We all know what hard cider tastes like. Crisp. Sweet. Maybe dry. Fresh apples. Very fresh. Like chomping into the red skin in the grass of an orchard and nibbling around the core, but with the tiny beautiful flavor notes that fermentation brings. At what point, though, does an apple cider stop being an apple cider?
After you add coffee?
After you add peaches?
When there's little sugar and the flavors are bitter?
When you add cascara and pea flowers?
When the cider is violet, blue, or hazy?
The question might rise in your mind as you sip through craft ciders at Cider Corps in Mesa. We checked in with Cider Corps back in late 2017, right before its tap room opened. Since then, Josh and Jason Duren, brothers and co-owners of Cider Corps, have rolled out an eye-popping line of inventive ciders.
These ciders are all over the map, off the map, and 10 rooms over from the map. Some are reminiscent of moss and earth. Some bring a ginger thunderbolt that would go well with Thai food or a sunny afternoon and a smoking grill. Some are aged in barrels with bacon and maple syrup. Some feature pie spices. Some have taken a tumble in a Slushie machine.
"We usually have about 15 ciders on tap," says Josh. "We try to make them all over the board so that they meet different people's palates. We're really trying to make cider approachable for everyone."
As chefs add salt, spices, and acid to balance in their food, the Durens have tactics for tinkering with the flavor profiles of ciders. Sometimes they keep cider more traditional. Sometimes they tinker with hard cider's standard flavors in aggressive ways, resulting in potently strange brews.
They might add peach juice to edit the dry profile of one cider. They might add tannins to reel in the fruity punch of another. In addition to employing a host of ingredients this way, the brothers like to follow craft trends. They do ciders hazy with sediment like the hazy IPAs popular today. They use ingredients to hue ciders with all kinds of electric colors.
Recently, I took down a flight of ciders. A flight costs $10 and gets you six ciders, your choice. Ciders come in glasses that are easily three-plus ounces and range from 5.5 percent to 9 percent ABV. This is a good amount of cider, and you'll be feeling gravy by the time you roll back out onto Main Street.
How to pilot a flight? I started with Storm the Peach.
Storm the Peach is a luscious cider that embellishes the flavors of apple cider with peach and vanilla. The added flavors are tiny, small, peripheral. Over time, Josh says, the brothers have made the cider peachier. Right now, he says, they've reached the right balance. The first bright sip confirms that they have. ("We still want to make sure that people know it's a cider," he says, of limiting peachiness.)
A blueberry pie cider is as blue as Easter egg dye. A huge blueberry flavor leads up front. But that flavor fades some as a musky storm of fall spices rises, the cider still lush with the light flavor of berries, the berry and spice vectors entwining. You can taste the idea of pie in this impressive cider.
If you want to explore the crooks and hollows of the netherworld that cider can take you to, if you want to taste the outer bounds of what cider is, order the Purple Heart.
This cider is purple. The first sip is confusing. It tastes far earthier than expected, like some kind of homemade brew that ancient druids might have sipped in the deep woods. Take another sip. Rewire your mind! What you are drinking is cider, yes, but cider pushed to the absolute boundary of cider. With an open mind, see the cider again. There's a current of sweetness, dark and earthy, sweet in the same way that carrots or turnips are sweet. There's a vibe somewhat loamy and mossy. There's a sort of creamy bitter ale-like note on the end. If you can accept that this in no way tries to be like a cookie-cutter hard apple cider, you may really enjoy this one.
Purple Heart has been flavored with cascara, the "cherry" that encases coffee beans. It has also been touched by butterfly pea flower, lending, among other influences, its purple color.
The brothers donate $1 from each pint of Purple Heart they sell to Mesa's Veterans Resource Center. (Jason earned a Purple Heart during his service.)
If you taste widely, you may come to a cider that doesn't dazzle you.
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I wasn't into a cider made with coffee. The sugar was muted. So was the apple. It felt like I was sipping diluted nitro cold brew without the froth.
Similarly, the strawberry-guava flavor of prickly pair didn't totally meld into the apple of another cider. I think more sweetness may have bridged the flavors some. A ginger-lime-citrus cider brought a jagged fork of ginger zing that, to me, dominated the drink too much.
But that's okay. When you're 10 rooms away from the map, things aren't always going to work. And ciders that fall flat for you may tickle someone else. Even when you get a cider you don't totally dig, you're happy. Happy that two humble guys have the guts to swing some of these flavors. Happy that people are starting to show up in droves to support them, to try ciders so refreshingly new.
Cider Corps. 31 South Robson, #103, Mesa.
Monday to Thursday 3 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 3 to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday.