“It burns in your throat, boils in your stomach and tastes almost exactly like pure melted gold” Mr. Fox in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr.Fox (2009)
The beer isn’t good: it’s cold but that’s about it.
“The beer here is shitty!” they say, and repeat like a mantra. Coming from Iran where alcohol is banned, I’ve only had one type of beer, a Turkish brand while holidaying there. I don’t have much say on the topic but repeat:
“Shitty!” and I try to gulp down what remains of the Laughing Sam in my tankard. Perfume tastes like this, I think.
“Try cider!” somebody suggests. What’s that? “Ah, beer for girls.”
I order the “girl’s beer” and I like it. It’s cold and that’s not the only good thing about it. It’s crisp and much unlike the beer, it’s on the sweet side with a fruity summery note that lingers on the tongue.
Two months later and I’ve tried the cider in every bar and restaurant I’ve been to in St. Petersburg. I now know that at Mishka Bar and Zoom Café, sweet cider is served with a lemon wedge; at Loft Project and The Hat, it’s on the drier side but still very cool and crisp.
Then one day a friend offers to take me to Sidreriya.
Located just off Nevsky Street on Karavanskaya, Sidreriya lies a few steps below street level. With its rather low roof and neutral colors, it emanates a feeling of coziness and warmth. Danila, the barman, insists I try the ciders as he gives me a crash course, but I don’t want to turn up at class tipsy.
“It’s basically fermented apple juice”, he explains “A good cider normally has a 90 percent apple juice content.” He shows me a Spanish variety with no added sugar and no other additives. French cider, on the other hand, goes through a process of champagnization, making it more like the fancy bubbly drink.
“We do just over 100 types of cider… French, Spanish, German, Belgian, English, Swedish, and Russian.” He says in a matter-of-fact tone, “They don’t do more than 3 varieties in any other St. Petersburg bar.” Normally it’s Stassen, the one I suspect I had in Mishka.
Depending on its alcohol content, each cider normally falls into one of four general categories – sweet or semi-sweet, dry or semi-dry. The alcohol content in Sidreriya never goes beyond 6 percent though. When it does, for example in the case of Belgian Petrus, it is no longer a cider but a variety of aged red cherry beer.
“8.5 percent” Danila says, “We also serve one with as little as 0.5 percent; it’s the kids’ cider, mixed with elderflower essence and lime.”
While cider has been quite popular in other countries for years, it has only become fashionable in Russia, especially in St. Petersburg, within the last two. Danila has his own theories on this:
“Compared to beer, it’s simpler” he says “Fresh and crisp, ideal for the hot summer days.” And people flock to Sidreriya in summer. There’s a line and they put up a stand on the street and serve the crisp drink to the thirsty patrons.
Three Russian brands are doing quite well; Vasileostrovskaya brewery in Petersburg produces a somewhat sweet variety; Glorywood in Altai mixes the fresh Altai spring water and apple juice to produce a semi-sweet one and St. Anton brewery located near Moscow gets quite innovative with various wild Russian berries and cherry and pear to produce as many as five different ciders.
And when the long cold nights hit the northern city?
Much like gluhwein, it is warm cider mixed with honey, spices and citrus fruit. It’s Sidreriya’s specialty and Danila insists Heisser, the German cider producer, started making the bottled version long after they came up with the original idea.
Halfway through my crash course, I give in to the devil on my shoulder and start trying out the sparkling amber. And indeed you can try a few varieties before ordering. I order the tastefully-named Green Goblin, Danila’s favorite. What sets the English variety apart is the mild burnt-oak flavor the cider has, having aged in oak barrels for eighteen months.
I’m drinking it too quickly and when I go talk to the customers, I’m already a little light-headed. George, a twenty-something guy, has become a regular after being introduced to Sidreriya by a couple of friends.
“I first tried cider in the Czech Republic” he says, “Then I loved it so much, my father and I actually travelled through Ireland just to try it in different places.” He wants to bring his father here someday.
Katherina and Tanya are chatting in one of the cozy corners,
“No, not hardcore cider fans…it’s OK.” they say, like a lemonade or a good wine. It was actually Tanya’s boyfriend who first brought her here. The girly drink isn’t so girly anymore.
Sasha, one of the attendants, echoes my thoughts.
“Cider has no specific audience. Men and women like it equally and we have our customers to prove this.” Some come asking for specific varieties – these are the cider-connoisseurs – and some just come.
And then the magic happens. The gold enchants, they fall in love and they come back, thirsty for more.
What to drink:
- If you want something quite sweet, try St. Anton cider, Vasileostrovskaya or Stassen.
- If you prefer something semi-sweet, go with Greenwood, Kepplers, or Green Goblin.
- And if you’d rather have a dry cider, take your chances with Strongbow or Bembel.
- Surprise your taste buds by trying the Irish Magners pear, St. Anton’s cherry or the Brothers toffee apple for a little bit of oomph!
- Or just show up to the place and have a cider!