PA Cider Style Guide: Wood-Aged Cider

As we hoped you’ve learned from the PA Cider Guild blog’s series about cider styles, there is an amazing range of ciders to explore, made right here in our state! Starting with the foundation of apples, one of PA’s most abundant agricultural crops, and the microbial magic of fermentation, there is practically no limit to the flavors that can be expressed through hard cider.

While apples themselves can produce a wild variety of flavors (with a little help from yeasts and good bacteria), other ingredients can also enhance and advance the characteristics of cider. That might mean other fruits, like berries and stone fruits; spices, like cinnamon or jalapeno peppers; or botanical additions, like tea, hops or herbs.

Another major resource in the cider maker’s toolkit is the use of barrels and wood-aging. Barrel-aging is a centuries-long tradition used in making wines, spirits, beer and cider. While there are other vessels that cider makers may use to ferment or age their products, such as stainless steel or concrete eggs, wood has special benefits and traits that makes it such a prized material.

Barrels are carefully constructed by coopers to hold large amounts of liquid in an environment that is sealed, but also slightly porous. This means that oxygen can move through the wood, helping a healthy colony of native yeasts and bacteria to develop. Some cider makers ferment in stainless steel and then move the liquid to barrels to age, while others do both fermentation and aging in the barrel. The process of aging in a barrel can help ciders develop complexity, integrating their phenolics and flavors and smoothing out any unbalances.

The wood of the barrel also imparts flavor, texture, tannin and color to the ciders inside. Brand new barrels usually have too strong of an impact (making the ciders taste too much like wood or burnt matches), and instead, most cider makers choose used or “spent” barrels. Most commonly, these are wine barrels which previously held Chardonnay or Pinot Noir (among other varieties); and spirits barrels, once home to bourbon, tequila or gin. Many distillers only use barrels once or twice, meaning there is a large secondary market of barrels being bought and sold.

There are also different types of wood that barrels are made from. The most typical are American Oak or French Oak; some have been charred to develop smoky flavors (mostly in spirits production), while others have been used so many times that “wood” flavor has deeply mellowed, and what’s left is a more subtle character. More rare types of barrels include those made from chestnut, acacia and pine.

Another option that cidermakers sometimes turn to is using wood chips instead of barrels. In these cases, the chips (usually oak) are allowed to soak in the cider, imparting the flavor, color and texture of the wood into the liquid.

Because there are many types of barrels, and other cider making decisions (such as, what types of apples to use, and how long the cider is allowed to age), not all barrel- or wood-aged ciders are alike. However, they do often share certain features. These can include:

  • Higher alcohol content than more “sessionable” ciders.
  • A darker color, as impacted by extended contact with the wood.
  • A more robust tannic structure, due to contact with the wood and the chemistry of aging.
  • Aromas and flavors reminiscent of vanilla, smoke, tobacco, caramel and cloves.
  • Imparted flavor from the previous liquid held in the barrel, such as botanical notes from a spent gin barrel, or vinous notes from a used wine barrel.

Unsurprisingly, many bourbon fans enjoy bourbon barrel-aged cider, and many wine lovers gravitate toward wine-barrel-aged ciders. If you fall into either of these groups, wood-aged cider might just be your new favorite!

If you want to explore some Pennsylvania made barrel-aged ciders, here are some to try: Dressler Estate’s Outpost (Downingtown, PA); Big Hill Ciderworks Barrel Aged Reserve (Gardners, PA); Stone & Key Cellars Golden Russet Cider; Manoff Market Cider Barrel of Monkeys (New Hope, PA); and Threadbare Cider Bourbon Barrel Reserve Cider (Pittsburgh, PA).

You can also seek out the medaled winners from the Wood-Aged category of the 2021 PA Farm Show:

Barrel-aged ciders pair beautifully with rich, bold foods, like saucy barbecue; pierogi and kielbasa; lobster ravioli with browned butter; and peanut butter and chocolate ice cream or pie. A lot of cider fans particularly enjoy the cozy barrel character during colder months, but we think they are lovely all year-round!

To learn more about the extensive range of cider styles made by Pennsylvania’s cider makers, check out the PA Cider Guild blog, then use our PA Cider Maker Directory to find a local cidery near you.