Beer Sessions Radio – Still Cider

Check out this great conversation on Beer Sessions Radio with Jimmy Carbone on the Heritage Radio Network.  Our topic of conversation was “Still Cider,” taped in the midst of Cider Week NYC.  I was happy to get in a few words about our recent collaboration between the Corning Museum of Glass and Finger Lakes cider makers, and the insights it brought to our understanding of still and sparkling cider.

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Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Events at Cider Week 2016

This post was written as a guest post for the Cider Week Finger Lakes blog as a prelude to Cider Week 2016.  Please visit their site to find out about all the amazing events happening during Cider Week Finger Lakes.

Old Orchard west of Watkins Glen, NY

I’ve been looking forward to Cider Week Finger Lakes 2016 all year, and here’s why: I’m hoping Cider Week 2016 will be an opportunity to learn more about the history of cider making and fruit growing from you, the public. The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project  is making its debut to ask what you know about the roles that orchards, cider, and fruit have played in our region’s heritage.  I want to know about the old trees and orchards in your back yard, and the stories, anecdotes, experiences, and skills that are woven into the fabric of your fruit landscapes.

Barrelling Apples – House, grain building, 1906, from the Verne Morton Collection: The History Center of Tompkins County

Cider Week has grown as our local agricultural entrepreneurs have rediscovered the craft of cider making and nurtured it in new and innovative directions.  But cider was made in our region before, in the homes and on the farms of many people who settled the Finger Lakes region, travelling west from New England in search of better land.   They planted fruit trees to supply their own families with food and beverage.  And local people have made hard and sweet cider from them for generations.  Keep your eyes peeled while you are driving through the countryside, and you might spot an old orchard you never noticed before.

Eric Shatt of Redbyrd Cider prunes and old orchard near Burdette, NY

Some of these old farm orchards still remain on our landscape today, and local cider makers, commercial and hobbyist, care for and use them, up to 150 years after they were originally planted.

What happened to these frontier farms? And the orchards that were an essential ingredient in their domestic economies? Some are still going, but many small hill farms that were unprofitable were abandoned during hard economic times.  Some areas that were once farmed are now re-wilded as parks and reserves, like the Finger Lakes National Forest or the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area.  And some of them have long been sources for cider.

Home Cider Maker Steve Daughhetee near the remains of an enormous old orchard near his home west of Ithaca, NY.  He believes these trees are Newtown Pippins.
Photos from an article on States Cider Mill in the Ithaca Journal, October 26, 1974

Carl States, whose father owned the States Cider Mill in Odessa, remembers how local people went foraging in the abandoned farm orchards on Connecticut Hill when he was growing up in the 1960s.  They brought the apples to be pressed at his father’s cider mill, which was still being operated by another family into the early 1990s, when it finally closed down when new requirements for pasteurization were passed into law.

“Most of the old timers would bring plenty of apples, more that what they needed, and then Dad would buy what was left over with, or they would just take it home with them in gallons or give it away. Apples were pretty plentiful then.  A lot of people when I was a kid – all the old orchards were still in production on Connecticut hill, because all the old farms were abandoned in the depression, but the orchards were still there.  So you could go up and get all the apples you wanted for free – just go up and pick them.” – Carl States

A few local cider makers who are at the heart of Cider Week today, including Ian and Jackie Merwin of Black Diamond Farm, remember taking their apples to be pressed at States Cider Mill.  Places like these are now receding into memory, but it is here where the connection between our modern Cider Revival and the local heritage of cider can be made.

In addition to celebrating our amazing local cider businesses, I hope Cider Week continues to grow in exploring the history of cider deep in our region’s past, and nurtures the growing networks of DIY enthusiasts, home brewers, gardeners, and farmers who are renewing the spirit of cider making and cider drinking as a part of everyday life.

Debbie and John Ball in the old orchard outside Watkins Geln they have restored over the past 20 years.  The orchard may be over 150 years old.

This Cider Week, I am hoping you can help me document our cider history through events hosted by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project.  This project, an initiative of the Folk Arts program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, will explore the fruit heritage of our region and highlight the agricultural and culinary practices that have molded our landscape, from apple orchards, to peaches, cherries, berries, and of course, grapes. I’m hoping to find more evidence about the history of local cider culture, in your stories and photographs, and in the apples growing in your back yard or on your farm.

Cider Week is a celebration of an agricultural and culinary craft brought back to life.  Our cider future looks amazingly bright, and new orchards are springing up to supply it.  But there’s still much to learn about the cider past, and how it’s shaped our local landscape, culture, and palate.  I hope you will join the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project events to share your knowledge and connect our local cider history with our cider future.

The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project is hosting three Documentation Days and one Apple Identification Day during Cider Week, and you are invited to come share your fruit stories and learn about their apples.

Documentation Days at the Elmira Wisner Market (September 29, 10am-2pm) and the Montour Falls Harvest Festival (October 1, 12pm-7pm) are an opportunity to stop by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage listening booth and share stories, photographs or documents for our archive of fruit heritage.  Tell us about your memories of making cider, apple butter, pie, wine, preserves. Describe pruning, parties, people who were the local masters of theses crafts. Your stories will help us see the larger picture of fruit and cider in the Finger Lakes.

The Apple Identification and Documentation Day at Reisinger’s Apple Country (October 8, 9am – 12noon) invites the public to bring apples to be identified by our pomologist panel, including Dr. Greg Peck of Cornell University and John Reynolds of Blackduck Cidery.  If you’ve been wondering what that old tree at the back of the property is, now is your chance to find out! Bring 3-5 apples from each tree you would like to identify. You can then log your finds and deposit any stories you have at the listening booth.  For more information on directions and what to expect, visit

These events are a project of The Folk Arts Program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes in collaboration with partners at Reisinger’s Apple Country, Schuyler County Cor­nell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University Department of Horticulture, and Montour Falls Public Library. This project is funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Cider Salon, NYC

When you need to advance beyond the next creative horizon; when you have an idea buzzing around in your mind that needs to be refracted through the lens of a different constellation of thoughts;  or when you are tired, tired, worn, and barely able to think in the middle of a long slog of seasonal work – what do you do?  Seek out your colleagues. Cider makers are a sociable lot, though often isolated by the demands of their individual businesses.  So it is not surprising when they get together, but it is delightful.  I’ve been fortunate to peek in on a couple of events recently that have opportuned some cider-maker mind-melding.  In this post, I’ll talk about a recent Cider Salon, and in a following post, I’ll write about a tasting with Finger Lakes Cider godfather Peter Hoover.

The Cider Salon at Jimmy’s Number 43 during Cider Week New York was an intimate afternoon and evening of talks and tastings with a variety of cider makers, authors, and orchardists from New York, New England, and even a few invited visitors from the Northwest. Rubbing elbows with fellow cider people was unavoidable, as the space was small, and the audience enthusiastic.  Many a small or aspiring cider maker was there, and the atmosphere was sparking with the individual excitements of cider enthusiasts, tempered by the wonderful opportunity to see and participate in discussions with and between the more established commercial cider makers. This is what makes a salon such a great format – the informal opportunities to chat with colleagues and hear from people whose work your admire.  But also the opportunity to get beyond the sales pitch and talk creatively, intellectually, about the craft with those who know it and love it with equal fervor.

Shepherded by cider writer Eric West and organized and hosted by proprietor Jimmy Carbone and Gay Howard of United States of Cider, the day brought commercial cider makers new and old together. Jacob Lagoner introduced his Embark Craft Ciders from the shores of Lake Ontario, and Jahil Maplestone of Descendant Cider in the heart of the City paired up with Murrays for some cheese tasting. Highlights for me were the sparring contest between Steve Wood of Farnum Hill and Kevin Zielinski of EZ Orchards on the challenges and triumphs of orcharding and cider making in the Northeast versus the Northwest. Reverend Nat himself from Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider also made it out from the West Coast to wow the East Coast apple purists with the hopped, fruited, magicked and suited ciders he has been so successful with on his side of the country.

Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider and Steve Selin of South Hill Cider talked wild apples, a conversation that was continued with Rowan Jacobsen, author of Apples of Uncommon Character and recently an article “The Feral Cider Society”, during an event at Wassail the following day.  Every so often I get author envy when I see someone write a book or an article I wish I had written.  Rowan Jacobsen wins the envy prize this month, but he kindly signed my copy of his book, so thank you sir, for upping the cider writing game!

All cider makers bring something different to the craft, and Steve, Andy, and Rowan bring a particularly artistic viewpoint. Rowan is a writer; Andy is a painter and draftsman; Steve is a musician and luthier.  I suspect that they think about cider, apples, and trees in ways that mirror their other endeavors, reorienting materials, experimenting within the structures of a form, and thus, reorganizing how we experience and understand the the genre of cider itself. They imagine cider in ways that take us outside the orchard, beyond the restaurant pairing menu, and into the unique genetic, environmental landscape that has created the feral apples of the Northeastern United States.

Their approach reshapes not only how we experience the taste of cider made by wild fruit, but how we think about the landscape these feral trees inhabit.  The landscape history of our Northeastern region, one of deforestation, cultivation, and reforestation, is one that most of us are unaware of.  Trees are everywhere, right? They make us see the trees in our wooded regions differently. Through their ciders, though, the palette of the forest, and its depth of history becomes more nuanced. Steve, Andy, and Rowan may be the most recognized voices on the art of wild, or feral fruit, but there are certainly many others out in the woods, who know their trees, and who are exploring the evolving character of the fruitful American woodland.

And it’s not just the forests upstate that are being explored and turned inside out. Even Wassail’s cider director Dan Pucci chimed in to talk about foraging in the wilds of New York City, endeavors chronicled in this Vice article.

This is what excites me most about cider, the approaches that trace not just a taste, or an aroma, but that reorient our whole relationship to landscape through the appreciation of the fruit, the tree, the land, and the people who interact with it over time.

My echo of this Cider Salon on the bare pages of a blog can in no way reproduce the buzz of the crowd or the flow of conversation.  Which is why  I hope there are more cider salons in the future.  The small scale, non-commercial cider makers who peppered the audience certainly can’t make it to NYC often, and Jimmy’s place was barely big enough to hold this inaugural group.  Cider Salons, go forth a multiply.  It would be lovely to see more opportunities to talk about the art, history, and culture of the craft!





Two Apple Festivals, One Weekend

Cider Week Finger Lakes was a smash!  And our cup runneth over with events.  To start off this Cider Week, I went to two different apple festivals, one connected to Cider Week, and the other not.

On Friday afternoon on the first weekend of October, I left work early and headed for the Ithaca Apple Festival.  In its 33rd year, the Ithaca Apple Festival had been, until recently I am told, bereft of much connection to apples. But with the advent of Cider Week Finger Lakes, the cider makers are now a big presence at the Apple Festival, which acts as a kick-off for the region’s Cider Week.

Walking down State Street, I could see all the trappings of a street fair calling – some small scale carnival rides, the twirling teacups, a carousel, two gourmet mac and cheese food trucks, a Columbian street food vendor.  A  skinny bearded young guy pulled a cart collecting compost.  A tired carney checked his cell phone. College kids took selfies with their steaming cups of cider, and an old man in overalls stood behind an unglamorous but bountiful stall of vegetables. Two ladies sat beside a community quilt, selling tickets to raffle it off.  A corridor of handmade jewellery and brooms and aprons funneled the crowd crossways.

A steady stream of young professionals and grad students rotated in and out of the Cellar d’Or Wine and Cider Shop, queuing up to taste and take with cider makers from Black Diamond Farm, Redbyrd Cider, South Hill Cider, and Eve’s Cidery, who stood with steady arms and long patience beside their barrels and bottles.

Outside, on the commons, the ciders and the wineries, the soup seller, and the orchards and apple vendors, all made the most of the festival theme.  Fresh apples, apple soup, hot cider, hard cider, sweet cider, dry cider, turnovers from Indian Creek Orchard, and doughnuts from Little tree orchard – and a line 20 feet long to get them.  The horticulture students hawked the fruits of Cornell’s research orchards.

The next day, I headed out to the Newark Valley Historical Society Apple Festival, an event in its 36th year, with no connection to Cider Week Finger Lakes. The weather had turned grey and misty and cold, but I got in my car and drove east on 79 out of Ithaca, turning south down 38, into hills and valleys.  Route 38 is an old turnpike, and you can see the age of the road by its early farmhouses. As I approached the Newark Valley Historical Society Apple Festival, a sign warned cars to slow down, and pumpkins lined the road where policemen directed traffic into the adjacent field.

The small living history museum was filled for the day with demonstrators and vendors of historical, traditional, and rural arts.  An enormous iron kettle filled with salt potatoes was boiling in the midst of the tents, and under two tall old trees, a mobile cider mill was hissing, spitting, grinding, and pressing.

Asking about the mill, I fell into conversation with the husband and wife operating it, who then introduced me to its builder, C.O. Smith, aged 92. Mr. Smith shook my hand and told me that the engine on the mill was over 105 years old, and that he had built the machine to replicate one that his grandfather had used on their farm south of Rochester.  It was built for the festival, which he and others had started as a way to raise funds for the Historical Society.

I wandered through the festival and spoke to woodcarvers from the Catatonk Valley Woodcarver’s group, to a luthier who builds dulcimers in traditional and avant garde designs, and to a beekeeper whose honeys were made of nectars as varied as the apple blossoms of spring to the invasive Japanese knotweed that chokes the landscape and blooms profusely in late summer.

These two apple festivals, happening simultaneously and within 40 miles of each other, and yet in some ways worlds apart, show different sides of the region’s apple culture, speaking to different audiences, in different communities.  The Ithaca festival is more obviously commercial, and the Newark Valley festival skews more historical and educational.  While preserving the uniqueness of each festival and the communities they serve, it would be interesting to see what could happen if the commercial and the educational missions of each festival could enliven and enrich each other.

How much more rooted can commerce be if it can draw on a region’s historical identity? How much more present and emergent can history be if it is a living resource for the new commercial enterprises that Cider Week Finger Lakes seeks to promote? There are more apple festivals to visit, and an exciting possible future for the relationship of Cider Week Finger Lakes to long-running community celebrations.

NY Cider Week: Food Systems Network NYC, New York Apples and the Growing Hard Cider Industry

This Food Systems Network NYC event was co-Hosted by Glynwood, Slow Food NYC, and 61 Local. The event brought together Sara Grady from Glynwood and three orchardists and cider makers from the Hudson Valley region.

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After a video presentation introducing the recent partnership and exchange between Hudson Valley cider producers and cider producers in Normandy, France through Glynwood’s Apple Project, Sara Grady moderated the panel, asking the panelists questions to illuminate some of the issues around Hudson Valley Orchards and cider production.  This summary is paraphrased from notes.  Corrections always welcome:

Q: How does hard cider production allow us to increase the viability of apple production in NY

E Ryan: Cider is the joy, the soul, and the essence of the apple.  Financially, cider production allows us to use fruit not pretty enough for market, to diversify and add value.  It is also a low/no-spray agricultural option with low input systems and the possibility of integrating animals.

D Wilson: We have the oldest pick your own orchard in the state operating for 108 years, a long history of relationship with the public.  80% of our annual income comes in a six week period with pick-your-own, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate – if it rains on the weekend and people don’t come out, we can be hurt.  Hard cider gives us something to broaden our base – more flexible and sustainable.

Q: What has been the impact of cider week for you?

E Ryan: We started making artisan cider in 1996.  I went to England and spent time with cider makers there.  At the marketing level – people didn’t know what to do with it.  The difference between then and now is amazing.  Restaurants who didn’t know what to do with it 10 years ago are seeking us out.  I just borrowed 1 million dollars to buy the farm I have been renting, so that tells you I have some confidence in the market.  During our visit to France, we saw the future there – an air of prosperity we want to build in the Hudson Valley.

D Wilson: Cider allows us to attract a different market than the family pick-your-own.  Cider week has allowed us to develop a relationship with a distributor.  Cider is becoming a much more substantial part of our overall business.  Production has tripled in the past few years.  It is a value-added thing for fruit you already have.  Now as the industry matures, we are planting specifically for cider purposes.

T Dressel: My family is a 4th generation apple growing family.  My grandfather is still working.  It’s been a change for him to take out his trees to plant trees for cider, apples he can’t put on a road side stand.  I came back from school hoping to open a winery and planted 4 acres of grape vines.  While they were growing I made some terrible ciders.  During that time things really started moving with the cider industry.  In 2009 the Cornell extension called me up and said they had a collection of cider trees that were going to be grubbed up and if I wanted them I had to come up right away to pick them up.  So I got some friends together with a truck, dug them up, and put them in the ground.  We have 60 trees, 10 European cider varieties.  That’s how I started growing cider apples.  It’s hard to get nursery trees for cider, few people carry them and you have to wait 5-8 years for them to be ready.  It is easier to top graft onto existing trees.  I have another half acre of American heirloom apple varieties as well.

Q: Could you talk a little more about cider varieties?

E Ryan: In Europe, cider makers grow hundreds of varieties for cider.  Makers in the town we visited in Normandy had catalogued 600 varieties.  We have a huge tradition ourselves of heirloom varieties grown here.  Some of the older orchards had Norther Spy, Golden Russet, etc, varieties people don’t know in Europe.  I am drawing mostly on these American varieties.

D Wilson: I am liking some of the ciders we are making from old Russet varieties – the Golden Russet and the Ashmeads Kernal, as well as English Bittersweets like Dabinette and Chisel Jersey, along with some crab apples.  Eating varieties have more sweetness and adicity to them.  Cider varieties add to the whole palette – different qualities of acid, bitterness, and astringency.  A really good cider rarely comes from a single apple variety.  To develop a balanced cider requires blending.

Q: Tell us about your experiences in La Perche, Normandy.  What did you bring back?

E Ryan: Cider is completely embedded in Norman culture, with their cider washed cheese and calvados.  They have achieved terroir.  We learned a lot of techniques, which you end up trying to re-interpret here with the kinds of varieties we have access to here.  I was most impressed with the cider culture and what the Hudson Valley could be.

T Dressel: For me it was the cultural experience.  As a commercial apple grower compliant with NY State laws and regulations, so much of what I saw there will never happen here: such as harvesting apples off the ground.  It set a goal for me that I wanted to be able to achieve – I wasn’t making cider yet at that time.  I was impressed with how different their craft cider is than ours, and that the tastes – more earthy and funky – they enjoy over there might not be transferable to an audience in the states.  One French cider maker asked me – “what is this word, funk? People keep telling me my ciders are funky?” I think education is first, so many people don’t understand what cider is.  My biggest emphasis is telling everyone everything I can to expand people’s horizons.

D Wilson: I was impressed by the value the French put on food – how food reflects an area.  Slow food, terroir, sense of place.  I came back with a sense of how the food they produce is a national treasure.  And the apples grown in that area are just for cider, not for eating.  Their techniques are extremely simple and yet sophisticated at the same time.  We could also become a culture that consumes cider as a common drink.

Q: Tell us how cider growing is a more low-input operation for ecological apple growing?  Most people here understand that organic production for apples is very difficult in the Northeast.

T Dressel: The system of grazing animals and harvesting apples off the ground, together with insects and rotten fruit might add to the funk of French cider!   We are not spraying nearly as much as we used to.  We use an integrated pest management system and are not organic.  Copper (used in organic apple production) is an organic substance but is not sustainable.  Up till now we had been using culled fruit from our eating apples.  But now, with blocks set aside for cider apples, we can spray less since it isn’t going to the fresh market and the appearance of the apple doesn’t matter as much.

D Wilson: An Apple orchard is a monoculture, perennial environment, making organic methods that work for other vegetable crops difficult.  Problems from pests range from cosmetic issues to tree death, and these things can effect trees in combination.  The focus of pest control is greatest between the blossom period till fruit is the size of a marble.  Growing fruit without the need to address cosmetic problems allows us to reduce spray.

T Dressel: We are now dealing with questions about how cider trees will be managed differently than eating apple orchards.  What tree density? What shape will we prune the trees?  Our value will shift to volume of apples rather than perfect big apples.  Fresh market apple trees are pruned very heavily.  When we started to grow cider varieties, father and gradfather’s pruning knowledge was not helpful.  I have talked to friends in Western New York who grow apples for the processing market about tree management.  I have had to relearn how to prune trees for cider

Q: Blending?  How much are decisions made based on tasting and how much on measuring tannin and acidity?

A: (conversation moved to fast for me to note who was saying what – this is a summary of answers from all participants)

  • We experimented by making single variety batches of every apple we grew – fermentation makes a difference in taste
  • In Europe, I sometimes saw people making very intuitive traditional decisions – one shovelfull of bittersharps, two shovels full of bittersweets
  • In England, I saw people doing a full crush of what was being harvested that week – mix of bittersweets and bittersharps.  Further blending of the juice happened later.
  • You need enough acid in a fermentation to make it keep

Q: Is there a long term interest in developing uniquely American varietals for cider, rather than depending on European ones?

D Wilson:  There are some great traditional American ciders.  My fantasy is that there might be a wild tree out there that has some great qualities we don’t know yet. (from audience – That’s what Andy Brennan is doing with Aaron Burr Cider).  I mentioned to a friend of mine at the big breeding program in Geneva that we might need some new cider varieties, and she said there were some discards from the eating apple breeding program that could be good cider varieties. We want to find out what our customers will enjoy.  The intense high acid of Spanish ciders or the funk of French ciders might now go down well here.  We need to find out what the American taste is.

NY Cider Week: Northern Spy Cider Dinner 2013

After our invigorating and intellectually stimulating tipple at Proletariat with Aaron Burr Cider, Challey and I proceeded on our way to the Northern Spy Cider Dinner.  I will spare you descriptions and simply post the link to the menu paired with ciders from Eve’s Cidery, Farnum Hill, and Eden Ice Cider.  I think we had quite animated conversations about New York and food culture, facilitated by the generous and samplings just prior.  And the food was superb.  I wish I could afford to eat and drink like this all the time.

NY Cider Week: Meet the Cider Maker – Aaron Burr Cider’s Andy Brennan @ Proletariat

IMG_2060Crowded into a long narrow bar in the East Village called the Proletariat, where a steady stream of changing craft beers on tap lures beer geeks, a group of about 20-30 folks waited in the dim glow for the arrival of the hard-to-find and coveted ciders of Aaron Burr Cider.  Me, being the wide eyed Midwesterner that I am, had seen the event advertised in the NY Cider Week schedule and thought, oh, I will casually stop by at this event before dinner with my friend Challey.  Luckily, Challey knows the way NY works more the I, and she investigated further, messaged some people, found out the event was ticketed, tracked down the bar, and bought us the last two tickets.  I would have been OUT OF LUCK were it not for her keen City food scene skills.  Among the crowd were clearly some home cider makers, some people with a lot of knowledge about wine and beer but not about cider, and some totally new but enthusiastic folks who were devotees of the bar and trusted the bar staff when they said – come to this event.  I also was pleased to meet another cider blogger: United States of Cider.

IMG_2055So, I spend most of my time with academics, farmers, and craft producers, not urban foodies, and I have to say, urban foodies massively intimidate me, even though I probably can match them point for point on food, wine, and especially, cider knowledge .  It’s just the way they frame their questions (more like short soliloquies) with tones of assurance, peppered with casual references to nuggets of information indicating their level of taste, which makes me want to back wide-eyed into a corner with my notebook.  Luckily, my foodie friend Challey, who works as a director at the Greenmarket, is a fabulous champion of provincials like me and was instrumental in helping me navigate my sojourn into the foodie beast of NY Cider Week in the city.  Nonetheless, I sat in awe of the New Yorkers at this bar who were practically tripping over each other’s tongues to get in questions with Andy Brennan, who was winningly both modest, soft-spoken, eloquent, and a great story-teller of cider.

IMG_2077I’ve heard and read a lot about Aaron Burr Cider, and I think that the mystique of the foraged fruit touches a nerve for the American foodie that sends a certain exciting shiver up the culinary spine.  In fact, at another cider event, when I asked another panel of cider makers if there was any long term interest in developing uniquely American, regional cider apple varietals instead of turning to French, English, and Spanish origin fruit, one man said his fantasy was that there was some wild tree out there waiting to be discovered that had some amazing, yet-unknown flavors that would make a unique, wild, native American cider.  And a member of the audience said: “Well, that is just what Andy Brennan is doing with his foraging.”

There is something about the idea of an American wild apple, uncultivated apple that speaks to the American food imagination.  In this fantasy are the beginnings a new American cider mythology – one that taps into tales of Johnny Appleseed, our peripatetic tree-planting legend, and his semi-cultivation of wild landscapes.

The thing is, many of the landscapes settlers cultivated in the past, wresting farmland out of the forest, have become overgrown, taken back into the wild, as marginal land has become uneconomical to farm and farm economies have changed.  The Catskill / Hudson Valley area where Andy Brennan forages his fruit is one such landscape, where cultivated trees leftover from re-wilded farms dot the landscape and tell a story of un-cultivation that is little understood but ripe with mystery, full of the fruiting ghosts of farms past.

England has a similar story of orchards left-over from dead farm economies, but there is no wilderness in England to grow back over the land and around the apple trees.  Instead, these old trees become singular markers in grazed fields, or untended corners of a farmhouse property sold to urban professionals who like the view but know nothing about the apples.  There are foragers in England too, but they are looking for old, heritage fruits, instead of wild fruits, though the interest in roadside apple trees, grown from the pips of eating apples discarded out the car window, is also growing.

“Wild” apples are never entirely new though.  Even trees that sprout by the side of the road from a discarded apple have stories to tell about their origins in other cultivated or culinary pasts.  Brennan’s foraged ciders appeal to the American story of forging into the wilderness to carve out a culture of our own.  In a place where American cider history and culture has mostly been lost and forgotten, the idea of starting anew with unique, “wild” apples is appealing to many people in the sense that they seem to appear out of nature, independent of history and the hand of man.  It also suggests that America has a complex terroir to draw upon that does not simply mimic the European models. But to me, wild apples harbour their own mysterious agricultural pasts and speak to the re-discovery of our landscapes and our foods.

My friend Challey was even more excited than I was to go to this event, as she had been hearing about Aaron Burr Cider for awhile but had never had a chance to taste it until just a few weeks ago at a friend’s bridal shower.  We were treated to generous tastes of six different Aaron Burr ciders.  Here’s the rundown of what we tasted, with some of the commentary, questions, and answers that crossed the crowd, paraphrased and summarized:

Golden Russet. This cider is made from mostly golden russet apples, with a few Northern Spy thrown in.  Brennan commented that the Golden Russet lacks the acidity to be a total single variety cider on its own.  He described it as perfumey, with a high sugar content, explaining that the tannin content was higher from the russetting on the apple, and that the higher tannin and higher alcohol allowed the cider the possibility of more aging, which he liked. 

Q: What apples the first settlers were growing in America?

A: Besides the crab apples native to America, Andy explained, all apples we know for eating came over starting with the Mayflower, and all apples grown in the Northeast today are descendants of these European apples.

Q: Tannins?  Is it like red wine?  What are the varietals and how do you choose them?

A: “Every apple is a good apple to me.”  But Brennan went on to comment that he doesn’t put every cider he makes into his final blends.  He said he ferments over the winter, with the final change in flavors coming in the spring when a malo-lactic fermentation may occur.

Q: There are only a few varieties that can be single variety ciders?

A: Yes, it’s a lot like wine.  Only Americans are obsessed with single varieties.  Apples even more than grapes need to be balanced.  There are four things you are trying to balance: Acidity, Tanin, Sugar, Aroma.  It really is an art trying to bring those characters together – like bringing a still life together and letting all those objects live together.

If you grow an apple tree in a field, it has more sun, more nutrients.  I believe if you grow an apple tree in the wild, and its is competing with blackberry bushes an oak trees, that apple picks up those properties.  And the soil temperature is cooler in a wild environment than in a cultivated environment, which much influence the flavor.

Q: Do you blend different vintages?

A: Yes.  I am open to blending different years.  It’s like having an extra colour for next year’s cider.

Traminette.  Made from Golden Russet and four other apples, including MacIntosh for a floral note, this cider came about because Andy wanted something like a champagne – something like a picnic drink.  You could pair it with food, but it is great as a for walking around, a party drink.  It is very perfumey, a fruity taste almost like grapefruit and wonderfully bubbly, similar to the taste of Traminette wine, a white grape varietal related to Gewurztraminer.  Murmurs of delight wafted up from the crowd as they started to sip this beverage, and everyone seemed to be smiling and thinking of summer.  Brennan made a nod to the English invention of champagne method (which I think should be renamed the “Glasshouse method” in reference to the spot on May Hill in Gloucestershire where Huguenot glassmakers helped develop pressure-resistant bottle glass) and the efforts of Lord Scudamore as he outlined the details of the method to illustrate the craft method of carbonation as opposed to modern forced carbonation.

Q: I made cider at home and it turned out more like Chardonnay?  How do I get that apple essence that some of the more commercial ciders have?

A: Chardonnay has the same buttery characteristic that comes from the late spring fermentation – the malo-lactic fermentation.  If you bottle before that malo-lactic fermentation takes place, you can trap some of the apple fruit quality.  You can also back-sweeten by saving some of the juice frozen in reserve.

Homestead Apple. Made from foraged fruit. 

Q: What are you doing with the must?

A: We have one guy who distills but I use it mostly as a nursery for future trees.  I’ve got 400 trees planted.  I was buying cider trees from Europe but I decided we had all the varieties we needed and more right here.  Right now my nursery is trees I find in the wild that I want to keep, trees I find on property that isn’t mine that I want to save.  More than cider I want the trees.  I take the graft wood in the winter and put it on to our trees.  I keep finding trees I want to save.  It’s like our tree orphanage.

Elderberry.  This spicy aromatic drink had extra depth and rich flavour.  Brennan said this was what he made when he wanted a winter drink, something to go with chocolate, somethingthat felt woody and earthy and foresty.  It also includes a touch of sumac to enhace the lemony and acidic flavors.  He said that as the water level in the barrel shrinks over time, they add huckleberries to keep things spinning over in the fermentation.

Q: What strains of yeast do you use – are you afraid of using the wild yeasts?

A: I’ve messed up a lot of cider, but I am very much just, ‘let it go.’

Homestead Pear.  I think Brennan used the word “vulgar” to describe the scent of this perry, and he was right.  It was a ripe old aroma.  But the taste was wonderfully delicate and just like pear.  He described the fruit as a wild, foraged pear, with very delicate, sweet fruit inside a tannic, leathery shell – a smell in like a lion and a taste out like a lamb.

Ginger Apple.  Fermented on carrots, Brennan said he made this as a table wine, something to go with Thai food and sushi.  It really was the fresh spicy fruity taste you would expect from something you got at a juice bar, but much lighter.

NY Cider Week: Beacon

New York Cider Week is here!  I rolled into the great state of New York after a lovely drive through New England on business, and I coasted down interstate 84 from Connecticut towards the Hudson Valley amidst a sea of red and gold leaves, stopping along the way for some farmstand fresh cider and donuts. In a way, this is home ground for me, at least in an ancestral-extended family sort of way.  My extended family of great aunts, uncles, and second cousins lives right across the river from Beacon, and though I’ve never lived here myself, I’ve come out to visit  over the years, making my way to the red brick house my ancestors built beside a mill stream, which is still inhabited by fellow Kennedys.  I’ve always loved the Hudson Valley, and I’d love to have a reason to settle in here someday.

As I drove into the little town of Beacon, I was surprised to find a full Sunday afternoon street fair winding down.  There were antique cars parked along the street for people to admire and bands playing.  As I made it into the Artisan Wine Shop,Image I found an enthusiastic crowd of folks lining up for the free cider tasting.  It was the last half hour before close, and the people behind the counter seemed pleasantly harried – they said they’d expected to be busy, but not THIS busy.  I tasted Orchard Hill, Eden, Bellwether, and Eve’s Ice Cider.  All very nice – I particularly liked the Bellwether “Heritage” which was a still version.  Sometimes I think the American ciders get really carried away with carbonation, both bottle condition / champagne style and forced carbonation.  Some of the really delicate and rich flavors are much more enjoyable in still cider, in my opinion.  Carbonation can either hide mediocre cider or really enhance a lovely cider.  But sometimes I think enthusiasm for carbonated flare gets in the way of really good flavour.  Something to consider.  I found that the Bellwether Legacy sparkling cider was nice, but the Heritage still cider was even nicer.  The shopkeepers said they were hoping that the event would help promote hard cider for their customers, and it sure seemed like they were doing a good job.  I found their selection of other ciders (beyond the special sampling selection for the afternoon tasting) to be really great.  A fairly wide display of east coast and Hudson Valley ciders – more than I have yet seen elsewhere.



After making a rather eye-popping purchase (all in the name of research, my friends) I wandered over to the Chill Wine Bar, which was serving a few ciders as well.  I opted for the Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider from Breezy Hill Orchard.  The wine shop had almost run out and didn’t have any left for sampling, so I was glad to get a chance to taste it at the bar.  I’d noticed the bottles at the wine shop – growlers really – were bubbling away steadily, and the label indicated they should be refrigerated.  I have never seen anyone sell cider that is clearly still fermenting before, so I was curious.  I am almost certain it must have been pressed a few weeks ago – does anyone else drink cider this young?  I admit I was perplexed.  When I ordered it at the bar, I was surprised that it tasted almost exactly like sweet non-alcoholic cider, with a slight kick.  I have never encountered a style like this before – especially in England where almost always cider is fermented over winter, ready at Christmas at the earliest and usually April or May.  I would love some feedback.  Is this a style or just an anomalous product? When I asked the shopkeepers at the wine shop, they said it was “scrumpy.”  Friends, I have not encountered sweet partially fermented scrumpy before, but I am open to being corrected.  Please enlighten me.


At any rate, the Chill Wine Bar had gone through almost two growlers of this cider since 2pm, so it was doing good business.  As I sat sipping my drink I overheard a couple – also drinking the cider – chatting about their attempts at cider making at home.  Clearly the cider buzz is about at the home-makers are coming out for Cider Week.


New York Cider Stuff! – A taste of things to come

Finding Lots to share on the blog this week!  Here’s another interesting piece on a New York cider maker, stolen from the NY Cider Week feed.  I am really looking forward to going to New York Cider Week and will report back on my adventures there, so stay tuned.  It happened to coincide with a trip to Rhode Island for an academic conference – thus FATE strikes again, bringing me into another exciting cider happening. Enjoy the links!

Article on Aaron Burr Cider:

NY Cider Week page: