyed a prominent place on Edulis’s drink card, but Nemeth has only recently been able to source beloved Basque ciders such as Zapiain and Barkaiztegi. At the restaurant, it’s poured following Spanish tradition: from a height into a thin, wide lowball glass for aeration, and only enough for a few sips to savour it at its best.


A wonderful first lesson in the Basque language

With bracing acidity and earthy flavours, sidra is not something to quaff by the pool. It needs food.

“We stay very true to the tradition of the cider house menu,” Nemeth says, and in Basque/Spanish terms, that means “salt cod omelettes, local sausage cooked in cider, steaks from an old cow cooked very rare on a wood grill, cheese for dessert.”

Here in North America, dry cider production is still maturing. “I think the industry is still a little young here to have planted proper cider apples that you’d find in Europe,” explains Edulis’s Caballo. (Cider apples are essentially inedible.)

“Instead we’re using what there is, [varieties of apples that] tend to have too much sweetness. With less-sweet apples you get that dryness, tannins, the intense apple flavour.”

A handful of producers are experimenting with true dry cider. Ontario’s West Avenue Cider has had a lot of success with its flagship Heritage Dry, and down in Niagara, Southbrook Vineyards winery recently released a funky, lightly effervescent 2016 Organic Wild Ferment Cider. Sundström Cider in Hudson Valley, New York produces a unique range of dry ciders, from their popular Sponti to single-variety still ciders.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s Shacksbury is a dry cider specialist, whose portfolio includes a number of bone-dry beverages including Arlo – described as “aromatic, grapefruit, lightly sparkling, and dry” – and the cult Pét Nat, which is made from wild apples in very limited quantities.

The upshot

Do say: “How many grams of residual sugar per litre does this cider have?”

Don’t say: “Got any flavoured ciders from Somersby on tap?”

Menu Decoder: The Crisp Appeal of Dry Cider
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