Kate Ledbetter, co-owner of Meriwether Cider Co. explains why cider tastes best during harvest season.
Fall is a special time to be in Idaho. The days get shorter, college football returns, sweater-weather reigns and under a bright, full moon, ciders take center stage.
To celebrate the cider season, we spoke with Kate Leadbetter who – along with her parents and sister – is a co-owner of Meriwether Cider Company, which has been serving creatively crafted ciders (such as Foothills Semi-dry, Blackberry Boom and Pineapple Habanero, just to name a few) in downtown Boise since 2016.
About cider, Kate says, "I think the time it really does shine is in these fall months," when sweet and juicy apples are freshly picked at their most fresh and delicious. She adds, "It’s part of that celebration: the changing of seasons."
New season. Old traditions.
If Harvest is the source of our apple-gathering, it's also the time of many fall traditions when we gather together to raise a glass (or two) of good cheer.
During Oktoberfest, as our tastes turn from the well-mannered civility of wines to the oompah-infused hedonism of beer, cider fits right into the party. Because both beer and cider are served in the same style of glass (or in bottles), cider provides the perfect transition from one libation to the next. “It’s not grain-based... It’s lower ABV," Kate observes, " So, it’s a little bit more quaffable.”
But where cider really sparkles is at a Thanksgiving table. “I love Thanksgiving and cider," she says, "Because you are still in that fall type of weather." And at the Ledbetter family table, cider is as central to the meal as turkey and stuffing or cranberries and pumpkin pie.
"It's become a tradition in our family now to bring a bunch of cider, just talk about it, bring anything we're experimenting with," she explains. "That's probably my favorite time of year."
In fact, cider and Thanksgiving go way back – all the way to the first settlers, who relied on cider for both drink and sustenance. “It’s a historical beverage," Kate notes, adding, "it’s what people drank when they came over to the United States.”
"Back in the day, water wasn't safe to drink," she continues, "So, having cider apples was a matter of survival. You had to preserve that in some way so that you could have a clean drinking source for the wintertime."
It was also as an important food source. For settlers, cider apples were "just a real treat in the wintertime," says Kate. "And they preserve so well that that’s a possibility.”
So, what exactly is cider?
In simplest terms, "to call anything cider, it has to be fermented apple juice," says Kate. "Fresh juice is not cider. That’s called actually just apple juice.”
According to the Meriwether Cider website, ciders are the missing link between wine and beer. Like beer, it's fizzy and refreshing. Like wine, it has a sophisticated bouquet and mouthfeel.
For Kate and family, however, it's less about defining the category and more about delivering an experience. "Our goal has kind of been to provide the hospitality of wine with the casualness of beer," she says. "What we try to achieve... is balance."
This in-between nature of cider, means there are fewer restrictions around what it should be. And that's when cider gets really interesting. “The profile is just perfect for experimentation and for discovering new flavors,” she explains.
While wines are a bit more confined by strict traditions and methods, the world of cider is much more open to experimentation. "We don't have to follow any rules," Kate says. “We’ve added anything from hot peppers to chocolate to different fruits and herbs, and cider just seems to take to it.”
"Now that we’re kind of rediscovering cider," she adds, "It can be whatever the drinker wants it to be, essentially.”
A beverage for foodies
No matter how you define cider, one thing cannot be denied: “It’s a pretty phenomenal beverage to enjoy with food,” Kate declares.
"Something that most ciders share in common is that it has some sort of acidic profile," she continues. “And that is a wonderful, wonderful thing if you are a kind of a foodie because that acidity most times pairs really, really well with all kinds of foods – especially cheeses and sausage.”
As a cider maker, this ability to enhance flavors is what's most exciting for Kate: “Cider is such an interesting canvas to work with. It’s got such an affinity for flavor," she notes, adding, "And you can get really creative with it. It can either be the kind of the focal point, the ‘apple-yness,’ or it can be something that just really melts with other flavor.”
And because apples are the primary ingredient of any cider, it's surprisingly healthy. "It’s just packed full of antioxidants." Kate asserts. "It has actually more antioxidants than wine does."
"There’s not a bunch of crapola going in there,” she finishes with a laugh.
Cider for the modern age
Despite its long history in Europe and the New World, cider is still unknown to many. Even though New Englanders were fermenting 300,000 gallons of cider a year in 18th-century New England, prohibition brought it to a screaming halt. Now, cider is once again having a moment as new generations discover its many charms.
And while its origins rooted in the fall, "Cider can be a bright, refreshing summer beverage," Kate adds, making it the perfect choice for active people who like to explore the great outdoors.
"It's also a great beverage to take on adventures. We have a lot of folks that bring it up backpacking or river rafting or something," Kate notes, adding, "It's not going to weigh you down."
Before going into the cider-making business, the entire Leadbetter family worked as wildland firefighters and consider themselves "lovers of nature, nomads, and adventurers."
As a result, "Our tagline is 'To adventures big and small,'" Kate says. And she encourages that same spirit of adventure for anyone trying cider for the first time. "I guarantee that you will enjoy the experience and you will learn something."
“The history of cider is fascinating. The apple is such an old fruit." she continues, adding, "I don’t think you could ever get to the bottom of it, honestly.”
To learn more about cider and the Ledbetter family, visit meriwethercider.com