How D’ya Like These Apples?
When it comes to boasting about New England’s alcoholic offerings, here’s what we can be proud of: valiant winemakers who manage to craft delicious vintages despite our region’s capricious climate, a few dozen brewers who survived the microbrew bubble and are now thriving, and small-batch distillers who make everything from smooth, sophisticated vodka to mind-numbing applejack…
When it comes to boasting about New England’s alcoholic offerings, here’s what we can be proud of: valiant winemakers who manage to craft delicious vintages despite our region’s capricious climate, a few dozen brewers who survived the microbrew bubble and are now thriving, and small-batch distillers who make everything from smooth, sophisticated vodka to mind-numbing applejack.
But there’s something missing from this list that should be obvious but isn’t: real cider—as in, the hard stuff. It was the preferred drink of every man, woman, and child in New England from the Mayflower landing straight into the 1800s, when it fell victim to a number of forces, including the temperance movement, German immigration (bier hier!), and then-new Coca-Cola (which temperance types endorsed, despite its trace amounts of cocaine). Even after the Prohibition era ended, cider was practically nonexistent until the 1980s, when it reemerged with its “hard” prefix. This variant is still around, though not very popular—most of it is made with sugar, apple juice concentrate, sulfites (for preservation), and artificial coloring, and sold in six-packs.
Meanwhile, a handful of Yankee farmers have persevered in making cider the pre-Prohibition way, with fermented apple juice and nothing else. Steve Wood, the self-described “owner, grower, and cider maker” at Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire, has been working in his family’s orchard for some 40 years. When he finally started making cider to sell about a decade ago, he says, “the whole impetus came from our interest in getting the best expression of this extraordinary fruit.”
That may sound a bit high-toned, but it’s justified. Unlike the sweet, nonalcoholic beverage that’s sold by the gallon in the fall, the cider we’re referring to here—made through the careful fermentation of fresh apple juice—has much in common with wine. For example, grapes and apples both contain tannins, which give the resulting wine or cider its structure. In fact, because some quality ciders exceed 8 percent alcohol by volume, they’re legally classified as wines, whereas cheap hard cider (that stuff in six-packs) falls under the umbrella of beer.
Good New England cider comes in still and sparkling varieties. Both begin the same way, by pressing the apples to extract as much of the fruit’s juice—and flavor—as possible, which is then fermented in wooden or stainless steel barrels. To make sparkling cider, a second fermentation is added to the process.
The best cider-makers know how to blend the juice of different apple varieties to yield precisely balanced flavors. But sometimes they stick with one variety, as with Farnum Hill’s Kingston Black Reserve, which brims with apple peel and earthy aromas and is reminiscent of the best Granny Smith you’ve ever tasted. It also happens to come from one of the orchard’s bitter apples. “We tried fermenting the juice of every single apple we grow,” says Wood, “but with a couple of brilliant exceptions, we were able to generalize that the nicer it tasted fresh, the fouler the cider.” A third of Farnum Hill’s acreage is devoted to bitter-tasting cider apples like Dabinett, Medaille d’Or, Ellis Bitter, and the aforementioned Kingston Black, though it also has sweet heirloom varieties for pick-your-own and farmstand sales.
Over at Flag Hill Farm in Vershire, Vermont, Sabra Ewing and Sebastian Lousada tend more than 80 kinds of cider apples on their 5-acre orchard, planted back in 1989. Their operation is tiny by commercial standards, but this allows them to maintain the quality of their boutique cider varieties—their Flag Hill sparkling cider is a mouthwatering yeasty, dry version that puts most American sparkling wines to shame—as well as the apple brandy they distill in small batches. Two other Vermont producers are worth mentioning, too. Neither grows apples, but they do follow the rule of using only fresh juice: Jacksonville’s North River makes the slightly fizzy, dry, and eminently quaffable Metcalfe’s, while Grand View in East Calais produces its standout Mac Jack from Macintosh apples.
Here in Massachusetts, there’s Terry and Judith Maloney’s West County Cider, which they founded in Colrain in 1984. “We were making cider for our own use,” says Terry Maloney, “but then we started making it as if it were fine wine.” Indeed, their West County Dry Baldwin has a lot in common with a chardonnay: creamy, rich, redolent of apples. At Furnace Brook Winery in Richmond, John Vittori, who’s been making cider in the Berkshires since 1994, produces a French-style cidré that’s golden in color, crisp and dry. It’s mellowed by a six-month stint in French oak, which adds a layer of creaminess and perfumes the cider with aromas of toast and vanilla.
For a better idea of the breadth of cider offerings in these parts, check out the 13th annual Franklin County CiderDay (11/3–11/4), about a two-hour drive from Boston. As it celebrates this year’s harvest, the event also reminds us New Englanders that cider is our birthright. You just might discover a cider that you absolutely love—giving a whole new meaning to that proverbial “apple a day.”