With the increase of fruitier, sweeter beer-alternatives and ciders entering the mass market around Chicago, the opening of the city’s first ‘Cider Bar’ came with great enthusiasm.
The Northman finally opened about two months ago, after they first announced their idea over two years ago. Chicago cider fans have been patiently waiting for their favorite drink to make a huge debut. Last night, Giselle and I headed to The Northman on behalf of The Real Chicago Magazine.
When you walk in, you’ll probably be stuck with a really long wait. They don’t take reservations, and Cider Brian, The Northman’s Cider Director, said that he’s seen people wait 4+ hours on a busy Saturday night. Definitely be prepared to put your name on the waitlist and then take walk around the neighborhood. It’s that popular.
I asked Cider Brian why he thinks cider is so popular now; why is it so trendy? “It’s trendy because it’s new,” he said, “it has no where to go but up.”
Now, at The Northman, you won’t find any Redd’s or Angry Orchard. These are craft ciders, and there are over 100 varieties from all over the world, about equally split between domestic and imported. The ciders aren’t even narrowed down to apples, because there are pear and rhubarb ciders too! If you’re not a cider person, there are cocktails, beer, and even stronger things (Malort, yuck).
But how can you really know if you’re not a cider person until you’ve tried more than what’s currently popular in stores and trendy bars? Everyone gets a free sample upon arrival of their house cider, which is considered right ‘in the middle’ – between sweet and dry. The waiters, trained extensively in all things cider (they even get to meet some of the growers & producers), ask if you want something either sweeter or more dry than the one you sampled.
What do you want more of? Fruit, spices, funk? I said sweeter and with some fruit, so it was suggested I try the Uncle John’s Blueberry cider and I absolutely loved it. That’ll probably be what I order first on my next trip. Giselle got a smooth cucumber ginger cider that was pretty good, too.
With over 100 ciders in stock, not all are sweet. Cider Brian said that one of the main complaints that people have against cider is that it’s too sweet or it’s too ‘girly’. His word, not mine… Men: does your masculinity feel vulnerable when you drink something made of fruit? He said that people try one cider, one time, and then say that they don’t like cider. But no one goes into a normal bar, tries one beer and then says that they don’t like all beer, do they? Actually, I think that’s exactly what I did when I tried my first beer, but that’s probably because it was a lukewarm PBR when I was 16.
As for the sweetness? “We have some ciders so dry they could peel paint off of a wall,” he said. They’re also stronger than most beers, with most having an 10% or 11% alcohol content. Giselle and I even tried one that was basically an 80-proof whiskey.
And as for the ‘femininity’ of ciders? I’ve experienced this myself: my guy friends will order a pitch-black Guinness and says, “oh, you drink cider,” as if there’s something wrong with that. He may be surprised to learn that there’s an equal 50-50 distribution between the genders when it comes to drinking cider, and Brian even said that “maybe he’s just not man enough for cider!“
While trying to stay true to their ‘neighborhood bar’ vibe, The Northman also realizes the importance of having really, really, really, really good food. I’m going to repeat it again: the food is really good. The menu is mostly gluten free, their fish is freshly flown in, and even the fries are probably the most delicious that I’ve ever tried.
Despite all of this, Cider Brian really stressed that the restaurant aims to be fun, lighthearted, and absolutely without pretension: “we want to make sure it’s worth it when you come in after a two hour wait.”
Cider is key to the menu, being a great palette-cleanser between dishes (because the acidity balances the pH levels in your mouth).
Throughout the evening, the lights kept slowly dimming and the ambience changed to a more hip, swanky vibe. Once the dinner crowd clears out, the bar really turns into more of an industry bar, staying open until 2am on weekdays and 3am on Saturdays. That’s when the Malort comes out. Brian described it as, “dark, quiet, and cool.” That’s when he has some beers himself, too.
The goal of Cider Brian, on behalf of The Northman, is for people to come in, try some different things based on their tastes, and not be so quick to judge all ciders as the same.
So when you walk into The Northman and wait a few hours for a table, ask yourself: if ciders were just a girly alternative to beer, would The Northman be this packed? Does this look like a temporary trend? Or is cider here to stay?
Though it had recently fallen out of favor, cider has been in America for an extremely long time. It was the most popular in colonial America, when lagers hadn’t even made their way over from Germany and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s.
Every farm in colonial times was forced by law to grow apple trees, and some times the farm hands were paid with cider. With the industrialization and urbanization of America, beer became increasingly popular. Finally, the temperance movement and prohibition were the “nails on the coffin,” according to Brian, for cider. Apple trees were cut down, and the industry did not recover after the ban on alcohol was lifted.
Surviving cider apple varieties have recently been sold and grafted to create the delicious brews that we know today. Some farmers blend cuttings from old apple trees with new ones to experiment with flavors.
The success of The Northman and of cider farmers and companies today probably has a lot to do with the history of ciders in America. It’s somewhat patriotic to go back to our roots, rediscover our past, and bring a modern touch to it. We’re pushing the envelope by adding blueberries or even making it from fruits that aren’t apples. Rhubarb cider, anyone? As Brian put it, there’s no limit to what we can do in America.
What I learned:
• America is really late in the cider game. Cider composes just about 1% of our booze market (and that’s a target that was just reached), but in England it composes 13% of their alcohol market! They actually drink more cider than the rest of the world combined.
• Cider is a form of wine. It’s obviously true, but having it put that way really surprised me. It makes sense because there’s no brewing involved like with beer, there’s no heat added. Wine is crushed grapes fermented to produce alcohol from the sugars, and cider is crushed apples fermented to produce alcohol from the sugars. Since grapes are a lot sweeter than apples,
• Cider apples are different from edible apples. Also, every single apple seed is different from the apple it comes out of. The only 100% sure way to preserve the apple tree you like it to take cuttings from it and keep using those same genetics for future trees, instead of planting new seeds.
• Terroir applies to cider. If you know anything about wine, you might know the term “terroir,” which is a French word that is almost impossible to translate directly to English. It basically means that the ground and soil and conditions in which a grape is grown has a huge affect on the taste of the wine it produces. Cider Brian made it clear that the same thing applies to apple trees’ terroir affecting the taste of the final cider.