It's always better to eat your fruit than to drink it in the form of juice, but sometimes, drinking your fruit is just a lot more fun — especially when you're talking about apple cider, and especially when that cider has an extra kick.

There's been a resurgence in the making of American craft cider (better known as "hard cider") in recent years, and with sales jumping 24 percent in 2011, it's one of the fastest-growing segments of the alcoholic beverage industry. Unlike regular cider, hard cider is made from somewhat bitter or sharp-tasting apples, which result in complex flavors from bone-dry to sweet, and made in styles ranging from still ciders (think wine) to effervescent (think beer or even champagne).

While it may seem counterintuitive to turn healthy apples into alcohol, researchers from the UK have found that hard cider contains just as many antioxidants as a glass of wine. And moderate consumption of fermented fruit, as in wine or hard cider, may actually provide more health benefits than eating fruit in its unadulterated forms, according to research from Harvard Medical School. The Harvard researchers suspect it may have something to do with the fact that, when apples are turned into hard cider or grapes into wine, we get extra benefits from the skins, stems, seeds and husks, and perhaps even the oak in which the alcohol is aged. Plus, hard ciders have less alcohol than wine and other spirits; the levels range from 2.5 percent alcohol by volume to as much as 8.5 percent (about the same as beer) — compared with wine, which averages about 11 percent, and spirits, which start at 15 percent. So it's perfect when you want a drink that packs less of a punch. And depending on how adventurous you are, hard cider is easy to make at home with your favorite local, organic apple cider.

Boutique cider makers exist all across the country, from Bellwether in New York, Foggy Ridge in Virginia, and Farnum Hill in New Hampshire to Tandem in Michigan and Argus in Texas, Tieton in Washington, and Wandering Aengus in Oregon — to name just a few. Organic hard ciders are cropping up as well. Wolavers, the Vermont-based organic beer brewery, makes a limited-availability hard cider in the fall, and smaller organic hard-cider makers exist all over the country, distributing their products locally. To find a hard-cider supplier near you, check out this map.

Whether you're sipping hard apple cider on a cozy afternoon or serving it up at a holiday party, down a glass with foods that will complement the variety of flavors. Sausage is a great fit — homemade sausages are even better — because apples and anything pork-related go well together. Try browning Spanish-style chorizo sausages in olive oil, then braising them in hard cider. Another easy recipe using the beverage is this halibut dish simmered in hard cider.

Another good pairing: cheeses that have a strong flavor. Think Camembert, goat cheeses, cheddar, Cheshire, Gruyère and Appenzeller, or even mellow, creamy blues. Or, just stick with the basics and finish off your meal with a glass of hard cider and a slice of homemade apple pie.

More of a cocktail fan? Have regular, non-alcoholic apple cider on hand. Rum, bourbon and brandy all go well with it, and for a simple cocktail that dates back to the days of the American Revolution, mix 2 ounces of any of those liquors with 5 or 6 ounces of fresh apple cider, pour over ice, and stir gently.

For a little more variety, add apple cider to an organic beer, as in this recipe from Men's Health magazine's Jimmy the Bartender.

Caribbean Apple Pie

1½ ounces rum

2 ounces apple cider

½ ounce lemon juice

4 ounces spiced beer (try Bison Brewing's Organic Gingerbread Ale)

1 apple slice

Cinnamon

Shake together the rum, cider and lemon juice. Strain the mixture into a glass. Add beer. Garnish with the apple and a shake of cinnamon.

The Uncle Buck

This libation features hard cider and comes courtesy of Chris Lehault, who writes a column called The Cider Press for the website Serious Eats.

Ice

2 ounces rye

1 ounce apple cider molasses

2 drops hot water

1 ounce ginger beer

1 ounce semi-dry hard cider

1 drop allspice dram (an allspice-flavored, rum-based liqueur, also known as pimento dram)

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Pour the rye over the ice and stir gently.

Add two drops of hot water to the cider molasses and stir to loosen. Then mix it with the allspice dram and ginger beer, and pour the mixture into your glass. Stir until combined. Top with hard cider and serve.

Story by Amy Ahlberg. This article originally appeared on Rodale.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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