In one of the most interesting cider-related articles to hit in a while, Jeff Alworth of Good Beer Hunting interviewed Nat West. West is the owner and visionary behind of Reverend Nat’s in Oregon. In an article entitled, “The Quest to Define American Cider — The Art and Rhetoric of Reverend Nat’s in Portland, OR”, Alworth got West to say the following:
“American cider should have an American taste to it,” he says. “I’m not defining what an American taste is, but an American taste is not English, it is not French. If you’re trying to create a style or a culture, don’t use other existing styles as your reference point. Look at what you have on hand here, and what people here are already used to and accustomed to. No one is accustomed to drinking French and English cider — no one has any idea what English cider is.”
I read and studied this comment before reaching out to West to ask him about it; to ask him to go a little deeper into what he meant. Alworth based his entire, well-written, well thought out article on this quote and he dissected it pretty thoroughly. It’s an interesting read and I recommend it highly.
When I reached out to West and chatted with him about it I came to the conclusion that West is many things. He’s correct. He’s thoughtful. And he’s a bomb-thrower. First let’s look at where he’s correct.
He’s absolutely correct that America’s taste in cider is not French, nor English nor Spanish. These general styles of cider associated with these countries have, as West points out, been developed over centuries of apple cultivation, in very particular terroirs and among peoples whose palates have been trained in ways that American palates have not.
Furthermore, you have to tip your hat to West when you see him proclaim that if you are trying to create a truly indigenous cider culture you shouldn’t look to other styles (French, Spanish, English, for example) as a starting point. There is a clear throwing down of an intellectual gauntlet in this statement. Clearly you can start with other styles of cider when looking to develop something uniquely American. But West says you should not. It is as West explained to me, a question of authenticity and pioneering.
While I disagree with West on this, I can’t deny that his declaration has serious merit and deserves consideration. There is certainly something inauthentic in being a follower and there is no doubt that within the craft cider world there is great deal of following the French, English and Spanish styles. Some of America’s greatest cidermakers produce ciders that attempt to identify the essence of these cultures’ ciders and replicate them. And many do a very good job of it. And while these ciders are authentic in the sense that they represent the vision of their makers and are crafted with no significant manipulation, they are decidedly inauthentic in their style.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when American winemakers with a sense of craftsmanship were just beginning to again take wine seriously 30 years after repeal of Prohibition, they looked to the great wines of Europe to understand what great, lasting wines could be. They looked to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Germany and Italy. They drank these wines. They studied them. They studied the grapes used to make them and the methods used to craft them. And they asked themselves if such great wines could be made in America. By asking and trying to answer these questions America’s wine renaissance was started. More than 50 years later, American winemaking is a study in diversity. Yes, we have Bordeaux-like and Burgundy-like wines made here, but we also have wines that are uniquely American and identified as “American” in style.
But then there is Nat West the Bomb Thrower.
Despite claiming that he is “not defining what an American taste is,” he goes on to tell American cidermakers they ought to “Look at what you have on hand here, and what people here are already used to and accustomed to.”
Let me translate this: Americans are accustomed to drinking their cider sweet and what we have on hand here in abundance that allows cidermakers to give Americans sweet ciders are common culinary apples (Fuji, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, etc.).
There is no doubt that Americans like their drinks sweet. Coca Cola is just the starting point. All the most popular drinks in America are sweet. This goes for alcohol too. The vast majority of wine drunk in America isn’t dry. It’s sweet. Most American wine drinkers claim they like their wines dry, but what they drink are sweet red blends and sweet Chardonnay.
Furthermore, go to a bar and ask for a Manhattan. It will be made with sweet vermouth. In fact, the vast majority of mixed drinks that are ordered in bars and restaurants are sweet.
And of course, the same is true of cider. The overwhelming majority of cider drunk by Americans is severely sweet.
If we truly want to claim that there is an American style of cider, then you will be hard pressed to claim it is anything but sweet and fizzy. And it’s equally true that the sweet Fuji, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp and other culinary apples we find planted in abundance here in the United States are perfectly suited to produce sweet, fizzy cider.
But is it good cider?
It can be, but it’s usually not. And Nat West knows this.
But what’s interesting about West is that his own style of cidermaking is entirely “American” without being what he implies is the authentic American style of cider—sweet and fizzy. Sure, he makes some good sweet and fizzy ciders, but what he excels at is producing a dizzying array of different styles of cider using a vast array of ingredients that go well beyond the simple, cherished apple.
Apricot, ginger, pineapple, cherry, passionfruit, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, carrot, raspberry, hops, bourbon barrels, various strains of yeast, etc, etc.
Is there anything more “American” than daring to experiment, to try something untried, to search for the edge, to deny the standard and seek out the exceptional? This surely must be, to this point, the American contribution to cider culture, and Nat West typifies this style of cidermaking.
And yet despite West’s American approach to making cider, it must be said (and I’m sure he would agree) that there is no dishonor in producing cider based on the classic cider apples that were brought to America from the Old World and those bred here decades ago and now called “heirloom”. In fact, I’d argue that the best ciders being produced in America today are those based on Old World traditional styles, but produced with traditional cider apples cultivated in uniquely American terroirs.
American palates are destined to gravitate toward the sweet and fizzy. At this point it is an attraction that seems to be stamped on our cultural genes. Yet for that picky minority, it can happily be reported that we are developing a host of Nat Wests and American traditionalists who are putting their own stamp on the ancient craft of cidermaking. There appears to be something for everyone.