Wild at Heart: New York’s Craft Cider Industry

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click to enlarge A tasting flight at Left Bank Cider’s tasting room in Catskill.

  • A tasting flight at Left Bank Cider’s tasting room in Catskill.

“There is a typical Revolutionary War phrase: ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes,'” says cider celeb Andy Brennan, artist and artisan behind Wurtsboro-based brand Aaron Burr when we talk by phone in mid-September. “The anxiety of the harvest is so great right now. You want to start, because a lot of the apples are starting to fall, but the problem is the sugars are not really ready yet. The good apples are worth waiting for.”

Last year yielded a bumper crop of apples. Sun, rainfall, frost, fruit set, biennial bearing cycles—all the infinite variables, large and small—combined perfectly for enormous yields in apple trees both wild and cultivated. Last year, Brennan netted 1,800 gallons of hard cider. This year, he’s expecting 700. He’s a microproducer by anyone’s count. But his ciders are also made with—at minimum—95-percent wild-foraged fruit, the other five percent of apples coming from his homestead orchards (which are largely grafted wild varieties anyway). But his ratios are the reverse of even the most niche, ambitious cidermakers in New York State. 

Last year’s wild harvest was good enough to change hearts—and business plans. Left Bank Ciders, which opened its tasting room in Catskill in July, had originally planned to buy local juice for their cider operation. “We were just going to the mountains a lot to hike and to get away, and we started seeing apple trees everywhere,” says Tim Graham, cofounder and cidermaker for Left Bank. “They were really beautiful and full of fruit. Because of the amazing bounty of wild apples we were finding, we decided to totally change the whole entire plan.” They already had a fully underground cellar, whose natural temperature range was ideal for year-round fermentation, they were able to find a used press, they bought a new grinder, and they were off to the races.

click to enlarge A pickup truck’s worth of apples foraged by Tim Graham - and Anna Rosencranz of Left Bank Cider.

  • A pickup truck’s worth of apples foraged by Tim Grahamand Anna Rosencranz of Left Bank Cider.

“Nature showed us what to do,” says Graham, who, along with his wife and business partner Anna, got his start making cider from farmers’ market castoffs in Brooklyn, using little more than a food processor and a pillow case. “Wild apples made a huge difference in the quality of the juice and the cider we ended up making,” he says. “Before last year, I had never really known how apples could taste. There are so many different flavors and textures. Some of them taste like spices, some are peppery. It was a revelation to use these wild apples.”

New York is #1

If the range of flavors was a revelation for Graham—a thoughtful, educated drinker and a hobby cider and mead maker—imagine the education required to change the conception of the average consumer. Eight years ago, the only hard cider you could find on the shelf at the supermarket was a cloying, commercially produced, apple Jolly Rancher-flavored adult soda with little nuance and only a vague connection to the fruit that yielded it. Still, in 2013, the cider industry captured $595 million in sales, a number that then swung up and down over the next five years. A biennial pattern, if you will.

New York State has long held the nation’s number two spot for apple production, yielding a mind-boggling 29.5 million bushels a year—and that doesn’t even take into account feral and fully wild trees on mountains and roadsides, abandoned orchards, and backyard bounty, which a small but growing number craft cidermakers are seeking out in place of commercial fruit. While it is nowhere near surpassing Washington in apples cultivated, New York has taken the crown for the country’s leading hard cider producer, with over 100 cideries.

When Cold Spring-based food and farming nonprofit Glynwood began advocating for a New York cider industry a decade ago, there weren’t more than a dozen cideries in the state. “A former colleague of mine saw that the orchards in New York State were diminishing because of the increased pressure from real estate development, combined with the fact that, due to the global trade, New York apples were no longer a financially viable crop,” says Megan Larmer, director of regional food programs at Glynwood. “She became curious about the opportunity to preserve this historic piece of our landscape and our culture.” 

Glynwood organized for a handful of cidermakers to go to France to study cider techniques and catalyzed the formation of the New York Cider Association, which now runs the state’s various regional Cider Week events. “Thanks to those efforts and the support of legislators passing the farm cidery bills, we’ve seen the number of cideries grow tenfold in a decade. We’ve seen unprecedented growth, unprecedented interest,” Larmer says. 

click to enlarge Abandoned Cider opened a tasting room on Route 28 outside Woodstock in the midst of the pandemic.

  • Abandoned Cider opened a tasting room on Route 28 outside Woodstock in the midst of the pandemic.

Today, riding the tailwind of the craft beer boom and the wave of natural wine, the artisanal cider movement is gaining traction nationwide, with an increasing circle of diversified, small-scale producers capturing a larger share of regional markets. In 2014, Angry Orchard made more than one out of every two ciders sold in the US; by 2018, retail sales for local and regional ciders had jumped up 23 percent to account for a third of all cider sales. And last year, despite overall cider sales seeing a dip (a trend most correlated with the release of White Claw and hard seltzer competitors), the regional/local share of sales jumped up another 15 percent.

And while these statistics reflect nationwide consumer trends, New York is especially well-suited to meet this growing market segment—both with cultivated apples and wild. “There are good places to make cider and awkward places to make cider,” says Graham of Left Bank Cider. “Because we’re here in the Hudson Valley, in one of the most prolific and amazing apple regions in the country, all the apples are here. We’re right in the middle. It’s an incredible privilege to be in the landscape and be part of that.”

Forage to Ferment

As cider slowly elbows its way onto the national palate, small-scale producers are finding more space to play in the experimental corners of the industry. This experimentation is happening at every phase of the process, from foraging to fermentation methods to aging and conditioning. A growing group of niche makers are turning to the hills and overgrown fields to seek out the wild and feral fruits of yesteryear.

“There aren’t that many places where apples grow well and wildly,” says Martin Bernstein, cofounder of Germantown-based Abandoned Cider. “Here, apple trees are a dime a dozen. Driving around the Catskills, if you’re looking, you’ll see more apple trees than oak trees, even though it’s not a native species.” 

History rewind: Before English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, bearing seeds and seedlings from Europe’s finest varietals, the only apple trees on the continent were crabapples. The vast majority of apples cultivated in the US (including those sowed by Johnny Appleseed) were for making cider, which was drunk widely throughout Europe and the Colonies as a safe alternative to non-potable drinking water. Anyone with a patch of land to their name planted at least a few trees for eating and cidermaking. In rural communities, it sometimes served as a currency. But by the late 1800s, thanks to urban migration and the influx of immigrants from beer-leaning nations like Ireland and Germany, cider was on its way out as the national beverage of choice, and Prohibition was its death knell. 

But apple trees, with lifespans of up to 100 years, lived on, in both cultivated abandoned orchards, in backyards, on mountainsides, and along roads, their seeds dispersed by animal droppings and idle travelers, and all the while, mixing and blending with the native crabapples.

“It is about the idea of using a resource that is just there and nobody seems to care about,” says Bernstein, who named Abandoned for the forsaken orchards that he and his partner scour. “It is the epitome of not being in touch with your core ingredient when you get frozen boxes of concentrate shipped to you from China, then you pour in some commercial yeast, and call it craft cider. That could be made anywhere in the world. Just to stay connected with the actual ingredient that we are primarily using, energetically, it’s really important for us to harvest the apples, to know the fruit well and to know what makes a good fruit.” 

Abandoned Cider, which Bernstein started with kombucha doyen Eric Childs, has more than doubled its brewing capacity annually since its founding in 2017, developing a following across New York State for its dry, crisp ciders of place. The percentage of foraged apples versus purchased apples varies from year to year with the harvest, though Childs aims for 20 percent as his minimum. “We’re always shooting for as many foraged apples as we can in all our ciders,” he says. “Last year was a great year, so the foraged percentages on these cans are much higher. But we need to make cider regardless.” With 2019’s boom harvest, Abandoned produced about 5,000 gallons, which they will triple this year, and they’re aiming to break 30,000 in 2021. 

click to enlarge Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider is the OG of regional artisanal cidermakers.

  • Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider is the OG of regional artisanal cidermakers.

Brennan, this generation’s OG foraged cidermaker and wild apple whisperer, is more puritanical about his sourcing. He lets the wild harvest dictate his volumes, rather than the business model. 

This year Brennan is on track to make a mere 700 gallons to last year’s 1,800. “Originally, we had more ambitious business plans. For whatever reason, people get it in their mind that they need to be more industrious, but it just wasn’t us,” Brennan says. “It felt like we were compromising things. When you make more than what you pick, you make compromises, you start cutting corners. As an artist, that’s not how I want to represent myself, it’s not how I want to represent the trees either.”

The emerging cider field has room for every level of artisanry. “There are varying degrees of street cred that you earn as a cidermaker,” Bernstein says. “I gravitate toward Andy’s principles even though I don’t adhere to them myself, because our business model is so different. We want to bring exceptional New York apples in cider form to the masses. If Andy Brennan is offering a master’s degree in wild cider, we want to be the bachelor’s.”

Brennan, too, recognizes that he is able to maintain these sourcing standards and labor-intensive practices due to his standing. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of factors, Aaron Burr Cider took off in the high-end wine world almost from the get-go. “It’s a very, very, very hard sell to convince a customer that a particular cider is worth the price of a high-end wine,” he says. “To do that on your own, to market a cider in that way, is extremely ambitious. I would never have been able to do that. I just had so much good press and word of mouth. I ended up having the reputation to be able to sell cider at that fine wine price.” (Think $52 for a 1.5-liter magnum to Angry Orchard’s $9 a six-pack.) 

By now, 15 years into the craft, Brennan has become near fanatical about the sanctity of apple trees. “I think that we have to be more hands-on. If I’m not there with the tree, I feel like the cider is not going to communicate that tree’s spirit in the bottle,” he says. “Making a cider is my way of communicating what I think is a fascinating thing to other people. It’s like you’re an explorer. You go out and explore a new world, but unless you make a map of it, it’s only yours. You have to do both—explore and explain. Cider is my way of communicating that world.”

Unfiltered Flavor

Interestingly, the same logic—of honoring the source, in all its complexity and fickle singularity—can carry makers to different conclusions. While Brennan uses a wild yeast culture that he’s been cultivating in his ciders, on his equipment, and in the air at his facility for a decade, Ryan McGiver of Schoharie County-based Scrumpy Ewe uses commercial yeast for most of his products to protect the integrity of the apples’ flavor. “I pride myself on having clean-tasting scrumpies that are true to the varietal,” he says. (Scrumpy is an old English term for a small-batch unfiltered cider.) “I don’t like to filter because you can lose the flavors. It’s hard to get these apples, I don’t want to mess that up with the process. So that’s why for me it’s important to control the variable of yeast.”

At present, McGiver’s ciders are largely made from fruit he buys from local orchards while he waits for the heritage cider varietals he’s been planting for the last six years to bear fruit. McGiver forages up to five percent of his fruit, selecting wild northern Catskills apples for their tannic structure and malic acid content. 

When he finds a tree he likes, he makes a single-varietal batch of cider to test how it ferments on its own. If it passes his test, it gets grafted into his growing orchard. “It’s exciting,” McGiver says. “It’s kind of chaos theory as far as these wild apple seedlings go, but you can get some that are as good as the ones they’ve been grafting and growing for years in Europe.” 

He ferments slowly in stainless steel barrels in a cold, temperature-controlled space on his West Fulton property. Depending on the product, sometimes the cider is stored and aged in the barrel for up to two years. Other products, like his petillant naturel-style cider are bottled before the primary fermentation is finished to lend the final cider a natural effervescence. “You’re always experimenting. I’m just scratching the surface,” McGiver says. “I try to keep everything at 52 degrees. It’s a fine line between stressing out the yeast and having a slower fermentation so you can capture some of the aromatics and get a better-tasting cider.”

Though he is “obsessive” about his cider, by his own admission, McGiver was originally drawn to the idea of cider houses as community hubs after traveling through Europe as a touring musician. “I was always enamored with those small farm cideries out in the country that were gathering places for people—cider pubs, but in rural settings,” he says. “In Austria, some of these mountain B&Bs also had a great house white wine. That excites me—the idea of people coming here as a gathering place, drinking good, dry cider.” 

Though COVID has stunted Scrumpy Ewe’s small agritourism operation, McGiver still has five picnic tables set up outside. On weekends, he hosts small lawn concerts and grafting workshops, and along with his cider, he serves charcuterie and cheeses made down the road. “People are curious, and while there are still remnants of a cidermaking culture here in the Northern Catskills, most people are a generation away from drinking cider, if not two,” he says. “They have expectations initially, but they’ll try it out, and when it’s not what they expect, they come back. I try to have a range every week of acidity and tannic structure, some subtle nuance across the board. People try it out and figure out what they like themselves. I try to do it in an unpretentious way.”

Like McGiver, Graham of Left Bank is more taken with the idea of the tasting room as a local hub than he is married to any particular method of cidermaking. Last year, his ciders were fully foraged, due to the abundant harvest. This year, he will probably buy some apples to meet his production goal of 3,000 gallons. Some of his ciders are wild-fermented with native yeast, others with commercial. Some are aged, some are not. Some are single-variety, some have hundreds of types of wild apples, tasted and blended at the press. The common denominator: All of them are slow-fermented in the naturally cool cellar, and none are filtered.

“There used to be a brewery, and before that a cider house, in every town, going way, way back to before Prohibition when everything was local by necessity, and every region had their own style and every town had its own watering hole,” Graham says. “We think of ourselves as rooted in Catskill, the town, and the mountains that are close by. We are trying to be that place for people to drink the flavor of the area. It’s cool to be where the apples are from. The future of the industry can still sustain a lot of that with so many farms and so many consumers.”

Cider’s Slice of the Pie

Having watched the cider industry grow over the last decade, Glynwood’s Larmer attributes the rise of more foraged and experimental cider styles to economic pressures and changing palates. “The interest reflects a change in consumer taste toward things that are more tart like pet nat wine, as well as the extraordinary cost that goes into a cultivated orchard,” she says. “Finding trees that have gone feral and harvesting from them, which is an awesome use of resources, indicates a growing interest in being cidermakers—but also how fucking hard it is to set yourself up as agricultural producer in the Hudson Valley.”

Beyond these niche microproducers, for struggling small and medium-sized family farms in New York, hard cider has emerged as a value-added solution to their financial quandaries. “Those orchard-based producers making artisanal cider from cultivated apples—relative to the entire drink world—are still quite niche,” Larmer says. “Cider, as a drinks category, is still so relatively unexplored by the average consumer. I think the only role for producers is to uplift each other in raising awareness and helping drinkers to know: Whatever you’re looking for, cider has it for you. There is such an incredible amount of diversity in genetics with apple trees. And cider’s slice of pie is so small, we don’t need to fight amongst ourselves. Let’s make the slice bigger. Let’s get more people drinking more styles of cider.”

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