Local Cider for the Holiday

MIDDLETOWN — The beauty of the tasting room at Spoke + Spy Ciderworks in Middletown is that customers can try a variety of ciders to see what they like, said owner Ron Sansone.

“I think a lot of people have preconceived notions of what dry is, and it’s maybe the experience they’ve had with wine, but it’s different with apple,” Sansone said. “I do think the dry wines are generally favored by older people or people with more developed palates, and the sweeter ones are more younger people just getting into cider.”

All the ciders are made with local fruit – Sansone picks it up himself – though he usually crosses into New York or Massachusetts for the varieties of apples more suited to cider. Cider apples are often not as readily available because they tend to be bitter and not as pretty as the more popular varieties, he said.

“Connecticut orchards don’t grow a lot of apples that are great for cider,” Sansone said. “Cider’s like wine, the varieties of apples make the character of the cider.”

More than half of the ciders that Spoke + Spy has produced recently are dry – meaning the yeast has converted more of the sugar to alcohol, leaving a cider that has less sweetness.

Drier ciders are typically more “apple forward” than the sweeter varieties that feature other fruits, especially berries.  The dry apple ciders also pair well with fattier foods, Sansone said, so they would be a good option alongside a turkey dinner.

“The dry ones are the most wine-like, though cider usually has a lower alcohol content,” Sansone said.

Because of the pandemic, their tasting room hasn’t been open since the two-year anniversary celebration held for Spoke + Spy in March, but instead the cider works is selling growlers of cider for customers to take home – a business decision that has pushed the Sansone to brew a more limited range of ciders, focusing more on the most popular ciders.

“Before March, it felt like every week was non-stop change and innovation, new cider, lots of people,” Sansone said. “With fewer people, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, so I’m just trying to stick to the main line, flagship varieties that people know.”

One of the most popular, especially among new wave fans, is the semi-sweet Tepache Mode – an apple cider combined with fresh-cut pineapple, chile de arbol and habanero peppers for a kick. The Tepache Mode is another good option for the Thanksgiving table, especially if the meal includes pineapple in another form, he said.

Spoke + Spy takes part of its name from the Northern Spy apple, an heirloom apple from Connecticut that formed the base of ciders Sansone made for competitions before opening Spoke + Spy. It’s the basis of the cider work’s flagship NoRa Spy — a dry, still cider named for where the cider is fermented, north of Rapallo Avenue in Middletown.

It’s also used in Spy Barrel, another variety of sparkling dry cider available this week, which is aged in American oak Pinot Noir barrels that give it a distinctive pink hue.

“It’s a really great apple if you have the opportunity to find it. Usually if you go to smaller farm stands or co-op places you can find interesting apples,” Sansone said. “There are other Connecticut apples, but most of them are long forgotten. When you go to the grocery store, you usually see like seven varieties of apples, which is crazy because if you look back 200 years ago, there were over 5,000 varieties of apples.”

There are also some drier ciders that feature fruits other than apples, like a dry strawberry rhubarb cider that does keep some sweetness from the fruit, he said. Spoke + Spy also offers a dry pear cider that’s naturally fermented, with no yeast added to speed the digestion of sugars into alcohol.

“But most of the dry ones are apple-forward. We have one on this week that a friend of mine took the apples from one single tree in Litchfield County,” he said.

For drinkers preferring a sweeter cider, Spoke + Spy offers a cranberry cider that Sansone said would fit nicely in a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

The cider works also offers a series of sweet fruit ciders called “Middle of the…” — as in Middle of the Cherry and Middle of the Grape — two varieties available this week.

“Those are on the sweeter side, and those always sell out really quick. As soon as I put those up they sell out,” he said. “I think when it was warmer, the sweeter ones were more popular because people want that easily drinkable alcoholic beverage.”

Sansone, who started the Connecticut Cider Association back in 2018 as a way to network smaller cider makers in the state, said he’s seen a few plans for new cideries, as well as more people from Connecticut going through the Cider Institute of North America.

As cider grows as an industry in Connecticut, he said that some Connecticut orchards have been starting to grow more fruits that are good for cider.

“If people come in and ask for the fruit, they realize it wouldn’t hurt to try a few trees,” Sansone said. “Apples are weird because you don’t plant trees, you graft them, so they can even try a couple of branches and see if it does work for them.”

For now, Spoke + Spy is only offering growler pick up. Ciders can be ordered on its website and picked up in the 32-ounce growlers at the facility in Middletown. For sanitary reasons they are only exchanging growlers instead of filling them. If you don’t have a growler to exchange, they sell for $5, and then you can exchange them instead of purchasing new growlers with subsequent purchases.

Other local ciderworks include Yankee Cider Co. in East Haddam and Clyde’s Cider Mill in Mystic. The Connecticut Cider Association’s website can show you other options for buying Connecticut ciders, and more tips for pairing cider with your meal.

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