AN EARLY BLOSSOM HERALDED THE START of the 2021 apple season in the Hudson Valley, an exciting – and nervous – time for the growing number of local cider producers, whether they tend orchards, or depend on others for fruit. It is also a heady moment for the craft cider scene, a decade-plus renaissance that is reaching critical mass in terms of volume and distribution. It is a big part of the cider sector explosion in New York State, which has grown 450% over the last ten years and sports the largest number of cider producers in the U.S. (over 140), according to the New York Cider Association.
From the region’s wine shops, to Beer World, to even Hannaford grocery, these artisanal tipples have won shelf space – and fans – in the home market, not just in Brooklyn or Manhattan’s LES. Which begs a question, as one cracks a cold Doc’s Draft Hard Cider on the porch: what goes into that glass (or can) of local cider? Quite a lot, actually.
Hard cider is simply fermented apple juice, and any apple will do. However, as quality wine comes from wine, not table, grapes, great ciders involve particular traditional and heirloom apples, most often in blends. These apples bring special attributes like high sugar content, good acidity, and tannin for some grip. While the Hudson Valley has long been an apple region, Prohibition snuffed out hard cider from the apple equation, and growers focused on culinary/dessert apples for decades thereafter. Ironically, when the local cider revival started in the 2000s, despite New York State being the second largest U.S. apple producer, suitable cider apples were in short supply. Many dessert apples, like Gala or Golden Delicious, do not make for compelling ciders (linear flavors, scant tannin). Fortunately, enough of these types, like the McIntosh-cross family (e.g., Empire, Cortland), are serviceable for quality ciders.
Some neglected antique culinary varieties have even become cider stars, appearing as single varietal ciders. Northern Spy, traditionally used for applesauce, is a stellar example, owing to its vibrant acidity, flavor depth, and surprising tannins. The cider revivalists initially made do – via their own orchards, partnerships with apple farmers, or even foraging feral trees from abandoned orchards. But a number of them, like Elizabeth Ryan of Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider (and Stone Ridge and Breezy Hill Orchards), Orchard Hill Cider Mill at Soons Orchards and Treasury Cider at Fishkill Farms, began to cultivate cider and heirloom varieties in their orchards, including English cultivars, like Dabinett and Ellis Bitter, and antiques, such as Winesap and Golden Russett. The transformation to cider apples in the orchards has been remarkable (and is ongoing), leading to exciting results.
IN THE ORCHARD
Cider is a value-added agricultural product, subject to the vagaries of farming and climate. For many cider businesses, acquiring existing orchards have made long-term sense, for both apple supply and quality control, like Brooklyn Cider House’s acquisition of a 200-year-old orchard near New Paltz in 2015. These orchards often require major improvements, upkeep and, likely, conversion to cider-friendly varieties by grafting onto existing trees, or planting new ones. Alternatively, some apple farms have vertically integrated into the cider business, like Hardscrabble Cider, and Bad Seed Cider which represents a sixth generation apple farm (and has a tasty flagship dry cider for your fridge). The big question, however, is this: will a cider operation use conventional pest and disease management in the growing season, i.e., spraying trees with chemical preparations, or something more environment-friendly, even organic? Appearance does not matter for cider apples, so more sustainable, organic, and biodynamic practices – even crowdsourcing unsprayed backyard apples, as Abandoned Hard Cider does – are options.
Establishing a new orchard is a big commitment, with the first viable crop two to ten years away, depending on the variety of apple and choice of rootstock. Cultivated varieties must be grafted onto a rootstock, which determines the spacing, size, and vigor of the trees, as well as when they bear. The trend, like with new plantings at Angry Orchard, is for dwarf rootstocks that allow tight spacing, early bearing, trellising, and extreme pruning, increasing yields, and making harvesting easier. The process is arduous, but quality apples are the first step towards great cider.
While the technology and equipment have improved, the process of cider has remained essentially the same for centuries: ripe apples are shredded or milled, so that a pressing yields juice, which will naturally ferment via wild yeasts into a moderately alcoholic beverage (6-8% ABV). Today, once harvested, the apples sit for time to ripen further, concentrating sugars and flavors. Then comes washing, sorting and discarding leaves, twigs, and any rotten fruit. Mechanical milling is the next step, turning the firm apples into a pressable pomace. Pressing is often via a pneumatic press, but sometimes by old-fashioned (and effective) screw-pressing of stacked sackcloth packs of pomace (as Treasury Cider does). The resulting juice, or must, is then measured for sugar content and potential alcohol.
The big decision at this stage is which apples will make up the blend, and whether the blending will be done physically, by sight, before pressing (more traditional), or if the various varieties are pressed for juice separately, and then blended together in a process more like winemaking.
The next step, fermentation, is where the magic happens.
IN THE CELLAR
Here, the big decision is this: go with wild yeasts that naturally come with apples, or “pitch” a cultured yeast, for a more predictable, consistent result? A “natural” fermentation can generate amazing complexity and nuance, but even with careful monitoring there is more margin for error, like bacterial infection. Commercial yeasts, mostly those used for wine, offer stylistic choices and more consistent outcomes.
Vessels are another choice. Temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks are ideal, but pricey; large format, food-grade plastic cubes are another option; and for smaller production, glass carboys or demi-johns. Barrel fermenting, too, is an option. Cider fermentations are generally done low, in terms of temperature (60-70º F), and slow, in terms of time, to maximize aromas and flavors. Racking the cider to another vessel after primary fermentation is standard, leaving the considerable spent yeast by-product behind, but further racking and/or filtering is a style choice. If the cider maker wants a sweet version, then either the fermentation must be stopped before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, or unfermentable sweeteners are added at the end. In some cases, the maker introduces other fruits into the must, like blueberries, to co-ferment and flavor the cider.
STYLES AND FLAVORS
Craft ciders generally range from bone dry to semi-sweet, with tannins present, giving them more structure and mouthfeel than bland, treacly-sweet commercial brands. After fermentation, but before bottling, some cider makers infuse certain batches with natural flavorings, often botanicals, like hops, ginger, or hibiscus. Nine Pin Ciderworks does this with aplomb. While many ciders go to market soon after fermentation, some producers like to age ciders, usually in wood or whiskey casks, to build complex and caramelized flavors. Other fruit flavors, like citrus, melon and pear are common (and desirable). The goal, however, is to highlight the amazing local apples, with apple character and aromas present. A certain funkiness/earthiness is acceptable, even considered an asset, if not dominant. Floral notes, like acacia or orange blossoms, are nice possibilities, depending on the apples and yeasts employed.
Ciders can be still (an underrated style) or sparkling, with a wide spectrum of bubbles, from petillant to Champagne-like. Carbonation choices are bottling before the fermentation is finished (méthode ancienne); by adding sugar and/or yeast at bottling (méthode champenoise); or by forced carbonation with CO2. The former two methods are more artisan and difficult, the latter more precise and dependable, if less romantic.
Finally, there is the packaging of the finished products. Local producers have embraced variety – and colors. Artfully decorated cans in 4-packs are all the rage, and work perfectly for the fridge. Glass bottles remain a go-to, many in the 12-ounce, longneck format. Special blends/cuvees and varietal ciders, often sparkling, readily appear in Champagne-style bottles, aiming for a more wine-like experience. Similar to the craft beer scene, growler options exist at many cideries and other outlets, too, where ciders flow on tap.
Clearly there is much more in the bottle than meets the eye, but the easiest thing about craft cider is in the drinking.
By Christopher Matthews