The InCider ScoopMay 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
There’s a reason William Penn published pamphlets in 1681 to attract settlers to his new province by touting the area’s ability to produce, among other things, “Wine, [and] Sider.” The topography and cool climate were ripe for certain varieties of grapes and apples, and the immigrants who came here from Northern Europe, especially England, brought seeds to start orchards so they could make their house cider.
The combination of environmental elements is what winemakers call terroir, and it’s as important in making cider. In fact, cider has more in common with wine than it does with beer. Aaron Rush, owner of Innerstoic Wine & Cider Company in Morris, says the resurgence of cider in the Twin Tiers owes a lot to Finger Lakes winemakers.
“Beer drinkers move over to cider easier than wine drinkers,” Aaron says, “but ciders can be as complex and food-friendly as any wine.” He stands in the horse stable that was fully renovated when he began this venture in 2019. He and Cat, his wife, are caretakers at the Oregon Hill Farm. Standing next to Aaron is long-time collaborator and buddy Caleb Johnson, and on the oak barrel table between them is an Innerstoic cyser—a blend of cider and honey mead—Aaron is pouring into wine glasses. “I prefer stemware for cider,” he says. “Either that or a tulip or Belgian beer glass.” He sells ciders bottled like his wines, not in six packs.
Innerstoic’s what’s-available list shifts based on what is growing well and on Aaron’s creative instincts, rather than replicating recipes year-to-year. This appeals to Aaron as much as the scientific aspects—it’s the balance he was looking for when he left the oilfields. When developing his own wines, Aaron says, “I want to make what I want to drink.” That’s dry and semi-dry whites, reds, and rosés, and ciders that are more old-school than the sweet ones that restarted the cider craze. He focuses on what can be done well here, sourcing his grape juice from the Finger Lakes.
“Wines and ciders here are high in acid, so the trick is to find a balance between the tannin, acid, sugar, and hops,” he says.
“Something not too sweet.”
“But not so dry they make your ears touch,” Caleb adds.
They first foraged wild apples but, Aaron says, “We were growing so fast that by year two we needed to buy apples from Cornell.” Luckily, Caleb bought the old Beck farm in Liberty that still had some old apple trees on it, and they’ve since planted more. The two men grew up together, Aaron at Three Springs in Nauvoo, where his father worked, and Caleb on his parents’ farm (which is next door to his own). Caleb tells how Clyde Beck once produced a legendary cider but then, probably during the temperance movement that spurred prohibition, Clyde got religion and took his recipe to the grave.
Apple trees survive, though, there and on other area farms. They’ve dated some back to the mid-1600s. These are the smaller apples that fall in the categories of bitter-sharps and bitter-sweets. “We call them spitters,” Aaron grins. These are the types that they’re planting at Caleb’s, with a goal to get a thousand trees in the ground over the next several years. Since the land nourished orchards in the past, the microbial networks are in place and the soil biology is tuned to apple trees. “For now, we’re okay here,” Aaron says, looking around at the room full of barrels. “But in five years I think we’ll need a facility where people can come.”
Despite his last name, Aaron’s approach to business, wine and cider making, and life in general is not to rush things. To leave time for what can’t be controlled. When he first launched his business, it was also the beginning of his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymphatic system. He came up with the name Innerstoic because reading the Stoics (certain Greek and Roman philosophers) helped him through the dark days. “I wanted to keep a good mindset and stay bright. To show strength to my girls [daughters Paige, ten, and Zoe, six]. I want people to ask about the name. I want to help others through their challenges.”
After being cancer-free for almost a year, Aaron relapsed in August 2021. He recently underwent full stem cell transplant in Pittsburgh, where he was quarantined for three weeks. His room had an office area and weight bench. In solidarity back home, Cat started doing push-ups, adding on each day he was away. She’d post these on social media where Aaron could see, and the push-up challenge caught on. His daughter’s elementary school class posted a video. A buddy in Florida had his whole roofing crew doing push-ups. The treatment went great, and his blood cell count rebounded a week ahead of schedule.
“Now I’m cancer-free again,” he says, without bitterness—no sour grapes, just sour apples.
“My hope is that this local drink highlights our unique local environment and brings back something that’s been lost.”
Caleb nods. “Yeah, the history of the area and its potential.”
The two men sip their cyser in quiet agreement. Then Aaron adds, “In a fast-paced world it’s appealing to embrace something that’s a little slower and tied to our land here.” A land that grows businesses, families, and friendships with a terroir all their own.
Innerstoic does tastings by appointment at 755 Potato Patch Lane, Morris. Contact them at innerstoic.com, (570) 404-7302, or visit the virtual tasting room and shop online. Purchase on-the-spot at the Deane Center in Wellsboro on Fridays 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Innerstoic will have their full lineup of wines and early ciders at the North Central Pennsylvania Wines, Brews and Foods Festival, May 28 and 29, at the Tioga County Fairgrounds. There will be music, food, and beverage vendors. Purchase tickets at northcentralwinefestival.com.