Step aside High Noon, it’s officially cider season! And no, we’re not referring to the stuff you get at your local farm stand. We’re talking the hard kind. But what is cider at its core? By definition, it’s an alcoholic drink made from any kind of fermented crushed fruit. In this case, apples. Similarly to craft beer, if you’re trying to avoid the commercial market, ciders can get pretty artisanal too. The main difference is most evident in the process, where apples are allowed to ferment and mature in smaller batches without any artificial additives or sugar. The results range from funky and bubbly to clean, sweet, or bone-dry. Since this is my preferred boozy beverage to drink year-round, I’ve compiled a guide to the best craft cider brands to try—that you probably haven’t heard of.
1. Graft Cider – Newburgh, NY
For Fans of Funky, Fermented Flavors
I’m a known non-beer drinker. But if someone were to force my hand, my go-to order is anything sour. And that’s where Graft Cider comes in. I first got into this brand for their uniqueness—from the beautifully illustrated labels to the style of their product. Graft is known for blurring the lines between hard cider and sour beer. If you’re wondering what that combo tastes like, words like funky, yeasty and dry come to mind.
In terms of their offerings, Graft has an array of flagship ciders available year-round. I recommend the Lost Tropic Hop Mimosa Cider. Their seasonal ciders rotate once per quarter. Keep an eye out for their Last Camp Honey Horchata Cider this fall. They describe it as boasting warming spices including cinnamon, cocoa powder, birch bark and vanilla.
2. Shacksbury Cider – Vergennes, VT
For Natural Wine Lovers
The folks at Shacksbury have a deep appreciation for natural winemakers, which is evident in their own cider iterations. Their standard lineup blends in eating apple varieties and as always, uses slow fermentation and no added sugar. Here’s where natty wine lovers should pay special attention. Shacksbury’s Lost Apple Project ciders are made up of what they call “heirloom apples.” The fruit is harvested exclusively from trees that were planted for cider production by early Vermont settlers—sometimes dating back to the 1800s. By using these older, “feral” apples, the final product is incredibly diverse in flavor.
3. Brooklyn Cider House – New Paltz, NY
For the Purists
“Ugly apples taste better” is the tagline for Brooklyn Cider House. And from what I’ve tried, it’s the truth. In the style of a Basque cider, the offerings here are unfiltered, unrefined and have little to no carbonation. The taste? Dry and sour. Of all the craft cider brands, this to me is the closest you can get to biting into a freshly-picked New York apple. Minus the commercial sweetness.
Although their popular bar, brewery and restaurant in Bushwick has since closed due to COVID-19, you can still visit their orchard in New Paltz, New York. You’ll be in for a day of wood-fired pizzas, locally-sourced burgers, fresh baked goods, seasonal produce and of course, a selection of local ciders, wine and “ugly” apples.
4. Downeast Cider House – East Boston, Massachusetts
Now, not everyone is familiar with the world of unfiltered craft cider brands. However, Downeast Cider House’s offerings are so appealing (and affordable) that all your friends will be reaching for one. The New England company has three core ciders that are each made with five fresh apples per can. And you guessed it, they’re not filtering out any of the good stuff. Which just means you have to give the cans a good shake before you crack them open.
What really makes Downeast Ciders standout is their variety of seasonal flavors. In the summertime, I’ve gravitated towards the refreshing grapefruit or the Aloha Friday made with pineapple. For fall, think festive offerings like a pumpkin blend with chai aroma and even cider donut which is sweet and creamy.
5. Austin Eastciders – Austin, TX
For the Fruity Cider Enthusiasts
I had this craft cider brand for the first time during a trip to Texas a few years back. When in Rome—or in Austin, in this case. They have quintessential, apple-forward offerings and what makes this a beloved brand by many are their fun flavors. Think pineapple and watermelon to blood orange and cranberry. Oh, and it’s real fruit too. None of that artificial stuff. They’re using high-quality apples from Europe and from the Pacific Northwest to craft their cider, Texas style. If you’re worried about sweetness, their drinks have two-thirds less sugar than larger competitors.
6. Bad Seed Hard Cider – Highland, NY
For the Health-Minded
The two founders of Bad Seed are Highland, New York natives and it doesn’t hurt that one of them comes from a family of sixth-generation apple farmers. And the other just so happens to a master fermenter. Bad seed is made using fresh-pressed Hudson Valley apples, one pound per can to be exact. Their ciders contain zero grams of sugar, are naturally gluten-free and have a relatively high ABV (6.9%)—which is exactly what its creators wanted, a cider that is strong. Each small batch is fermented with a sauvignon blanc yeast which yields a product more similar to apple champagne or prosecco. Their seasonal flavors can range from blueberry and pineapple to cranberry, raspberry and ginger.
7. Hudson North Cider Co. – Newburgh, NY
For the Socially-Conscious
This Hudson Valley-based craft cider brand is a branch of Graft Cider, mentioned above. These offerings, however, are a bit simpler in flavor and the style is a hybrid between traditional NY farmstand cider and European farmhouse cider. At the heart of Hudson North Cider Co. is their mission to protect the local trail system. They frequently donate a portion of proceeds to Scenic Hudson and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
Their staple products include a crisp, full-bodied “Standard” cider and a Ginger Citrus variety. Seasonally, the Toasted Pumpkin cider screams fall and is reminiscent of chilled, mulled cider with warm spices.