If you're looking for a drink that reflects the history of the United States, don't choose wine and don't choose beer. Milk - don't go there, either. And water's out.
Consider hard cider, the primary beverage of this country until the 20th century.
Before purification systems, water was often not fit to drink. Apple trees were planted in the colonies not to provide apples for baking or snacking, but specifically for producing cider; the apples grown were varieties meant especially for the lightly alcoholic beverage.
It's supposed that an influx of German immigrants in the late 19th century and improved technology finally made beer easier and more economical to produce and nudged hard cider into decline; Prohibition ended its reign for good. After Prohibition was repealed, beer ascended, and alcoholic cider all but disappeared.
Today, however, artisanal production of hard ciders is becoming more popular, as is small-scale production of craft beers and distilled alcohols. The most prominent name in American hard cider, Woodchuck, is out of Vermont. But Wisconsin has several producers of hard cider, although most are still in limited distribution.
Ciders come in a number of styles. Cider can be made from apples and pears, and might have other berries mixed with apples, or even appear as a mead (honey) and fruit hybrid. Carbonation ranges from light to something closer to champagne. Ciders can be sweet or dry and in taste most resemble white wines - and sometimes blur the line between wine and cider with "cider wines."
AeppelTreow Winery of Burlington, Wis., is the state-made brand most easily found in the Madison area. Bottles of its "Songbird" line of draft ciders are stocked at a number of liquor stores including Barriques, Star, Steve's and Riley's; its products have been featured at Harvest and L'Etoile. Currently, the only place in town with AeppelTreow cider on tap is the Malt House.
"Draft ciders are fun, but I'm most proud of the champagne-style ciders," says owner and cider-maker Charles McGonegal. Draft ciders are a little under 6% alcohol by volume; the champagne styles, about 7% ABV. He also makes a "Normandy" style that's related to port and weighs in at 19% ABV.
AeppelTreow is partners with Brightonwoods Orchard, where 130-some varieties of apples, many heirloom, are grown.
"Our biggest seller is anything with pears," McGonegal reports. "Perry [hard cider that's made from pears] is a little sweeter than our ciders, which tend to be lean and dry. Midwesterners have a sweet tooth." Even so, McGonegal notes that hard cider is not "sweet and juicy like an alcoholic apple juice. That's not what a country cider is naturally."
For those familiar with Woodchuck's line of ciders, McGonegal notes that "My 'sweet' is drier than their 'dry.'"
White meats like fish, seafood, pork and chicken pair well with hard ciders and perry. "We don't ask it to go up against real spicy food or anything blackened," says McGonegal. Mild cheeses or fruit salads are also good picks.
"People tend to think of ciders as fall drinks, with the apple harvest," says McGonegal. "But because they're light and refreshing, they're actually a great taste for summer."
1072 288th Ave., Burlington, Wis., 262-878-5345
Makes hard cider in the champagne method inspired by French cidre, in both apple and pear varieties, and draft ciders from apples and apple-berry blends. "Barn Swallow Cider" is the classic upper-Midwest style, with light carbonation.
Hard apple ciders in the farmhouse tradition of southwestern England. Can be ordered online or bought at the winery; not currently available in Madison.
Iron River, Wis.
Better known for its mead, i.e., honey wine, but also produces cider.