The Amazing Cider-Man
A lack of character! That's what Credit Suisse employee Clark A. Thompson found in American ciders. So he started producing his own.
Let's rewind the clock to 2005. Among other events, Pope John Paul II died, YouTube was launched, Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast, and the trial of Saddam Hussein began. 2005 was also the year that Clark Thompson – a New York-based Business Architect and IT Strategy Lead – was working for a top five consulting firm. Clark spent the majority of this year on-site with a client in London, during which time he developed an appreciation for British cider. "It's different from US cider," recalls Clark, a four year veteran of Credit Suisse. "There is also more variety." Something else worth noting: In the United States, cider is commonly referred to as "hard cider," as "cider" usually refers to non-alcoholic apple beverages. According to Clark, British cider is characterized by its fruity taste and its sharp aroma, and tends to be dryer than American cider. "Back then, bars in the States served only a few, commercially produced brands of cider," Clark elaborates. "They pale in comparison to UK ciders. American ciders are generally too sweet, like soda – and, frankly, they lack character."
Going, Going, Gone
Driven by his Platonic thirst for knowledge (and for better cider), Clark conducted research on the internet, and discovered that making one's own hard cider is a fairly easy process. "I work in the New York office," explains Clark. "But I live in Philadelphia. As good luck would have it, I also live near several great orchards."
In the fall of 2005, Clark began to master the art and science of creating his own hard cider. It's a craft he has refined over the years. "The cycle is seasonal," explains Clark. "I usually make several gallons in October or November, and we start drinking it in June." While some ciders can stay drinkable for two years or longer, Clark admits his annual batch – thanks to plenty of help from his cider-loving friends and family – is usually gone by the holidays (just as the next cycle has commenced).
Body and Soul
When it comes to making the perfect batch of hard cider, Clark reveals: "You know it when you see it, when you smell it, and, of course, when you taste it." Pouring a glass of cider, holding it to the light, Clark praises its pale, translucent, sparkling medium-yellow hue. Raising the glass to his nose, inhaling, Clark remarks that he is especially pleased with the intense apple fruit smell of this year's cider – strong, but not overwhelming. As he takes a sip, you just know it's delicious. "This batch is a winner," beams Clark with pride. "It's aged to perfection. It has a sharp, fruity taste – but it's dry, like a nice Prosecco." Clark also commends the cider for being "medium-bodied – not too heavy, but not watery." This batch is also wonderfully complex, according to its maker. "You can also taste more than just the apples," says Clark, savoring another sip like a veteran sommelier. "It's earthy, and there's a hint of herbs. It's unusual – in a good way."
More than any other quality of hard cider, Clark appreciates dryness. "Early on, I made cider that turned out too sweet – like American commercial cider – so it went down the sink," Clark laughs. How does he achieve the optimal level of dryness? "Time is the key factor," Clark insists. "As cider ages, it gets more and more dry. I always tell people who are new to cider-making: be patient." Clark continues: "The level of dryness also depends on how active the yeast was in turning residual alcohol into sugar during the second round of fermentation." Most importantly, Clark notes that it's important to use local apples. "A while ago, I read a Canadian study of hard cider," he recalls. "It concluded that the native yeast from local apples yields the best hard cider when compared with commercial wine yeast, with regard to its color, body, dryness, aroma, and, most importantly, taste. That's why I use local apples and don't introduce outside yeast. I let the apples do their own thing."
Clark still enjoys cider in England when he trav-els there for work or pleasure, but he notes that, "Lots of interesting, bespoke micro-cider brands are suddenly springing up in bars and stores, in towns and cities across the United States, including Philadelphia." Despite the hard cider renaissance now taking place in the US (like the micro-beer renaissance before it), Clark says he doesn't plan to stop making his own cider. Clark finds the hobby "relaxing and fun," and enjoys every phase of the process – picking the apples as the leaves change color, fermenting the raw cider (twice) in his basement, bottling the cider, and then aging it through the winter and spring.
Maybe One Day
Does Clark have plans to make his hard cider more broadly available? "I've had high-end bar and restaurant owners, as well as connoisseurs of wine and beer, tell me how much they like my cider," says Clark. "Maybe when I retire I'll take my cider-making passion to the next level and create a micro-brand to sell locally, or enter competitions. But, for now, I just like to share it with guests at our home." Clark says his cider also makes a great gift, because it's unique and has a personal touch.
Clark is aware that not everyone can, or should, drink his hard cider – it's an alcoholic beverage, after all. "Because my sister worked for several years as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in a hospital, I've learned first-hand how the abuse of alcohol can damage and destroy lives," Clark confides. "But, for most people, I think the moderate, responsible consumption of alcohol – including hard cider – can be one of the joys in life." Clark also likes having a creative outlet to remedy the long hours and high-pressure environment of working for a global bank. When summer arrives, the sun is glaring, and the temperatures approach triple digits, Clark says he always looks forward to pouring an ice-cold glass of crisp apple cider and enjoying it on the porch. "I recommend cider-making as a hobby," concludes Clark. "It's inexpensive, it's fun, it teaches patience, and, if done correctly, it tastes delicious."