Israel's Cider House Rules

After the wine and beer revolutions, now it’s the turn of alcoholic apple cider.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

We first fell in love with alcoholic apple cider which has absolutely no relation to the sweet juice that is called cider during our last trip to England and its rural districts. In traditional pubs and 100-year-old cider mills, whose huge wooden casks emit the overripe-sweetish fragrance of millions of crushed apples, we learned to love the rich flavor of this type of cider and the pleasant blurry sensation it imparts to those who imbibe it.

A journey through the world of alcoholic beverages, a world of delicate flavors and a rich history, often requires teaching and training the palate. But in the case of apple cider, which is not very familiar to inhabitants of the Mediterranean Basin, you have to work a little harder to overcome the strangeness of, and become addicted to, the fermented metamorphosis experienced by the juice of the apple the love fruit of the Song of Songs and the forbidden fruit of paradise lost.

Alcoholic cider production at the El Rom winery.Credit: Dan Peretz

According to the most common Jewish interpretation which is confirmed by contemporary nature and Bible scholars alike the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was actually the grape or fig. So how did the apple, of all fruits, which is not even one of the seven species with which this land was blessed, become identified as the forbidden fruit?

Some believe that the Christian Church pointed an accusing finger at it for utilitarian reasons. One possible explanation for making the apple the source of Original Sin is the fourth-century C.E. competition between the Catholic and Celtic Churches. The people of the Mediterranean “poured” their gods and their beliefs, including the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, into the rituals of the Roman Catholic church. Celts, people of the north, believed that apples contain the essence of divine wisdom; alcoholic apple cider was used by the Druids in ritual ceremonies. The Catholic Church, which turned wine into the blood of Jesus and came out ahead in the battle for public opinion, treated apple cider drinkers as uncivilized barbarians and also gave a bad name to the sweet fragrance of the apple and the cider produced from it.

What of the wine drinkers of the Mediterranean Basin versus the cider drinkers of the northern countries? It was customary to divide the Old World according to an imaginary geographical line that distinguished between wine drinkers and people who drank liquor (alcoholic drinks made from grain or fruit), and the latter beverages became cultural symbols. In the modern world, which learned to overcome the forces of nature and reduce geographical distances, the old boundaries became blurred. For our part, our forefathers sanctified the Shabbat over wine not beer or cider and the power of tradition is still strong.

The production of apple cider was traditionally so far removed from the inhabitants of the Land of Israel that the apple tree flourished only on a few high mountain peaks and to the point where the Hebrew language lacks a suitable name for the place where cider is produced. In English you say “cider mill” (in the past, water- or animal-powered or manually operated mills produced the energy used to squeeze out the apple juice); in France cider is manufactured in cidreries du Calvados; on the farms in the Breton and Norman countryside they used to distill Calvados and ferment cider from the fruits of the orchards. And what should such a factory be called in Hebrew? Beit cider? Cideria?

The local wine revolution, which began in the 1980s, brought back to Israel the tradition of producing good wine; during the short period of the local beer revolution, dozens of breweries have been established, both industrial and home-based. At the 2012 Beer festival, held for the second time last week in Tel Aviv, two local brands of alcoholic apple cider were on sale for the first time, taking their place among a growing selection of local and imported beers.

Who will buy the beer produced in the new breweries or the output of all the hundreds of wineries that have sprung up here in recent years? Well, that’s a different question. In the past year, frequenters of bars and pubs have been sadly observing the marketers and brewers who are trying to convince, almost to beg, the owners of such establishments and restaurants to buy their products. Despite the increase in production, it’s not certain that demand is equal to or growing in a parallel rate to it. Indeed, in the present economic situation, with restaurants and bars finding it difficult to meet their commitments to suppliers, and with a forecast that things will get worse the future looks somewhat gloomy. But that’s a story for another day.

Northern cider house

Through the glass windows of the apple cider house on Kibbutz El Rom one can see the white peaks of Mount Hermon, which only during the most recent storm was covered with a thin layer of snow, hovering between frothy clouds and blue sky. In the high altitude in this part of the country, once part of an area without international borders belonging to Greater Syria, and today in contention between Israel and Syria the light is softer than the blinding Mediterranean glare; in the early morning hours now, the temperature plummets below zero. This is the land of vineyards and pear and apple orchards, and during the winter season when the branches of the fruit trees stand naked and blueberry bushes turn red and yellow it has a wild and foreign sort of beauty.

The residents of Kibbutz El Rom have located their new cider house, the source of great hopes, in an attractive building that was once a visitors’ center featuring berry picking, on the way to Emek Habakha (Valley of Tears) and two kilometers from the Israeli-Syrian border.

“The modern market demands perfect and attractive eating apples,” explains Uzi Livne, the business manager of the kibbutz, who is spearheading the new cider initiative. “Five years ago we began thinking about what to do with high-quality apples that don’t look so nice, and then we had the idea of trying to produce an alcoholic cider. We believe that the terroir (soil) in this area, which has turned out to be one of the best wine regions in the country, is also suitable for growing apples for cider, and that alcoholic cider is very well suited to the Israeli climate.”

The members of Kibbutz El Rom are thorough and practical. Thirty years ago, when they wanted to go into translating and dubbing films, they went to Holland to learn the technology required to establish such studios. When together with seven other local communities, they established the Ramat Hagolan Winery, they consulted with oenologists from France and the Americas so they could decipher the secrets of the local soil. And when they began to think about producing cider, they picked themselves up and embarked on a journey among large and small cider producers in Somerset, England and Normandy, France two regions identified with the history and tradition of producing apple and pear ciders.

Together with oenologist Itay Lahat, their professional adviser, the kibbutzniks decided to focus on making traditional British-style cider which they believe is more suited to the palate of the average Israeli drinker and to use modern technology that makes it possible to control the processes of fermentation and preservation.

English or French cider is produced from dozens of species and subspecies of special cider apples i.e., not ones meant for eating. Over the centuries, natural and unique combinations of them were made in every region and village. Cider apples are rich in tannins (biting into one causes a prickly sensation in the mouth), which are responsible for the rich complexity of various types of cider. The apples themselves are divided into four main groups, based on dominant flavor characteristics such as bitterness, sourness and sweetness. The work of the cider master is a delicate craft, involving combining various types of cider apples to achieve a perfect blend.

In the El Rom cider house they have been forced, at least initially, to make do with the common eating apples that are grown locally. In the future and without mentioning peace arrangements or returning the Golan to the Syrians the kibbutz plans to import specific cider varieties from England or France. But even if they succeed in doing so, it will take another five years to produce cider from them: The saplings of the new varieties have to be quarantined by the Agriculture Ministry for a year, and it takes at least three years for an orchard to produce fruit.

For two years the kibbutzniks worked with small quantities of apples to examine how the common local varieties such as Starking (Hermon), Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Golden Jonathan react to processes of fermentation, and to different temperatures and types of yeast. Those who have frequented the local pub on El Rom have enjoyed experimental cider, some better and some less so, while the professional team tried to arrive at a formula that suits the local taste.

The apples themselves come from the Beresheet fruit-packing plant, which is jointly owned by local communities.

The harvesting season begins in August and ends in September, but apples for eating or cider are available all year round, thanks to special refrigerated rooms where they are stored without oxygen; this slows down the process of ripening and rotting. In the cider house, the apples are washed and transferred for crushing and squeezing. The mash finds its way to the former cowshed, where the juice is channeled into stainless-steel containers with temperature controls (the romantic image of wooden barrels and so on belongs to the small, traditional cider houses abroad).Then the fermentation process begins with the addition of wine yeast.

Modern technology makes it possible to stop and control the fermentation process, and if the level of sweetness or sourness has to be adjusted, fresh apple juice is added, definitely not sugar or malic acid. After about three weeks the murky juice is strained and the clear liquid is aerated with carbon dioxide.During the natural fermentation process the cider becomes carbonated, but it is difficult to control the level of carbonation and the uniformity of the bubbles. From there it’s off to the assembly line, to bottling and pasteurization.

Starting next month the Ramat Hagolan Winery is scheduled to market two El Rom alcoholic ciders to wine stores, restaurants and bars: Sideffect, with a red label (the PR people warmly recommended a proud non-Hebrew name and stylized labels), is low in alcohol (4 percent) and rich in natural sugar (the PR people insist this combination suits the delicate palate of women). But even without insulting women who drink, it turns out that most Israelis prefer the sweet taste. Sideffect with the green label (6 percent alcohol) is closer in spirit and taste to typical filtered dry English cider a clear liquid from the mountain summits whose complex fruity flavors are not concealed by a sweet taste.

During the first stage 60,000 bottles will be marketed, and within a short time, El Rom plans to reach 200,000 bottles per month. There are also dreams for the future: The members of the kibbutz are dreaming of orchards of cider apples in the Valley of Tears, and also about pear cider. Meanwhile, the house oenologist is enthusiastically fantasizing about more complex types of French-style cider and a Calvados distillery, but everyone is waiting to see how the local public responds to the new beverage.

Bubbling away

In Denny Neilson’s cider house, located in a neighborhood in Mevasseret Zion, the landscape is totally different, pretty in its own way, featuring green pine forests, and hills and communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Already in the Middle Ages, when the reputation of the Shami apples native to the Greater Syria region spread over the Middle East, the Jerusalem area, with its high peaks and cool climate, was well known for growing and exporting high quality apples.

Nine years ago the Neilson family immigrated from California. Denny left his field of expertise as a consultant to cellular phone companies, and built himself an alcoholic paradise in his private home on the mountainside. On the lower level is a store selling equipment for brewing beer and making wine, where shelves are also filled with bottles of boutique beer and cider produced under the name Isra-Ale. On the balcony of the top floor, they brew the beer, crush and squeeze apples in late autumn and offer workshops on making wine and cider. Between those levels one discovers hidden wooden doors that lead to the wine cellar and to treasure-filled casks and cooling rooms.

The family treasures include three different varieties of home-brewed beer, and recently two types of alcoholic apple cider as well. It took three years of experimentation before Denny managed to arrive at a perfect formula for producing the traditional cider, and the result is Buster’s Cider 48 with a low alcohol content (4.8 percent) and high percentages of sugar that give it a sweet taste and Buster’s Cider 67, a drier and more alcoholic, English-style cider. Both types are named after Denny’s partner-in-crime, an even-tempered Golden Retriever; the numbers refer simply to the percentages of alcohol they contain.

The Neilsons use varieties of eating apples in this case too, it’s still impossible to achieve a rich complexity with these types that come from the orchards of neighboring Kibbutz Tzuba. The cider production is manual, on a small, home-made scale, without any intention of growing beyond 3,000 bottles per month. The two types of cider are entirely natural, with only natural fruit and yeast, without any additional sugar. And the two Buster’s ciders boast a heady, fruity fragrance and an interesting and surprisingly good flavor, despite the newness of a product that lacks local tradition and knowledge.

“All that’s left is to convince the Israelis how great cider is,” laughs Denny, “and that it’s permissible and a good idea to drink it with ice, as the English do.”

The Winemaker, 99 Shimshon Swissa, Mevasseret Zion, 054-6381102, http://thewinemaker.homestead.com

Foreign flavors

The past summer was devoted entirely to apple cider. At Minzar, our neighborhood pub in Tel Aviv, they served golden, thirst-quenching pints of Irish cider with ice cubes, from the barrel; in La Maison, a charcuterie that was closed too soon, they served hotdogs, cheeses and pickled meats with glasses of murky and delicious French apple and pear cider; and in the dim setting of Porter & Sons a beer house and eatery that also regularly imports English apple cider in both casks and bottles we enjoyed pleasant moments, hiding from the world.

Cider is a drink midway between wine and beer. You can enjoy meals accompanied by cider without suffering the swollen-belly syndrome one feels after imbibing grain liquor while eating, and can also appreciate the way in which the overripe-apple taste emphasizes the flavor of hotdogs, cheeses, seafood and meat. On the other hand, cider can be drunk as is, simply to enjoy its complex fruity flavor, without the bitterness of hops that is characteristic of beer, and free of the pretension typical of the world of wine.

Apple and pear ciders are produced in England, France, Spain, Germany, South Africa and the United States, but only in recent years has it been imported to Israel, mainly from England and France, which are responsible for the two main methods of cider production. The distance between English and French cider is almost as great as the abyss between wine and liquor drinkers, and on both sides of the English Channel they claim to own the copyright. English and French ciders vary from one another in terms of the varieties of fruit used, production methods and even in the manner people drink them but the main difference is one of cultural attitude.

You won’t find a British pub, in London or in rural areas, without apple cider on tap; nowadays most of the popular varieties are manufactured on an industrial basis. Only in the past two decades have people in England gone back to creating and appreciating traditional ciders made on small farms. The clear and relatively sweet liquid is served in beer mugs, usually with ice, and it goes wonderfully with simple pub food like fish ‘n chips.

In France, on the other hand, the raw ingredients and the beverage produced from it are treated similarly to grapes and wine, respectively. The most highly regarded ciders are those produced on small farms using traditional methods of natural fermentation and aging for long periods; they have a funky aroma and fragrance that originates in the wild yeast typical of the region. In France they don’t try to adapt the flavor of the cider to the taste of the public, heaven forfend, and the classical gastronomical accompaniments are still traditional, local Norman and Breton dishes.

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