After scouring the country in search of organic craft alcohols of all sorts, we’ve discovered a significantly larger number of ciders than we have anything else. Organic beers are slowly but surely on the rise, as are hard alcohols and wines, but ciders have got them well beat out.
Let us clarify. Speaking purely numbers, wines easily take the cake for the highest organic count, with plenty of certified and non-certified vintners keeping their process clean from field to bottle – Domaine Huet of Vouvray and Domaine Leroy of Bourgogne being prime examples of the latter – but the issue of ‘spoofing’ in the wine industry deeply muddies the debate, and is too big a detour to address properly in this article. That aside, the majority of wines marketed as organic in the United States are simple, mass market table wines, so if we’re talking about alcoholic drinks meant to be paid any kind of serious attention, the numbers quickly become very different.
Even though it’s incredibly satisfying every time we find an unfamiliar organic, biodynamic, or otherwise well-produced alcohol, it is frustratingly difficult to do so*. Most alcohols don’t even list their ingredients, let alone tell you anything about them, so if they don’t make it clear upfront what they’re working with, there’s no way to know without some thorough online investigation or direct contact with the producer, which of course takes quite a bit of commitment. When we’re on the hunt, we literally turn around every unfamiliar bottle desperately searching for any sort of indication.
During a hunt of similar description, we found Wandering Aengus**, specifically this Golden Russet single varietal cider (one of a series of theirs) in the Bend Whole Foods. Even though we’d only had a Golden Russet apple once before (in the hibernal Northeast for those who are curious), the experience was powerful, and to this day it easily tops our favourite apple list. That said, we were justifiably stoked to see a cider made from our very hard-to-find favourite apple.
A cidery based in Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks works exclusively with heirloom cider apples. The apples that go into the Golden Russet cider in particular all come from a single orchard in Ashland, Oregon where they are grown using organic methods, and then fermented into cider and bottled by Wandering Aengus. Our bottles are from the October 2014 harvest, and were bottled after a 5-month fermentation period in March 2015. We say bottles plural because we’ve got a second one we’re keeping racked to pull out in a few years after it’s had a chance to age a bit more.
Their single varietal miniseries (others of which have been made from Wickson and Ashmead’s Kernel apples) stands pretty drastically apart from their main line of ciders – all of which are hefty blends, using 20+ different types of apples per bottle. The label design on this series reflects the contrasting simplicity, employing the Celtic trinity knot (meant to represent the interwoven relationship[s] of fruit, cidermaker, and technique) as its only iconography on a single-coloured background.
Golden Russet at 1.5 years:
On the nose, it’s lovely; mellow, light, and clean. It smells like a straightforward, bright cider that one would expect to be relatively accessible. On the palate though, it offered some surprising quirks that for many might be harder to handle, most of which can probably be attributed to the unique character of Golden Russets, but the rest we’d chock up to being opened prematurely. Oddly enough, Wandering Aengus themselves suggest a drinking age of as young as 1 year.
The first thing you’re likely to notice is that this is a deeply sour cider, and a dry one at that, so you won’t find respite for your acidified tongue in an immediate response of sugars as you drink. This profile fairly well represents our experience of Golden Russets as a whole fruit. Sharper than they are sweet, their appeal lies largely in the complex flavours of their skin, particular brightness, and the unique texture of their flesh. These basic characteristics (excepting textural elements, of course) appear to have been transformed by the fermentation only in terms of exaggeration, at least so far. Secondly, there is a wonderfully forward minerality that’s got an electric quality which combined with the strong acids makes for a fun kick; at times tasting almost straight-up salty.
To get more out of the young cider, we ate some strong tasting foods in hopes of knocking out primary aspects of its profile in order to show off more underlying features. Following a quick bite of finger limes, which stifled the brighter notes, we detected the not exactly flattering-sounding but nonetheless interesting scent of ‘cat urine’ most often associated with certain Sauvignon Blancs, and after a bit of extremely (perhaps even overly) ripe Camembert, a vegetal blueberry note was revealed that, though subtle, lingered for quite some time.
Texturally, this cider’s sort-of funny, as the bubbles appear to be largely inactive until they hit your mouth, at which point though, they become blatantly obvious: fairly coarse and medium-large.
Though there may be some things in those past few paragraphs that sound intriguing, we should state that while this was by no means a bad drinking experience, it was also not a particularly good one. Unless you feel like desperately hunting down the sensations listed above, your experience is more likely to be of a fairly one-note, high acidity, moderately dry, minerally cider. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll enjoy it, but we found it to be unbalanced, obnoxious, and lacking depth. Interesting, sure. Enjoyable? Less sure.
Ultimately, 1.5 years just doesn’t seem to have been enough time to do these Golden Russets justice. Only time will tell. As fun as its shocking acidity may be for kids like us who grew up on sour candy, hanging out with this young and overzealous cider for an entire evening proved to be tiresome. Though this first encounter with Wandering Aengus was admittedly underwhelming, we’re not closing ourselves off to future possibilities. Ciders of different apples and vintages could prove more impressive, and you never know, that second Golden Russet could have something exciting in store.
*We suspect that a significant contributor to the difficulty of obtaining organic alcoholic beverages (even in stores which otherwise specialize in sourcing good, organic products) is that too many people assume the belief that drinking alcohol is already unhealthy – a point we’re not going to agree with or debate – and so therefore if they’re going to do it, do not see any reason to drink organic. Unfortunately, this stance completely misses the much more important factors of environmental impact and sustainability. If you take issue with the vast swaths of monoculture corn and wheat that currently dominate our agricultural landscape, it is imperative to consider that those same ears of corn are becoming your whiskey, and the wheat, your beer. Sourcing organic, biodynamic, and heirloom materials is about protecting and supporting biodiversity, reducing soil degradation, and limiting toxic agricultural pollution (among other things) infinitely more than it is about personal health.
**The name Wandering Aengus comes from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem entitled: The Song of Wandering Aengus.