We Love NY Cider
In a long-stemmed glass, tiny bubbles first cling to the sides, then oat, with a wiggle and wobble, up through a liquid the color of pale sunshine. At the surface, they soundlessly pop.
Unless, of course, you sip, and the flavor of candied lemon peel and crab apple grabs your tongue, bubbles bouncing in your mouth. You lean on the painted concrete bar, then glance out the window, gaze upon a flock of turkeys, a quiet pond, hoop houses, and there, in the downslope before Cayuga Lake, lined up and trellised, are the apples trees.
This is what it is to taste the Kite & String “Pioneer Pippin” at the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken. This champagne-style hard cider just won the first ever New York State Governor’s Cider Cup.
The Cider House is emblematic of a growing industry. Across the country, an estimated eighteen million people consume hard cider, and retail sales topped $1.5 billion in 2017. Cideries in New York State number nearly 100—the most of any state in the country—and they produce more than five million gallons of hard cider per year. In Pennsylvania, forty-three cideries reported $25.6 million in sales in 2016.
What’s In The Bottle?
On a recent morning after the rush of the Labor Day weekend, cider maker Jimmy Hamer wheels a stack of boxes into the tasting room shop and pauses to explain what it took to create the award winner.
The multi-step “traditional champagne” process began with fresh fruit—but not just any apple. Pioneer Crab, Newtown Pippin, Golden Russet, Manchurian Crab, in this particular cider, were grown on site and purchased from local growers, like Red Jacket and Cornell Orchards. These unfamiliar varieties, with the flavors desired in a boozy bottle, are much different from those you’d want in a lunchbox apple.
After apple pressing, the juice fermented in a tank with added yeast. The yeast—living organisms—gobble sugar and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. Next, the juice was filtered, transferred, then bottled with additional yeast and sugar. Each of these steps took somewhere between a few weeks to a few months.
The cloudy yeast accumulates in the bottle, but customers expect a crystal clear final product. To get there, the bottles were shaken, then left upside down for a couple of months to let the yeast, which was still doing its work transforming sugar into alcohol and bubbles, settle. Then, the necks of the bottles were frozen, and, in a labor-intensive process, each bottle was opened one-by-one. Pressure from inside the bottle popped out the frozen yeast plug, leaving the beautiful bubbly behind. Bottles were topped off and corked like champagne.
“This is a dry cider, just about one percent residual sugar,” says Jimmy, who grew up nearby in Dryden. Each bottle sells for eighteen dollars.
“We’re just learning as we go,” he says. In one early experiment during his first year, he tried to make a sweet champagne-style cider with pasteurized juice. Too much carbonation made caps pop o bottles all over the storage room. Jimmy admits he has no formal training in cider making, and he had only brewed beer for fun in his basement before turning to cider professionally. Now, he relies on reading about the process, consulting with friends at Sheldrake, Eve’s Cidery, Hosmer, Swedish Hill, and others, and even drawing on what he learned in high school biology and chemistry. Apparently, he’s no longer a novice. In the Governor’s Cup competition, Kite & String ciders also won Double Gold, Gold, and Silver in additional categories.
Jimmy’s brother Garrett Miller (who also has a hand in the cider making) and Melissa Madden bought the land here in 2008, when conventionally farmed corn and soy sprawled across the seventy acres. Over the years, they aimed to improve both the land and their business plan. They added organic material to the soil, dug a pond, planted apple and peach trees, built hoop houses for crops like ginger and turmeric, raised turkeys for special-order Thanksgiving harvest, intercropped asparagus between orchard rows, mowed meadows with their team of horses, and achieved organic certification.
At first, community supported agriculture formed the basis of their business, and members paid a seasonal fee for diverse fruits and vegetables. But they soon branched out to cider.
“The Cider House started as a love letter...to the orchards that do and will cover the landscape of New York and the greater Northeast,” Melissa wrote on the farm’s blog.
When the tasting room first opened four years ago, it operated something like a co-op, offering ciders from multiple producers. But the setup proved logistically challenging, says tasting room manager Michelle E. Wright, and the owners preferred to spend their time focusing on cider-making itself. Now, they tend 4,000 trees representing fifty varieties and produce about 10,000 gallons of cider annually.
Visitors to the Cider House can taste Kite & String ciders, plus those from a guest producer, on a monthly rotating basis. The tasting room also offers a menu of drinks by the glass, as well as lunch and snack items. On a recent holiday, an estimated three or four hundred tourists and regulars made more than 160 purchases, evidence of the strong market for cider.
Michelle was especially excited about the recent release of a Honey Crisp ice cider (11.6 percent alcohol) featuring fruit from DeFisher Farm on Lake Ontario. The juice is “cryo-concentrated”—frozen and then thawed to use only the portion with the highest sugar content, creating a “light, bright, and zesty” cider “the color of golden orange peel” without bubbles that drinks like a dessert wine.
Champagne-style, ice-style, and other craft ciders are very different from the commercially produced ciders available from large producers. And at a Cider Week event last year (ciderweekflx.com), Autumn Stoscheck from Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, explained why.
In the waning fall sunlight, a dozen or so guests seated at roughhewn wooden tables on a hill behind Indian Creek Farm examined slices of different apples Autumn provided. Each was from an unfamiliar variety, rough-skinned or misshapen or blemished, and nothing like a perfect round and ruby red supermarket apple.
When guests nibbled those slices, most only chewed for a moment or so before spitting out the flesh—mealy, starchy, mouth-dryingly tannic, untenably acidic. The objectionable flavors or textures stood out, and guests alternately exclaimed with wonder or muttered and spat.
These apples, she explained, are sometimes called “spitters,” and although these flavors are tough on the tongue, they embody the qualities desired in cider: flavors and mouthfeel that add body and character to the final cider beverage.
For those who wanted to get a little nerdy about these traits, Autumn offered a simple chart, developed in the United Kingdom, with one axis representing a scale of low-to-high tannins and the other low-to-high acidity. Different apples fall within different quadrants on the chart, named sweets, bittersharps, bittersweets, and sharps.
Sweet eating apples, like Gala, usually have low tannins, medium acidity, and a lot of sugar. at’s not great for cider because yeast will eat the sugar and the remaining flavor compounds aren’t robust or plentiful enough to hold up in the fermentation process. e resulting cider will be thin and bland. But, cider apples, like the Ellis Bitter—a bittersweet apple with low acidity and high tannins, or the Stoke Red—a bittersharp, with plenty of high acid and tannins, both contribute lots of flavor and body to the beverage in the bottle. Cider apples can contain ten times more tannins—think of the mouth sensation you experience while drinking strong black tea—than eating apples do.
“I’m a big proponent of farming in harmony with nature,” Autumn says, explaining that growing method, in addition to apple variety, is important to the quality of cider. “And apples are always at the top of the list for pesticide residue. It’s a chemically-intense crop.”
Autumn estimates that 80 percent of pesticides used on apples are purely to preserve perfect cosmetic appearance. In the supermarket, customers want picture-perfect fruit. But for cider apples, looks don’t matter, so those pesticides are unnecessary.
After seventeen years of growing apples, producing cider, and selling it at markets and festivals, Autumn has noticed an evolution at the marketplace. At first, many people did not know anything about hard cider, and she spent a lot of time explaining to potential customers that the product was alcoholic, not sweet, cider. About four years ago, that changed.
“Now, most people know what hard cider is,” she says, “but there’s a downside.”
The cider industry has grown faster than cider apple trees can. Most producers in New York use sweet and sharp dessert apple varieties, according to a Cornell report, because they can’t find enough specialty bittersharp, bittersweet, and heirloom dual-purpose apples. Much of the widely available commercially produced cider is made from eating apples culled from packing lines due to bruising or blemishes that make them unsaleable in the grocery store. In other words, they’re chosen because they are cheap (as low as eighty dollars per unit, compared with eight hundred for prime eating Honeycrisp) and widely available, not because they’re ideal for cider.
“There’s nothing to them, so producers add sugar, hops, artificial flavor, forced carbonation, put it in cans to look like craft beer...Now people sometimes say that they’ve tried cider and it’s too sweet, it’s not for them. They see it as a sweet, cheap beer alternative,” Autumn continues. She aims for something much more than that at her orchard, which is only open for tastings by appointment. So far, connoisseurs are pleased. A Washington Post reviewer called one of her traditional champagne-style ciders “mind-blowing” and Mark Squires from the Wine Advocate said, “If you’re looking for exceptional American cider, this is a great place to start, and it’s certainly a place you have to know if you care about cider.”
After spending last summer on sabbatical at Forge Cellars in Burdett, and participating in the white grape harvest in France, Autumn says, “It’s obvious in France that you don’t grow a wine grape the same way you grow a table grape, and it’s the same for apples...The terroir really matters, the minerals, water, how that gets expressed in the fruit...You can taste the difference.”
The groundwork for the growing cider industry was laid a long, long time ago, when the glaciers that covered this region receded, dropping rocks and pebbles full of minerals as they melted. Soil with these rocky deposits, known as “glacial till,” is still here, under the trees at the Cider House and Eve’s Cidery.
Nearby at Black Diamond Farm, owner Ian Merwin says that glacial till soils, like Honeoye, on his sixty-four-acre farm are ideal for apple growing: deep, fertile, well drained, and full of minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. “The bottom line is that we have fabulous soil almost too good for growing apples,” he says.
Although a couple of crab apple species are native to North America, most apples were introduced to the continent by European settlers, beginning in the 1600s. Johnny Appleseed is credited with planting apple nurseries starting in Wilkes-Barre and throughout Pennsylvania during the late 1700s. But in New York, Native Americans spread seeds westward. By the time Europeans reached the Finger Lakes, orchards were already established in Cayuga and Seneca indigenous communities, according to Cornell University archives. When General Sullivan raided these communities in 1779, he recorded seeing seventy apple trees that appeared to be about fifty years old in an orchard in the western part of what is now Romulus, near Seneca Lake. (And then, in his attempt to destroy these communities, he felled them, leaving only stumps behind.)
Today, when Ian walks the diverse fruit orchards he planted after he bought the farm in 1993, he introduces apples trees as if they are family members. “This one is the granddaughter of...” or “Here’s the mother of...” and “You can tell this is the half-sib of...
“I don’t have a favorite, but if I had to choose, it would be this,” he says, stopping at a Cox Orange Pippin, an apple found in England and named in 1825. It’s a sweet- sharp with famous o spring in the grocery store, like the Gala and the Suncrisp. Plus, it’s dual-purpose, he says, great for eating and cider, which is important for growers who want flexibility.
As a retired Cornell professor, he knows the relationships among the trees and the years of breeding and science that have created new varietals, trees that are disease-resistant, apples that are especially crisp, or with flesh that doesn’t brown when cut. Scientists, farmers, and breeders at the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva (now Cornell AgriTech) started studying apples in the late 1800s and have since developed at least 250 varieties, in addition to testing fertilizer and pesticide regimes.
But rare and heirloom cider varieties are mostly ones that have been propagated from cuttings without change. Take the Golden Russet, a brown-tinged sweet-sharp with rough skin, named in 1845, or an even older one, the Roxbury Russet, the oldest named variety in North America, dating back to 1640. Both have characteristic scarred skin that Ian says adds flavor to finished cider. Ian grows both russets in his high-density orchards, where trees are precisely spaced, trellised, and grown according to the Integrated Fruit Production guidelines. To keep these varieties thriving and to meet the new cider demand, he sells “bud wood”—cuttings from desirable trees—to nurseries that graft them onto rootstock adapted to specific conditions. Hundreds of thousands of cider trees growing around the country trace back to this orchard, he estimates.
Black Diamond Farm began producing cider just four years ago and now produces 4,000 gallons annually. The farm’s ciders range from the best-selling bubbly semi-dry Jaywalker (8.4 percent alcohol) to the dry traditional champagne-style Golden Russet Porters Perfection (8 percent) to the Normandy-style dessert cider Porter’s Pommeau (20 percent). The brand has won awards in the New York Wine Classic and the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition.
“The beauty of cider is that nothing is wasted,” Ian says. Apples dropped on the ground can be used. Although not all apples are ideal, any apple can be made into cider.
Ian says his operation doesn’t make much money. It’s small, inefficient, and his wife reminds him he’s supposed to be retired, he says. Still, he has plans to create a tasting room and might someday plant more trees in a field he’s left fallow while it naturally builds fertile soil.
“Many of my colleagues at Cornell thought cider was a joke in the 1990s,” he says, but he was still granted permission to travel to France and Spain for sabbatical, learning from farmers and producers there.
Since then, consumer interest and a favorable regulatory environment (the Federal CIDER act, passed in 2015 and the NYS Farm Cider Law in 2013) have set the stage for cider to thrive in the marketplace.
But will it last? A Cornell report cautions that the growth of the hard cider market “may be hampered by the lack of supply for specialized cider apples.” Small, craft brands have grown by 30-40 percent since 2015, but total cider sales in the US have decreased in the same time.
Still, Ian is optimistic. “Around the world, people who really know cider will tell you that the best ciders in North America are Finger Lakes ciders.”