Ever looked at that tiny sliver of the beer aisle dedicated to hard cider and wondered which of them, if any, are actually worth drinking?
The short answer is, they’re all a little like frozen pizza: not very impressive, but down real easy to put away.
In an effort to make sure you don’t by total crap, though, we stocked up on a selection of ciders that we’ve seen widely distributed to grocery stores. While they may not be available everywhere in the U.S. and Canada, they’re certainly among the easiest ciders for most Americans to get their hands on. We then asked our resident cider drinker to try all of them and give us his thoughts and then rank them, 1-5. It’s wholly unscientific, entirely subjective — and just our style.
The biggest takeaway was this: Not all ciders are created equal. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better or worse than others, but they’re different. So if you’re new to cider, it pays to buy a variety and taste them side-by-side. You might end up surprising yourself.
Below are the descriptions of each of 13 different ciders. If you’re in a rush and want to get straight to the rankings, scroll to the bottom!
Smith & Forge
Impressions: Surprisingly well balanced. Obvious fruity apple flavor, but also hints of white wine. Relatively sweet and delicate, which was surprising given the bold, masculine packaging. Very juicy.
Verdict: This is somewhere between a white grape juice and a Martinelli’s sparkling cider — but with booze! If you’re just getting into cider as a wine drinker, this might be a good place to start.
Impressions: Very sweet and rich. Candy-apple tart. Full, satisfying mouthfeel. Quite drinkable. Probably a good cider for someone who likes bigger, “chewier” beers.
Verdict: This is surprisingly drinkable, in part because there are no strange flavors. It’s not mind-blowingly good, but aside from the fact that it’s a little too sweet, there’s nothing much bad about it, either.
Impressions: From the second you open the bottle, there’s a sharp, Jolly Rancher-style green apple aroma. The flavor is similar — quite tart, but with a sweet, almost cloying finish.
Verdict: The tart acidity is nice. if someone likes apple candy and wants to get drunk, choose this one. But the oversweet aftertaste gets annoying after a few swigs.
Impressions: Noticeably less acid than the Hornsby’s. The nose is deeper, but the cider is, like most of these, still pretty simple. Has a bit more tannin or mineral roughness or something similar (preservatives?) to the finish than most of the others so far.
Verdict: Strongbow seems like the banquet cider. It’s big, flavorful, and, at 5% ABV, neither too boozy nor too weak. While the sort of chemically taste bothers me, I can understand why it’s become so popular.
Magners Irish Cider
Impressions: I hadn’t had Magners before this tasting, and I’m rather impressed. The taste is closer to a traditional-style cider made with bittersweet apples. That gives it more complexity than most of these ciders, though it’s still relatively straightforward and easy to drink.
Verdict: Try it if you’re looking for a nicely balanced, session-style cider. At 4.5%, it’s pretty easy to drink a lot of this. But if you decide this is your favorite of the bunch, it’s worth trying more traditional (and expensive) ciders from craft producers.
Impressions: Less tartness and green apple than the Hornsby’s, but the overwhelming candy sweetness is still there. While this is delicate and kind of interesting, it tastes like dessert.
Verdict: Honestly, this a better cider than Stella’s beer is a lager (I know some people love it, but I’m not a fan). Still, a 4-pack of this sells for as much as a 6-pack of other ciders on this list, so it’s probably not something I’d choose at the price.
Impressions: This smells and tastes more like what you’d get if you cut open an apple. Despite it being made from concentrate, it feels like you’re drinking… well, a fresh apple. Quite sweet and still simple, but if you love a sweet, slightly tart apple and want to pick up some cider, give this one a go.
Verdict: This is a really approachable cider. It’s nothing to write home about, but given that you seem to be able to find it just about anywhere, it’s nice that it’s so drinkable and generally inoffensive.
Browns Lane (Imported Classic English Dry Cider)
Impressions: This cider has a deep, tannic aroma that will likely put off many drinkers. Like a lot of British ciders, it has higher bitterness and a more drying mouthfeel than the others, but it feels forced — like a mass-produced version of a craft U.K. cider. And even though some UK ciders have interesting flavors, like barnyard or even Band-Aid, this one tastes a bit chemical, almost soapy.
Verdict: You should absolutely try this if you like strong, bitter, complicated cocktails. If you’re American and new to cider, you might not even realize a cider can taste like this. On the other hand, if you like this kind of thing, there’s much better available for just a few extra bucks. But you might have to search for it.
Impressions: This is a sweet, clean, very apple-juice cider. It’s a lot like Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple, only a bit more grape-y, closer to a wine and less like a fresh-cut apple. Probably a bit less tart than Crisp Apple, though.
Verdict: Drinkable. Very drinkable. This was once the only cider at a bar I was at. We had an open tab, though, so I ended up drinking five or six of them. While the taste isn’t the most interesting, it’s mild and sweet. I’d probably still rather drink an Angry Orchard because of its tartness, but this is a good standby for your cider-drinking friends.
Impressions: Maybe I’m just getting drunk (see bottle caps in photo), but this seems a lot less palatable than Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple. If you’re trying to liken it to a real-life apple, don’t think of “green” apple as tart and Granny Smith-like, instead think of it as unripe with just a hint of grassiness.
Verdict: Choose a different selection from Angry Orchard if you can. Such as…
Impressions: If the last Angry Orchard made me worry I was drunk in a way that made the cider taste worse, this one makes me worry I’m drunk in a way that makes it better. It’s much more acidic and just a touch bitter, which makes it taste less like juice than the Crisp Apple and more like cider.
Verdict: I’d never found Traditional Dry one at an actual grocery store, but if you see it alongside the other varieties, pick some up. It’s still a mediocre cider when compared to real, craft cider, but this isn’t too shabby at all.
Tieton Cider Works
Teiton Blend Dry Cider
Impressions: This may not be widely available (so we’ve excluded it from our rankings). It’s a very dry cider, so if you don’t want something too sweet, this is for you. For me, however, it had kind of a chemical aftertaste. It could be the blend of apples, too much use of sulfites (a preservative), or just something strange about this particular bottle.
Verdict: Maybe it’s my palate or this particular bottle, but this one doesn’t suit me. Tieton generally makes good ciders, but there are several other mid-priced dry ciders that I’d pick over this one. Still, if you like dry ciders and see this one on the shelf, it’s certainly worth giving it a shot.
Joker Hard Cider
Impressions: Wow! This one’s tart as hell. If you want a lemony cider with too much acid to remind you that apple juice is sweet, try this one.
Verdict: Joker is all over the West Coast, I never really understood why it was so popular until now: It’s the commercial answer to all the cloyingly sweet ciders available in the beer aisle. If you’ve been disappointed at how sweet most grocery store ciders are, give this one a shot.
And now, the top five grocery store ciders! Be warned: This list is extremely subjective, and it’s the result of a single person’s very unscientific tasting. Use the rankings below only as a very rough guide — you’ll probably disagree entirely. (But that’s the point! You gotta try as much as you can to figure out what you like!)
TOP 5 GROCERY STORE CIDERS
5. Smith & Forge
I come to cider from beer-drinking, and this one is simply too grapey for me. Still, it’s well balanced and very drinkable.
4. Angry Orchard Crisp Apple
I never know if I like this more or less than Woodchuck. To be honest, when cider pickings are really slim, I go for this cider. But even though it’s my go-to in most cases, it’s really not that great. It’s what a celiac drinks during Sunday Night Football.
3. Woodchuck Amber Ale
A little different than the Crisp Apple — less acid and perhaps a bit more sugar — but still very drinkable. It tastes less like a Jolly Rancher to me than Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple, which is probably why I ranked it higher.
2. Angry Orchard Traditional Dry
Again, I haven’t seen this variety at many grocery stores, but it’s definitely worth a taste if you like dry ciders (or wines) and see it on the shelves. Presumably it’s pretty cheap in a 6-pack (the bottle was the same price for us as the other Angry Orchard selections), so it’s absolutely worth trying.
This is an undoubtedly subjective choice, and many of you will probably think I’m nuts for putting this at the top of the list. But quite frankly, I find it the most interesting cider of the bunch while still being approachable.