MAKE NO MISTAKE: the Hudson Valley’s ongoing craft cider resurgence has been built on the past, present, and future of the region’s excellence as a pomme fruit producer—mainly apples and pears, and a little quince. From colonial times up until Prohibition, the primary use for this formidable output was (hard) cider. After Prohibition, however, several generations of apple growers focused on culinary/dessert apples, with scant hard cider activity. But the twenty-first century brought with it the craft cider movement, attracted not only by the region’s available apple production, but also the potential to move back to cider and heirloom varieties. And over the last decade or so, there has been remarkable transition to cider-focused apples in the orchards, driven by far-sighted operations such as Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, Orchard Hill Cider Mill, Brooklyn Cider House and Pennings Farm Cidery, leading to exciting results in the bottle, can, or on tap—and a bright future.
Though This Be Madness…
As they mine the area’s apple history and tradition, many of these craft producers, like Awestruck and Naked Flock, are also experimenting and working with non-pomaceous fruits, plants, and flavors in their ciders, too, and with successful results. While apples remain the backbone of these creative potations, most local cideries have at least one or two such flavored bottlings on offer (if not more), serving a younger, thirsty – and growing – drinking public.
That is not to say that other local fruits did not end up in the cider mills of yore, especially in down years for apples, but it was not really an established practice, as most other fruits ripen and are harvested earlier than apples and pears. “New England cider” was a pre-Prohibition exception, a style incorporating raisins and brown sugar/molasses into the fermenting must, upping the strength and adding more flavor to the base tipple. Fast forward to the present, however, and analogous to the craft beer scene, the ingredient additions to local ciders are legion, fun, mostly local, and often impressively drinkable. This creativity is accomplished mainly by adding ingredients either during fermentation (co-fermentation), like cherries, berries or other local fruits, or afterwards (infusion), with agents such as flowers (in particular, hops), spices, wood chips, and teas.
…Yet There Is Method In It.
Though some of these flavor blends can stretch the bounds of local combinations, like Walden, NY-based Angry Orchard’s Tropical Fruit Cider or Peach Mango Cider, many houses (including Angry Orchard) leverage and celebrate local fruits and botanicals. Treasury Cider’s Counterpane is a toothsome example, a co-ferment of its heirloom apples with whole sweet and tart cherries (Montmorency and Emperor Francis varieties) from its Dutchess County farm, resulting in a crisp, dry, and mineral rosé cider.
For a number of cideries, there is a process for the creativity. In a regional continuum of co-fermenting/infusing hard ciders, Nine Pin Ciderworks tops the high end of the scale. The first farm cidery established in New York State (in 2013), Nine Pin’s operation has been based on experimentation from the very start, employing in its mostly apple-based ciders’ numerous ingredients and flavor combinations, mostly from local sources. In addition to its “signature” commercial line of ciders (Signature, Belgian, Ginger, and the Light Cider Series), it has come up with myriad limited and seasonal releases of co-ferments and infusions by test marketing small batch, experimental ciders in its downtown Albany tasting room, one five-gallon carboy at a time.
Initially, this exercise was more about keeping things fun and interesting in the cellar, as working with the same few ciders day after day can become dull. The one-carboy-per-experiment “rule” limited any serious financial damage if a batch turned out badly, and the busy tasting room has presented an economic outlet – via rotating taps – for the cider creativity, and a big draw for the operation. The tasting room has given immediate and valuable feedback on these small consignments, and those that are wildly successful have been scaled up to a Limited Release, like the current Cider Sangria (100% New York apples co-fermented with grape varieties Traminette, Chancellor, and Concord, and infused with a touch of orange citrus). In fact, its Ginger started out as an experimental infusion, and made it all the way to the commercial tier, based on customer enthusiasm and uptake.
Similarly, Hardscrabble Cider employs small batch experimentation in its tasting room, where one of its more unusual ingredient combinations – Black Dirt Beet – became a balanced and delicious calling card for the cidery, inspiring some other beet-infused ciders in the region.
Fruits Of The Valley
Locals and frequent visitors well know that the Hudson Valley grows a lot more fruits than just apples. And as the partial lists of flavored Hudson Valley ciders show (see sidebars), they populate many of the region’s products, including black currants, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, even pumpkin. The trick for the cider maker is to integrate clear notes of the added fruit, most often through co-fermentation, without it being too dominate or cloying, allowing the underlying pomme-fruit base to shine through, too, with a spine of vibrant acidity and a long finish. On the botanical side, ginger is a frequent player, bringing a complementary, spicy jolt to the apple cider (and providing a great substitute for ginger beer in a Dark & Stormy). Another clear trendlet in the floral arena is the growing use of hops.
While hops have been used in beer for over a millennium, they have not been traditionally used in cider. Nevertheless, they have recently found their way in, via “dry hopping,” i.e., by adding the flowers only once the respective beverages are ready for bottling, with no heating involved (which would impart bitterness – good for beer, not so much for cider). Hence, it is a last- stage infusion, adding only hop flavors and aromas. This makes sense on several levels. First, good ciders often sport citric flavors and floral aromas, which hops can nicely complement. Second, given the large number of craft beer “hop heads” out there, a hops-imbued cider offers some familiar flavors, serving as an effective crossover beverage. Generally, the floral, fruity hops used in IPAs, like Cascade, Galaxy, Citra, and Centennial, are also the favored choices for dry-hopped ciders. Last, in the mid-nineteenth century, central New York was the undisputed leader in U.S. hops production. Prohibition, and some persistent crop diseases, eventually killed off the New York hops sector, but courtesy the craft beer juggernaut in the Northeast, demand for locally-sourced ingredients has brought hops production back to the Empire State. Cider makers like Kettleborough Cider House have taken note. Doc’s Draft’s Dry Hopped Cider is also a well-done and widely available example, balancing floral notes and a slight bitterness with the off-dry, slightly sweet character of the base cider—a pleasing result.
Home Field Advantage
As the oldest wine region in the U.S., the Hudson Valley also grows its share of wine grapes, which are already incorporated in some local ciders, with plenty of scope for growth. Like with Treasury Cider’s new Cab Franc Cider, which features Cabernet Franc skins from local Benmarl Winery in a co-ferment, it is a compelling marriage between the Hudson Valley’s signature red vinifera wine grape and cider, full of tannins and robust flavor.
Among the region’s craft producers, a number include mead (honey wine) in their line-ups, like Helderberg Meadworks. So, honey is firmly in the local ingredient quiver. But cider makers also use honey and, increasingly, another local staple – maple syrup – to flavor their ciders, sometimes together with baking spices and/or vanilla, bringing a holiday vibe. Again, the touch with these flavorings, mostly via infusion (as adding sugars during fermentation would up the beverage’s alcohol content), is light to complement the apple character, and not to overwhelm the drink. Standard Cider Co.’s True Honey Cider, infused with Hudson Valley honey, threads this needle nicely.
It is a big, diverse world of flavor in adult beverages these days, where attention spans are short, and hit flavors ephemeral. But unlike, say, the hard seltzer trend, the region’s craft cider sector has accommodated today’s peripatetic palates with quality, creativity, and a wide spectrum of natural tastes, grounded largely in local ingredients, an approach that seems built for the long haul. One can drink to that! •
By Edward Matthews