Williamson, NY, a farm town on the south shore of Lake Ontario about 25 miles east of Rochester, is so tiny, even a native of Rochester had never heard of it. That may be in part because it was a dry town until 1996. However, it was prime apple territory — most of the farms are apple orchards that feed the industry giant Mott’s — and kids who grew up there, like Ryan Burk, quickly discovered that apples were good for more than juice and sauce.
The history and tradition of the place, he says, included making hard cider. “Let’s just say I got interested in apples and fermentation at an early age,” he says. Unlike his peers, this teenage “hobby” became his life’s work. Burk is now the head cider maker for Angry Orchard, the country’s largest hard cider maker. Angry Orchard, owned by the Boston Beer Company, hired him in 2014 to spearhead the creation of its own orchards and production plant in Walden.
Until then, Angry Orchard had a reputation among cider purists as mass-produced and without soul, processing its apples at a factory in Cincinnati, along with Sam Adams beer. Burk, on the other hand, has a strong background in craft. He looks the part — Brooklyn hipster meets recovering hardcore rocker — and has the chops. While living in Chicago and attending law school, he got involved in the local Slow Food movement and met the owner of Virtue Cider, a true small-batch cidery, offered his experience as an underground ciderist, and soon became head cider maker.
As Virtue was being sold to Anheuser Busch, he was courted by Boston Beer, and jumped at the offer. “They were looking to build and operate Walden, which hadn’t been built yet,” he says. “It was a whole new opportunity to do something interesting and impactful for an industry I care about.”
Most recently, that entailed Angry Orchard’s Rosé cider, which blends red-flesh apples from Brittany, France with five other apple varieties to create a light, floral beverage. And while experimenting with foreign flavors is exciting, Angry Orchard is also looking to cut down on foreign imports for bittersweet apples, which aren’t available in industrial quantities here in the United States.
They partnered with the Crist family, now in its fourth generation of apple growers, who turned 60 acres of eating apples into cider apples, the first crop of which will be harvested this fall.
“We wrote the first contract for cider apples in the U.S., with 20 acres of cider apples in New York State,” says Burk.
He sees cider making as a natural extension of his interest in the farm-to-table movement. “This is an agricultural act — that is my slow-food head speaking — taking something grown in the ground and turning it into something that is great, we hope, to put at the table to share with food, friends, and family. The interaction between cider and food at the table with people you care about is to me the best of life. Food, conversation, love — I hope to have that every day of my life.”
2241 Albany Post Rd, Walden, 1.888.845.3311
Related: There’s a New Hard Cider Trend in the Hudson Valley