Hops, grain and grapes may rule the roost — or glass — elsewhere, but at Perennial Cider Bar & Farm Kitchen in Belfast, the apple is king.
That’s because owner-operator Khris Hogg has chosen to only offer cider selections (as well as a couple of non-alcoholic beverages) in his new downtown establishment.
“This is all we serve,” he said. “There’s a cider for everybody.”
Cider, the hard, or alcoholic kind, is new to a lot of Americans, he said, but that wasn’t always the case. Apples came to North America with colonists from the British Isles, who also brought their cider-making traditions with them. Making and fermenting cider was a way to preserve the apple crop, and in New England and nearby states, cider had become a staple by the 18th century. Mainers drank more cider than they drank coffee, milk, or even, sometimes, water.
But times changed. European settlers who came later to the United States had more of a taste for beer than for cider. But the biggest blow to the cider tradition came about because of Prohibition and the Volstead Act. The law that enforced Prohibition even limited the amount of fresh, or non-alcoholic cider that an orchard could produce annually to only 200 gallons, according to the Maine Farmland Trust. That all but killed commercial cider-making.
It took half a century before it began to come back, Hogg said. Now, the country is in the throes of a cider revival, and Maine is part of it. Perennial is, too. To the best of his knowledge, it’s the only dedicated cider bar in the state and one of just a handful in the country.
“I never thought we’d be the only cider bar, but we’re definitely the first,” he said. “There’s a broader cultural dynamic we’re trying to encourage, by getting people excited and aware of cider. In a landscape that’s literally covered in apples, there should be cider bars everywhere.”
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The ciders that he’s most excited about are not the mass-market ones that are widely available and where every can or bottle tastes the same. Those modern ciders are made from dessert apples, he said, and quickly fermented so there are just weeks between pressing and bottling.
“Modern day cider I’ve had, there’s just not a lot of complexity or character to it,” he said.
The ciders at Perennial are different. They’re what he calls traditional or heritage ciders and are often funky, complex and not very sweet. They’re also quite different from each other, no surprise when one batch of cider may have dozens of kinds of apples in it. And with a huge variety of apples — there are 3,000 different cultivars in Maine alone — well, there is a lot of room for experimentation.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the variety and diversity of what’s out there, and with apples, it’s ridiculous,” Hogg said.
Right now, Perennial features ciders from Maine, New York, Vermont, France and Spain, among other locales. The menu uses phrases such as “mouth-wateringly tart,” “ripe strawberry,” and “gentle musk-melon nose” to describe them, and reading the descriptions can be a lot of fun. But sampling them is more fun, Hogg said, adding that the food prepared in the tiny kitchen is intended to be a good complement to the ciders.
On a recent day, dishes included whey-poached carrots with lemongrass oil, heirloom chiles and smoked salt, nettle and beech leaf soup and Spanish-style potatoes with lemon balm aioli, with or without cured lamb sausage and a poached egg. All ingredients except the cooking oil are locally sourced and organically raised.
He aims to strike a balance between providing a curated, chef’s-table type of experience and a spot where a person could just meet a friend for a drink or a bite.
“If people are interested, every one of the ciders, these dishes, tells a story,” Hogg said. “But if people are coming in and they’re in a rush, we’re not going to try to give them the history of traditional cider.”
Perennial Cider Bar & Farm Kitchen is located in a basement space at 84 Main St. in Belfast and is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, visit the website www.perennialciderbar.com
Watch: A beginner’s guide to home hard cider making