October 7, 2003. It was a small yet attentive crowd that gathered at Max's on Broadway in Baltimore, Tuesday evening for the regular weekly "Beer Social".
This evening, it wasn't beer that brought them, but Ron Fischer and his apples.
Affectionately know as "Cellarmaster Ron", Fischer is the cask ale buyer for import house B. United, International and a nationally recognized authority on cask-conditioned ales.
Fischer informed the attendees that, this year, in addition to casks of real ale, B. United would be importing casks of English "real cider" into the United States. All would be from Gwatkin Cider, found just south of Hereford, close to the Welsh border. Fischer said that the shipment had been slightly delayed but that he expected it stateside in early November. [The cider arrived late November and was featured at Max's for the U.S. national inaugural tasting.]
Fischer told the attendees that "real cider" is nothing like the sweetened, filtered, pasteurized alco-pop often sold as cider. In fact, it's just the opposite: naturally fermented, unfiltered, relatively low in sulfites, unsweetened, and unpasteurized. In its cask form, it is known as "scrumpy" and its sister, fermented pear, as "perry".
Fermentation is conducted solely by yeasts found naturally on the apple skins, Fisher said, adding that these wild yeasts are very distinctive to each cider-making area, defining the character of the ciders produced there. Terroir is also important for the quality and characteristics of the fruit, he said. Some of the areas known for their high quality cider and perry are Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Somerset, and Devon.
Fischer noted that, traditionally, the cider is aged in either rum or whiskey casks, imparting further complexity, Its high final alcohol levels of 7- 8%, its low residual sugar, and its wine-like acidity all act as natural preservatives for long shelf life after tapping.
Fischer then described the three varieties that B. United will import this year.
1) Yarlington Mill single varietal cider is from the bittersweet apple of the same name: a honeyed palate of dark fruit and spirit with pleasant tannins at the finish. Some phenols add structure to the fruitiness. This received a gold at the 2002 CAMRA National Cider and Perry Championships.
2) A blend of several varietals for a slightly higher residual sugar content, maybe a bit closer to the 'American' palate, yet still complex and dry.
3) Blakeny Red, a single varietal perry from the pear of that name. Fischer notes that this is fragrant and perfumey, medium sweet, with slight acids and tannins on the finish. Blakeney Red received first in the perry class.
Apologizing that there was no scrumpy or perry to taste that evening. Fischer instead poured Normandy cider, or cidre , from Etienne Dupont, the French house which is known for its apple brandy — Calvados.
The attendees didn't seem to mind, in fact enjoying the complex and delicious 2002 vintage of French hard cider — unfiltered, low in sulfites, unpasteurized — so different from the majority of cider sold in the United States. And, as contrast, Fisher poured small samples of Pommeau, a bottled blend of Dupont's Calvados and mout (unfermented cider).
Host, Max's Beer Manager, Casey Hard, was also pouring draft St. Georgenbrau, a Bamberg, Germany keller bier, awarded 4 stars by beer writer Michael Jackson. B Untied imports it as well.
Max's on Broadway boasts over 100 taps and 300 bottled beers. Ask Casey and he will produce a Reserve List of vintage, hard-to-find, and sometimes no-longer-brewed beers of distinction.
Max's on Broadway
735 S. Broadway
(410) 675-6297 (MAXS)
Several times a year, Fischer will travel to the UK to contract with breweries for their cask ales, usually winners at the Great British Beer Festival. He arranges for the complex, time-critical, and temperature sensitive transportation of the casks here to the US.
Once the casks arrive, Fischer brings them into condition: allowing for completion of the secondary fermentation, assuring for proper carbonation levels, and clarifying the ale by adding finings to gently remove yeast from suspension.
The beer and ciders are distributed in Maryland by Legends, Ltd.