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By now, you’ve probably started noticing a few television ads touting hard apple ciders — from the lofty Stella Artois Cidre (notice Stella doesn’t call its lager, bière), to the cranky Angry Orchard, complete with a curmudgeon of an animated apple tree mascot. Take a closer look, and you’ll find that these sparkly alcoholic beverages are steadily encroaching on the refrigerated shelf space in liquor stores and supermarkets that, typically, was once considered beer territory — with the occasional goofy fruity margarita in a can.

 

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And for the past few years, many of these hard ciders have been showing up on restaurant menus, much like their distant cousins, twice removed — the much adored craft beers.

While hard ciders target beer and wine drinkers alike, they boast a bit of a genteel reputation, flavor-wise, so it’s not surprising that women make up a fair share of the consumer base. Hard cider, with its pretty amber glitter and gentle fizz, might look like beer as it slides into a glass, but the first sip — met with a sweet opener and a slightly tart finish — will put any notion that it’s a permutation of beer to rest.

Hard cider is, essentially, fermented apple juice with sugars that have morphed into alcohol. Like many beers, the alcohol by volume (ABV) in the average hard cider ranges from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent.

Note that if you love beer, there’s no guarantee that you’ll become a fan of hard cider but, conversely, if you can’t stand the taste of beer, you might very well enjoy the refreshing flavor of a well-crafted hard cider.

And there’s the conundrum — finding the right cider among the throng. Not to worry. I’ve been snatching bottles of hard cider off the shelves for a while now, with the intention of finding the ideal version — and weeding out the clunkers.

My favorites:

 

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Stella Artois Cidre, about $8 for a pack of four 12-ounce bottles. Stella is billed as a drier, premium European-style cider. It’s part of the Anheuser-Busch family.

 

 

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First look: Each bottle contains 4.5 percent ABV and170 calories. The label touts that the cider is made with hand-picked apples. Ingredients include hard cider (water, apple juice concentrate, dextrose), water, sucrose, and natural flavor. Stella Artois suggests serving the cider in a stemmed white wine glass, and pairing it with fish, chicken and a variety of cheeses.

Good news: Stella offers a bright apple flavor that isn’t too sweet, with a slight malt finish that lets you know this isn’t a drink for kids. At 170 calories, it has fewer calories than some other hard ciders that can hit the mid-200 calorie range. 

Bad news: There’s little to complain about here.

Last words: It’s my second favorite.

 

 

Crispin Natural Hard Apple Cider Original, about $8 for a pack of four 12-ounce bottles. It recently became part of MillerCoors.

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First look: Each bottle contains 5 percent ABV and only 150 calories. Ingredients include hard apple cider, filtered water and natural apple essence.

Good news: Clear apple notes, just the right amount of carbonation – doesn’t tickle your nose; nor does it mask the fresh, natural apple flavor, either. Less sugary tasting than some of the others. Fewer calories than the others tested, which allows me little guilt when downing two.

Bad news: For some reason that I can’t understand, several brands, including Crispin, suggest serving over ice. Please ignore them. Nothing is gained by watering down this terrific, but gently flavored drink. What does boost the hard ciders, though, is to stash them in the freezer for a few minutes to get them icy cold.

Last words: My new favorite casual summer drink.

 

Angry Orchard Hard Cider, Crisp Apple, $9 for a pack of six 12-ounce bottles. 

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First look: At first glance, the dark amber bottle makes the cider look more like a beer. Each 12-ounce bottle contains 5 percent ABV and 210 calories. Ingredients include hard apple cider and natural flavors. All of these ciders contain sulfites, by the way.

Good news: Since Angry Orchard comes in a six pack, it’s less expensive than Stella and Crispin. This cider is packed with plenty of overt apple flavor. If you prefer your drinks on the sweet side, then you might go for Angry Orchard.

Bad news: For an angry drink, it’s awfully sweet, making it less than ideal as a hot-weather thirst quencher. Plus, it has quite a few more calories than Stella and Crispin.

Last words: Too sweet, too many calories, but I don’t hate it. Can’t drink more than one of these, though.

 

Don’t bother:

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Here’s the quick and dirty on these three:

Hornsby’s Amber Hard Cider: Harsh, without any fresh apple flavor.

Johnny Appleseed: Think Martinelli’s sparkling cider. The company suggests serving the cider over ice. Sure, if you want to water it down further.

Newton’s Folly Granny Smith Draft Cider: Pale and nearly without flavor. Actually, if it had no flavor at all, it would be better, because the little that’s in there is slightly acidic and medicinal.  

 

Have you tried any of these hard apple ciders? If so, do you have a favorite?