HARD CIDER HAS HAD ups and downs in the American experience. It has gone from an essential and communal beverage in colonial times and on the frontier, to decline (and opposition to it) during the Temperance Movement and commercial neglect during and after Prohibition, to the craft cider renaissance of the 21st century. In the early days of the Republic, most any property or farm would have had an orchard attached to it, often grown from apple seeds (pippins), with a cider press at the ready. These pippins yielded mostly “spitters” – extremely bitter and tannic apples – that were poor for eating, but excellent for cider (which was the point). Community cider mills were mainstay local institutions, turning out an indispensable drink often used as a substitute for the less sanitary local water. Making cider was not really a calling, but rather part of every day 18th and 19th century life, and one of the few pleasures.
Fast forward to now, the hard cider scene has sprung back to life largely in smaller “craft” cidery form, and especially in New York State, where the largest number of cider producers in the US reside, and where the traditional apple-growing region of the Hudson Valley has been a magnet for a new generation of cider makers. But unlike the days of yore, cider competes with many other professional options, as well as with many other alcoholic beverages – wine, distilled spirits, craft beer, even hard seltzer. There is also the arduous work and expense associated with farming apple orchards, whether maintaining and converting older orchards, or establishing new ones. So, the plunge into craft cider is not for the faint of heart — it is indeed a calling — but one that has become much easier due to the efforts of some dedicated pioneers. And while the motivations and circumstances can be quite diverse, the common denominator is that many of those with “cider callings” ended up in the Hudson Valley.
Farmer, pioneer, advocate, doyenne
ELIZABETH RYAN | HUDSON VALLEY FARMHOUSE CIDER
The American Cider Association recently awarded its prestigious Apple Advocate Award to Elizabeth Ryan of Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, recognizing her pioneer-ing role in the New American Cider Movement. Receiving such a lifetime achievement award would be a crowning moment for most, but for Ryan, “it has taken me about 50 years to connect all the dots – and I’m still learning!”
Farming and fruit were present from the beginning, as both sides of her family farmed, which included a big family farm in Iowa, where Ryan spent her summers growing up. Orchards were also present, where her grandfather fermented fruit into various tipples, like plum wine. But there was also a darker side to farm life, which she absorbed via her extended family – farm debt, foreclosures, and living year-to-year, one tornado or drought away from financial ruin. “We were in the richest country in the world, with the richest soils, and yet farmers could not make a living. I just could not get my head around that.” So, she decided that she would farm and change the world. She chose a great starting place—Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, one of the best places to study fruit growing, anywhere.
Fittingly, Ryan majored in Pomology, and aimed to grow wine grapes. She also took a break for two years to work and advocate on farms issues in Washington, DC, (skills she would later use to recraft New York State cider legislation). After graduation, she headed to the Hudson Valley, lured by the opportunity to work as vineyard manager at Benmarl Winery by Mark Miller, a passionate advocate of the region and its fruit growing potential. Miller, who was the force behind the game-changing New York Farm Winery Act in 1976, gave the young female graduate free rein in the vineyards where she learned a lot—including that she wanted her own farm.
In her spare time, Ryan cultivated another passion: folklore, folk traditions, and oral histories that, in many cases, came out of the rural farm tradition. The Hudson Valley was still a treasure trove of small, fruit-growing farms, many originally established by immigrants, so she started collecting their stories. And then, in 1984, she collected her first property, Breezy Hill Orchard. Apples (mostly heirloom varieties) suddenly became a big part of her life (along with a husband and a small child, too).
In her copious pre-Internet research into folk traditions, coupled with owning her own apple orchard, Ryan became intrigued with the wassail, the ancient custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year. One thing led to another, and she took a (then) expensive leap, giving a long-distance call to Richard Sheppy, an esteemed, traditional cider maker in Somerset, England, and host of wassails there. They connected so well during that phone interview, that before she knew it, she was dashing off Elizabeth Ryan to Somerset, arriving on the wassail day. At Sheppy’s 200-year old farm and orchards, the entire community, some 500 people, showed up to partake in the local cider and fare, music, and English folk dances. Then, the wassail itself: in complete darkness, the crowd moved to the largest tree in the orchard, along with a large barrel of cider. A bonfire was lit, an iron was heated and dropped into the cider, Arthurian-like, causing it to froth. The tree was served the warm cider around its trunk, and the crowd began singing the wassail songs (which Ryan now knows by heart). Dance and drink followed all night. The mother ship had arrived, and she had been beamed up. This was her “aha” moment – there was no going back.
The follow-up came quickly, including a cidermaking course in Hereford with English cider guru Peter Mitchell and others in the English craft cider scene, sealing the deal. Within a year of Ryan’s return from England, Hudson Valley Farmhouse had been launched, with her cider in the marketplace. In 1997, she made The New York Times list of best American ciders.
Throughout all this, however, she saw how disadvantaged cider was under New York State tax law, which, since Repeal, treated it almost like an illegal activity. So, Ryan’s advocacy to change the tax law and definitions for cider began in 1996. Within two years, her work led to laws being changed, and the tax rate for cider went from $1.07 a gallon, to 7-12 cents a gallon, among other reforms and improvements. This move was the first big step that allowed the craft cider renaissance to take off in New York State. Thank you, Elizabeth!
Since then, Ryan has honed her cider making, and expanded her orchards with ever more cider varieties and the purchase of the historic Stone Ridge Orchard near New Paltz. Elizabeth is a classicist, hewing to traditional European styles using mainly American, English, and French heirloom cider apples. For her, the cider must stand on its own, but she is not averse to creative use of flavorings and co-ferments so popular now, like with Montmorency cherries grown on her farm.
One of her innovations has been to make more varietal ciders with American antiques like Golden Russet (her favorite) and Esopus Spitzenberg. Another important goal: for New York bars and restaurant to serve and promote more fine local ciders. “In almost any restaurant you go to, whether in the Hudson Valley or New York City, they serve a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc by the glass. Our craft cider should be like New Zealand Sauvignon,” Ryan said. Here, here!
The lightning strike
PETER AND SUSAN YI | BROOKLYN CIDER HOUSE
Before 2014, Peter Yi, a wine aficionado, buyer and retailer who owned the successful PJ Wine in Manhattan, and a winery in Argentina, had ignored cider. “I love wine, but I had no love for cider, because I never had tasted anything that moved me. I just didn’t get cider,” said Yi.
Sometimes, however, cider gets you. On a fateful trip to France and Spain to visit various wine regions, Peter crossed into Spain and the Basque Country near San Sebastian, where a friend convinced him to take a break from his wine tasting and visit a cider house in the mountains, a sagardotegi. What followed was a revelation: the local cider, served directly from the barrel, was natural, fresh, dry and delicious (with relatively low alcohol), brimming with good acidity, the perfect pairing for the farm fresh fare, including grilled steak! More than just the gastronomic pleasure, however, it was the amazing conviviality around the drink and the food that floored Yi. Everybody was talking and laughing despite some language challenges. And the next day, de-spite consuming plenty of the tipple, there were no ill effects. Never had any alcoholic beverage made such a positive impression on him; quickly, his thoughts turned to how he could translate this beverage and experience to Brooklyn, where he was convinced it would work.
On his return to NYC, with the zeal of the converted, he told his sister, Susan Yi, then an English teacher in New York, that they should make Basque-style cider and open up a Brooklyn version of the sagardotegi. Susan had been to Spain and had sampled similar cider, and had not been overly impressed. But on the cider house concept, Peter’s passion won her over, and the siblings decided to go all in. “Callings” often become journeys, however.
The original idea was to source New York apples and make the cider in Brooklyn, first at Peter’s house, and then at the eventual Brooklyn Cider House (BCH). Susan was certain that the necessary warehouse space for the venture would be found in Bushwick (it was). They then called apple growers across New York State and found not one that had the apple varieties they wanted for the Basque-style natural cider. Faced with this dilemma, Peter, always proactive, decided they would need to plant the trees themselves. Because the trees and rootstocks would take two years of preparation before planting, he ordered up 8,000 trees — without having anywhere yet to plant them. In the meantime, they would have to purchase an orchard. Thanks to Susan’s rock climbing proclivities, they quickly settled on New Paltz (and the Shawangunks) for the property search, which fortuitously resulted in their purchase of the 200-acre Twin Star Orchard. Welcome to the Hudson Valley!
At the same time, Peter was honing his cider-making chops, leaning on his own knowledge of wine making, employing information from Spain and France on cider styles, and tapping the equipment, know-how, and wisdom of his good friend Morten Hallgren, the winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes. BCH was now making cider. Yi noted that within the New York cider community, there had been almost universal skepticism about a making raw, unfiltered Basque-style cider in New York. Fortunately, he was not dissuaded.
At the New Paltz orchard, the Yis pulled out some 50 acres of old trees to make way for the heirloom and hard cider varieties they had ordered. Because they were in a hurry, they had overlooked the possibility to graft the new trees (scions) on to the existing trees (as rootstock), which would have resulted in harvesting apples much faster than planting the new trees (a 5-10 year wait for fruit). But having planted them, they just moved forward, making cider in the old orchard warehouse, and opening the property to the public for cider tastings, apple picking, and wood-fired pizzas and burgers in 2015. Their Hudson Valley footprint was growing.
The actual cider house in Bushwick then became the focus, opening at the end of 2017 with 12,000 square feet, encompassing a working cidery, bar, tasting room, and restaurant. It was an intense and thrilling ride, but the venture quickly ran headlong into the pandemic, forcing the Yis to shut it down. Fortunately, they had the New Paltz operation, and a growing and successful line of highly drinkable ciders—in striking, totemic designed cans—to build upon. The cider house concept did not end in Brooklyn, but has been reinvented in New Paltz, a popular destination with cider tastings, food, and live music.
That leap of faith with the 8,000 trees is now paying off: the cider varieties are now coming in, making for even better BCH ciders, with some apples leftover to sell to other cideries. And while Peter is pleased with the current BCH product line, his inner winemaker is aiming to make some special, smaller batch and age-worthy cuvees, aiming for the quality of, for example, Eve’s Cidery’s Albee Hill (Finger Lakes), which is a North Star for Yi, almost Burgundian in character.
Quite the adventure from a thunderclap moment, but one gets the sense that the best is yet to come for BCH.
Stewarding the legacy
JOSH MORGENTHAU | TREASURY CIDER
Fishkill Farms has been in the Morgenthau family for over a century, growing apples the entire time. It was founded by Henry Morgenthau Jr., who, after a career in farming and conservation, served as Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 2006, Henry’s grandson, Josh Morgenthau, moved back to the family farm with some ideas to renovate and replant the historic orchard in sustainable fashion. The cider making interest built over time.
Josh had spent some time traveling in Europe in the early 2000s, visiting farms and wineries. As fine arts major and painter, the combination of farming and craftsmanship involved in traditional European winemaking appealed to him, and he wanted to do something similar at Fishkill. But he figured the New York terroir was more suitable for apples, which have been growing in the Hudson Valley far longer than vinifera wine grapes, and are better adapted. He also had the family orchard to work with, where in 2008 he started planting dozens of heirloom apple varieties, motivated out of historical curiosity and a belief that foodies looking for tastes beyond supermarket produce aisles would provide a market for these apples. As it happens, these heirlooms are very well suited for fine cider production. Originally oblivious to this, when he started researching hard cider, he realized that he already had many of the best North American cider apples growing in his orchard, varieties like Golden Russet, Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy. The seed had been planted.
Josh started fermenting several gallons of cider in the cellar every year — with some good results — but the impetus to operate on a larger scale was actually climate change, after losing a substantial portion of the apple crop in 2012, and then again only a few years later. These losses were a direct result of warm winters in which the trees woke up from dormancy earlier than usual, unprepared to weather the otherwise typical spring freezes. While these sorts of crop losses are not unheard of, they should be one-in-every-10 or 20-year occurrences, not just four years apart. (And those years were typically followed by “bumper crop” years, where there were more apples than could actually be sold in such a short window.) So, the appeal of having a product made with apples that would be sold the year after harvest became obvious. From a business point of view, a cider business had the potential to smooth out those seasonal mismatches of supply and demand, and provide some insurance by further diversifying away from fresh fruit. Henry would have concurred.
In 2015, Josh decided to go commercial under the Treasury Cider nameplate, in honor of his grandfather. He was aided by the newly passed New York State Farm Cidery legislation, which brought the venture within reach from a legal perspective, and allowed production of cider at scale without the prohibitively steep licensing fees of a conventional liquor license. It felt like fate.
Beyond a week-long seminar at Cornell with British cider master Peter Mitchell, most of Josh’s cider making training has been self-directed, gleaned from books and visits to other cider makers (both in the Hudson Valley and New York State), through educational trips to visit UK and Spanish cider makers arranged by the agricultural nonprofit Glynwood, and drilled in through good, old-fashioned trial and error. The results of the education have been impressive.
In the orchard, a segment of Fishkill is grown organically, and the rest grown with eco-friendly methods following the Eco Apple protocol. In the Hudson Valley, organic methods are often not viable for tree fruit — there is nothing sustainable about devoting resources to growing organic apples only to lose them mid-season because of bugs or fungus. Eco Apple is a happy medium that combines the sustainable focus of organic production with the economic viability of conventional.
The Morgenthau legacy at Fishkill Farms is safe.
Giving back (sustainably)
DOUG DOETSCH | SEMINARY HILL ORCHARD & CIDERY
Callicoon is a hamlet on the Delaware River in western Sullivan County near the Pennsylvania border. Established in 1842, the hamlet and surrounding area was populated by a surge of German immigrant farmers in the 1850s and 60s, and farming is what they did once they arrived. Doug Doetsch, the owner and visionary behind Seminary Hill Orchard & Cidery is a fifth generation descendant of these German farmers, who grew up in the area.
From the 19th to the mid-to-late 20th century, these farms were around 80-120 acres in size, and most did a variety of things to subsist – dairy cows for selling milk to the local creamery, some pigs, chickens or sheep, possibly an orchard for cider and fresh fruit. Also in the summer months, many farms would take on boarders from New York City, who would escape to Callicoon for fresh air and respite from the urban frenzy. Doug remembered this well, but as a teenager, he could already see this economic model breaking down. Dairy prices collapsed for the small-scale farms, and many went out of business and left western Sullivan altogether. And that boarder connection from New York City broke down in the economic distress, isolating the hamlet from the economic colossus just two hours away.
Doug’s family remained in Callicoon, but he left for college and then for law school in New York City, ending up as an international finance lawyer who has traveled the world. But he stayed in touch with his folks back home, visiting at the family farm (that they retained) as often as possible. On these visits, Doug started “noodling” on ideas to attract connections and interest to the area from New York City and beyond by using the agricultural heritage and tradition of hospitality. Clearly, this could no longer be milking cows! In his wide travels, particularly in France, as well as in Spain and England, he had encountered and enjoyed cider, which he began to think could be a viable alternative for western Sullivan county. His father thought it was a terrible idea, but his grandparents, who had a longer view of things, remembered plenty of orchards in the area in the past, along with some cider making, and were intrigued. The grandparents were right on the money.
After much research on cider and its possibilities for Callicoon, Doug scheduled a family trip to Normandy in 2012 to scope out the French cider scene, staying at a local cider/Calvados house and visiting cideries across the region. This trip clinched things for Doug, proving what was possible using a farm/orchard-based model for a cidery. He decided to move forward. Enter the late Michael Phillips, holistic orchardist.
Doug hired Michael as a consultant, as their values on the environment and sustainability were in synch, and because such orchard practices made sense economically, too. They started looking at potential sites on the family homestead, taking soil samples and discussing possibilities. Over a several year period, they planned where to put the orchards, which apples to grow, and which companion plants would encourage pollination and ward off harmful insects and critters. They cover-cropped before planting and grafting to improve the soil profiles. The first orchard site was actually established in 2014 at the homestead.
Michael’s second recommendation was a much larger orchard site on a south-facing slope overlooking a former Franciscan seminary, the Delaware River, and the hamlet of Callicoon. Doug had originally planned a small, almost hobby orchard, but while working on that second site, Michael and another cider consultant from the Finger Lakes, Chris Negronida, had a different view. The second site would be the place to put in a cidery and tasting room, they urged, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime site. It had an amazing view, and would be a phenomenal place to grow apples with its south facing slope and the microclimate of the Delaware River. The name Seminary Hill would come from the seminary just below the orchard, replete with its Tuscan-style clock tower. “Go big or go home” was their message. Doug went big.
Seminary Hill’s cidery, restaurant, and tasting room are now housed in the first Passive House-certified building for a cidery or winery in the US, built with wood from the former Tappan Zee Bridge – with a killer view. The ciders have won awards, using American and European heirloom varieties. Down the road, Seminary offers lodging in some historic white clapboard buildings decorated in Shaker style, a throwback to the old boarder days. And the location has become a community jewel and a magnet for events, ranging from the local high school prom and weekly concerts, to the 24 bookings for weddings they already have this summer.
Doug’s initial calling to give something back to Callicoon with cider has grown into something special, exceeding all expectations, sustainably and in style.
From apprentice to master
COOPER GRANEY | DOC’S DRAFT HARD CIDER
Sometimes the cider calling comes early in life – and locally. That was the case for Cooper Graney, the head cider maker at Doc’s Draft Hard Cider, which in 1993 became the first cidery in New York since Prohibition’s repeal, and has evolved into a flagship producer from the Hudson Valley, with its ciders available in 25 states.
Graney started with Doc’s in 2005 as a 16 year-old Warwick, NY, high school student working part-time after school and on weekends, stocking tasting room shelves, working the bottling line and helping in the orchards. At that point in time, Doc’s had grown from a small farm winery tasting room into a regional (and expanding) cider presence, so there was plenty of work to go around during this growth phase of the operation. It was an uphill battle for hard cider back then, said Graney, as many people had no clue about the beverage, with retail shops, bars, and restaurants tending to lump it together with malt beverages and hard lemonade.
Graney, however, was curious, willing, and did a little of everything.
All this hard work and dedication did not go unnoticed by Doc’s current co-owner (and then head cider maker) Jason Grizzanti, who took Cooper under his wing, and recommended that in college, he should study the science behind cider and wine. This sound advice led Graney to Virginia Tech’s estimable Food Science and Technology program in 2007, where he learned, among other things, the ins-and-outs of fermentation, the imperative of sanitation in such processes, and packaging and distributing methods for food and drink. In addition, he learned to pay attention to the small variables that can have a huge effect in a production process, like the difference between producing cider with just-harvested apples in October, and using cold storage apples for production in July, when the apples have higher sugar content and less acidity (something he would soon have to master).
In a sense, though, Graney never really left Doc’s—he continued working there during college summer breaks, and would drive 500 miles between Blacksburg and Warwick on long autumn weekends to help out with the harvest. Though he never mentioned it, he had actually decided he would return to Doc’s after graduation. Soon after his return to Warwick in 2013, which coincided with Grizzanti’s move to the Black Dirt Distillery project, he was named Doc’s head cider maker—a huge vote of confidence for a freshly minted graduate.
The relationship has been the perfect match. Doc’s has continued to grow under Cooper’s watch, now turning out some 250,000 gallons annually, all made with 100% New York fruit. Doc’s has also significantly expanded its product lineup, including with flavored seasonal ciders, like Peach, Sour Cherry and Cassis, and has seamlessly incorporated cans into the distribution mix. But Cooper’s goal – and successful calling card – has been to keep a consistent, high quality and recognizable base cider style that immediately says “Doc’s” even when flavored with other fruits or botanicals. His learning on the job continues, evidenced by Doc’s Gold Rush Cider, a recent addition to the line that uses the Keeving method of fermentation, one used mainly in French farmhouse ciders (and takes three months to complete). Cooper also gets inspiration from the smaller cideries in the region and the innovations and new ideas they bring to the table. Both Cooper and Doc’s are big supporters of the Hudson Valley cider sector and cider education, believing that a bigger cider pie means more for everybody.
We’ll drink to that.
By Edward Matthews