Jay Hildybrant wants you to know that while beer and cider sit in the same category in your brain, the apple-based beverage is actually closer to wine. The head cider maker and partner at Chain Yard Urban Cidery is standing in the cidery's back room, explaining the "malolactic fermentation" one of his recent barrel-aged creations is currently taking on, giving it chardonnay-like qualities.
"You know when you put chardonnay on your palate it has a creamy, buttery texture? The reason why you get that experience is because that product has been aged in oak barrels and is put through malolactic fermentation, and what that does is it takes the nice, sharp acid that's in an apple and turns it into a lactic acid, which is a much more mellow, smooth, rounder acid," he says. "Some practices that are practiced by very traditional, very old-school wine makers are certainly things we put into practice here."
Back inside the taproom, Hildybrant muses on why it's an interesting time to be in the cider game. "We're defining who we are as cider producers, we have a lot of different cideries popping up and each one is making very different stuff. In fact, last night was the first-ever Cider Makers' Association Meeting."
While there'll always be room on shelves for mass-market, sweet cider built up from a juicy concentrate, Hildybrant says that Nova Scotia's palate is expanding. "We're trying to bridge that gap between customers who have for many years been drinking beer and are now moving into cider. They want something adventurous. They don't want just that tart, sweet, tastes-like-apple product."
It's this almost palpable, province-wide thirst for newness that helped Jacob Foley, one-half of Sourwood Cider, launch what he describes as a cider that's "on the far side of unfiltered, sour, completely dry, sugar-free, funky" and made with some wood fermentation.
On the road to that same Cider Makers' Association meeting, Foley explains by speakerphone why he got into the business. "The ciders we're making are the ones we really wanna be drinking and that's why we're doing this," he says, "v because we didn't feel like there are enough options when you go to the liquor store."
"It sounds a little bit cheesy, but listening to what the apple wants and pulling out the flavour profile of that apple," Hildybrant says. "We have a bottle product called Pippin and Russet and it's actually very akin to a Tidal Bay. We get a lot of citrus notes coming through, a lot of tropical notes. I think that's really what I love: Coaxing out what's in that apple in cider format."
At Sourwood, Foley describes the process as a natural one, allowing for spontaneous fermentation with the yeast that already exists in the juice. "So, when we get the juice, because its still raw, there's a lot of life in it and we often just encourage the natural yeast and bacteria to ferment rather than pitching yeast," he says. "We don't use sulphites, we don't use any preservatives, much like in natural wines.It has a low ph and is very stable, much like natural wine."
Back on Agricola Street, Hildybrant echoes this sentiment. "I think, for the longest time, there's this idea in Nova Scotia that ciders are very sweet and what happens when you add sugar to a wine or even back-sweet with a juice or a concentrate is you strip out the complexity—you're covering up some of the nuances that should be in that product." His hands come to rest on the table and, after a moment's pause, he sums it up: "Because a lot of our ciders are very dry, there's nowhere to hide any faults."