Hard cider was once America’s favorite drink. Fans included Thomas Jefferson, who devoted acres of his Monticello estate to cider apples; John Adams, who allegedly began his day by downing a tankard of the stuff; and Benjamin Franklin, whose fondness for the drink led him to say, “It’s indeed bad to eat apples, it’s better to turn them all into cider.” But cider’s popularity began to wane in the 19th century due to an influx of immigrants from Germany and other countries where beer was favored; Prohibition then dealt it a death blow when apple orchards were razed in the name of sobriety. Now, this sophisticated beverage is making a serious comeback — and helping to revive the region and its apple orchards in the process.
New York State is the nation’s second largest producer of apples. But as growers face rising production costs, pressure from developers, and unpredictable weather, more have been giving up and selling out. The state’s apple basket is here in the Valley — where the number of orchards declined a whopping 25 percent between 2002-2007.
In 2009, Sara Grady, a vice president at Glynwood — a Cold Spring nonprofit that works to ensure that farming thrives in the region — and her colleagues jumped in to help. Under the aegis of the Cider Project, Grady created a network of apple growers and cider makers to facilitate the sharing of ideas and knowledge, and arranged an exchange program in which local cider makers visited their counterparts in France.
In addition, the group helped convince state officials to revise the definition of hard cider, allowing for a higher percentage of alcohol — 8.5 percent versus the previous limit of seven percent. The network is in the process of forming a formal state trade association.
The first Cider Week — a series of events and tastings at restaurants, bars, and retailers throughout New York City and the Valley — was held in 2011 and was a surprising hit. “Chefs and retailers were really eager to learn more about cider and connect with the producers,” says Grady.
This unexpected boom in popularity resulted in a shortage of the apple varieties needed to produce the drink. “We use heirloom varieties like Esopus Spitzenberg, Golden Russet, and Jonathan. They’re getting harder to get, because as cider becomes more popular we have more competition for those apples,” says Andy Brennan, co-owner of Aaron Burr Cidery. Local apple growers now are planting acres of new trees in an effort to meet the growing demand for the heirloom apples, whose high acid, tannin, and sugar levels make them ideal for cider but undesirable for eating. “Several growers have told me that they’re planting hundreds — maybe even thousands — of trees,” Grady says.
For the first time, a separate Hudson Valley Cider Week is being held November 14-23, with events taking place throughout the area — perfect timing to figure out pairings for your Thanksgiving meal.
Elizabeth Ryan has a unique approach to cider. “For me, it isn’t just a product, it’s an experience. When people are drinking cider, I want to evoke the last time they took a walk in an orchard,” she says.
Ryan made her first barrel of cider in 1980 while getting her degree in pomology (a type of botany focused on fruit study and cultivation) at Cornell. She became a full-time farmer in 1984, and traveled to England in the early ’90s to study with traditional cider-makers in Hereford and Somerset. She returned home to Staatsburg and began producing cider commercially in 1996 while maintaining her Breezy Hill Orchard. But the American public was not quite ready for the dry, sophisticated varieties Ryan made. “A lot of people were baffled because the widely available ciders were so sweet — more like alcopops. I am delighted and completely amazed that it’s come full circle,” she says.
Now Ryan wants to return New York to its rightful drink. “If there’s any drink that is deeply rooted in our soil and culture and tradition, it’s hard cider,” she says. She envisions a future in which hard cider is part of the fabric of everyday life, the way it is in England, Brittany, Normandy, and Northern Spain. “They drink it, they cook with it, and — once it starts to turn — they’ll use it in their salad dressing.”
We recommend you try a glass of Ryan’s scrumpy (yes, scrumpy), a fresh, unfiltered and unsulfured cider that must be kept cold. “It’s bright, beautiful, and flavorful,” she says. Or sip the recently revived Maeve’s Draft Cider. Named after Queen Maeve, the Celtic goddess whose name means “she who intoxicates,” this fruity, pub-style drink is dry and light with an aromatic apple flavor that tastes of autumn. It should soon be even easier to find Ryan’s ciders, since she has recently signed with New Paltz-based Craft Beer Distributing Guild of New York. Her latest project is building a tasting room on the grounds of Stone Ridge Orchard, which she acquired with the help of Scenic Hudson and the Open Space Institute; the endeavor was voted one of the top 25 regional priority projects by the Empire State Development Office. Brava! www.hudsonvalleyfarmhousecider.com
A sampling of Aaron Burr Cidery’s creations (left); at right, a bottle of its popular Homestead Perry Cider
I’d say wine has met its match,” says Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery, who touts cider as the ideal pairing for almost every cheese and salad, as well as a divine accompaniment to rich foods like duck and lobster. “Cider is especially good with fatty foods because the mallic acid in the apples provides a nice, bright contrast to the richness,” he says.
Brennan fell in love with brewing beer in 1989 during his freshman year in college, but happily transferred his affections to cider after moving to Wurstboro in 2006. There, he and his wife, Polly Giragosian, planted an orchard of roughly 400 trees that contains a remarkable 200 apple varieties. “I’ve always wanted to grow my own ingredients, but with beer that was impractical on a small homestead farm like ours,” says Brennan.
The couple started making cider that year, and began to produce it commercially in 2011 under the moniker Aaron Burr Cidery, after the infamous Revolutionary duelist (who once signed off on a transfer of their land). They currently produce a dozen varieties. “Our favorite apple is the Golden Russet, an heirloom variety that dates back to about 1790,” says Brennan. “And, unlike a lot of cider apple varieties, you can eat it too, which is why people still grow it in the 21st century.”
The company’s most popular offerings are a series of Homestead Ciders made from apples that he and Giragosian scrounge from areas around town. “Each cider in the series has a distinctive taste based on the fruit that grows in that area,” he says.
We like the Shawangunk Ridge Cider: It leads off with a tart apple note that blossoms into birchwood and melon notes before finishing off with a flavor that is somewhere between blueberry and black cherry. It is a fitting tribute to the stunning landscape. www.aaronburrcider.com
Soons Orchard in New Hampton has been a family farm ever since 1910, when a young William Soons left his job as an electrical engineer in New York City and moved north to try his hand at farming. Nowadays, the orchard is run by one of his descendants, Jeff Soons, a lawyer who could not resist the lure of the land.
Amateur spirits producers Carolyn and Karl duHoffmann and their friend, Andrew Emig, were buying fresh apple juice from Soons to distill into pommeau (an aperitif made from apple juice and apple brandy) when they approached him with the idea of forming a partnership. Why not use the Soons family’s many acres of heritage apples to create pommeau and truly excellent hard cider? Orchard Hill Cider was born.
Orchard Hill’s biggest seller to date is its bottle-fermented red label cider — an extra dry, aromatic, and refreshing drink with a slightly cloudy appearance. “As it ages, the cider develops these toasty, nutty notes. Over time it develops a lot of complexity and textural creaminess. It’s very similar to what they do with Champagne,” says Karl.
Since opening its doors last September, the company has quickly taken huge leaps forward, including signing with a distributor this year. But promoting the business’s cider and pommeau is only part of the plan. “We built a little pavilion outside our facility so we can feature other producers’ products — it’s basically going to be a small New York State wine, beer, cider, and spirits emporium to highlight the explosion of value-added products that are coming to the table for the first time,” says Karl. “People visit the orchard all fall, and it’s a great opportunity to highlight this local, farm-based renaissance that’s taking place all across the state.” www.orchardhillnyc.com