I’ve been on the lookout for good American hard cider since discovering J.K.’s Scrumpy last winter, and so far I’ve come up empty. That’s why I was intrigued by Crispin Cider from Minneapolis, which is situated in fine apple country and which appeared in D.C. stores over Memorial Day weekend. Well, actually I was intrigued by their slogan, which prescribes that you drink the cider over ice.
This threw me for a loop — I would never consider icing a J.K.’s Scrumpy, nor would I want meltwater diluting any of the raw and funky English ciders Churchkey has been featuring on tap. Besides dilution, what could ice possibly offer that refrigeration cannot? “It gives it a crisper mouthfeel,” was the answer provided by the company’s in-store rep. Which either is false — if anything, melting ice would relax the carbonation, smoothing out the cider’s fizz and pop — or the two of us had conflicting definitions of the word “crisp.” Either way, I was taking some bottles home.
I tried both ciders in Crispin’s “Artisanal Reserve” line: Honey Crisp (6.5 percent abv), sweetened with honey, and The Saint (6.9 percent abv), sweetened with maple syrup and brewed with Belgian beer yeast. Each came in a 22 oz. bottle, priced at $6.90 a pop. Upon first sip, I knew I’d calibrated my expectations too high. The Honey Crisp’s mild but chemical sweetness, the vegetal off-flavors of supermarket apples, reminded me of cheap champagne. The Saint poured a shade darker than the witbier-colored Honey Crisp and tasted sweeter and more complex, with a wisp of baking spice coming from the yeast. But it was still essentially a sweet, fizzy apple juice.
It’s imprecise to lump in Crispin with its alcopop inferiors such as Strongbow or Woodchuck; it’s made with organic honey and maple syrup (though the apples are not organic), and it does taste more like apples than like soda. On the other hand, its flavor doesn’t match its price tag. The ingredients list acknowledges that it contains carbonated water — indicating that it is effectively sweetened and watered down, turning natural apple cider into a honey- or maple syrup-flavored malt beverage. In a cheap six-pack, it’d be a fine stand-in for yellow macrobrew, or a shoddily made mixed drink. But the fact that Crispin is still one of the better American hard ciders only goes to show the competitive limits of its field.