Hard cider, America’s first fermented beverage, is being transformed. As the craft cider market booms, brewers in the Hudson Valley are not content to simply produce cider from apples alone.
“We’re playing with different ingredients,” explains S.J. Pennings of Pennings Farm Cidery in Warwick, “to give us more variability and options for customers because of our lack of cider (apple) varieties that could give us a little more complexity and variation from cider to cider.” He notes that his cidery, like many, uses culinary apples rather than cider apples to produce cider due to the dearth of cider apple trees.
Pennings, a grower and a U-pick orchard — the farm produces about 25 varieties of apples — recently planted cider apple trees which will produce a usable batch of apples in four to five years. He enjoys “being creative with different flavors” and using crops grown on the farm, which include peaches, pumpkins, and hops, as well as beets and maple syrup from nearby farms. Spices flavor “speculaas” cider, a nod to his family’s Dutch heritage. Also brewed is a “cyser,” a cross between a mead and a cider, which Pennings believes is an up-and-coming product in the cider world.
Anthony Sepe, of Hardscrabble Cider at Harvest Moon Orchard in North Salem, compares the cider industry to the exploding local brewery scene. “Cider is taking the same path, trying to create new varieties to bring in beer drinkers, but who also want something different than beer,” he observes.
An innocuous joke by one of Hardscrabble’s owners about making kale cider led to experiments and to a beet and then lemon ginger cider — both well received. “We started the summer with different blends that incorporate things we’re growing on the farm,” says Sepe, who discusses potential flavor combinations with Harvest Moon’s farmer and owners. Successful experiments have included a tart cherry rosemary. “We put them in the tasting room and they just fly out,” says Sepe.
Hardscrabble ciders / Photos by Anthony Sepe
This summer, beet, ginger lemon, and jalapeno cucumber are available in bottles and on tap in the tasting room, along with a rotating experimental cider. Future ideas include cider sangria.
Kyle Sherrer of Graft Cider in Newburgh is taking a different tack to introduce cider to new audiences: sour cider.
“American consumers have no idea that cider can be sour and tart. They think it is naturally sweet,” he explains. “We’ve taken the oldest form of cider, a wild yeast-fermented, dry, tart-style product — what you still find with the European farmhouse cideries — and have revamped and revitalized it.”
“I’m not going after the traditional cider drinker,” he continues. “Our stuff’s typically a little more rustic. It’s dry, it’s tart, it’s complex, it’s got a little funk sometimes. It’s the complete polar opposite of what you find in a macro cider that’s clean, sweet, and simple.” Sherrer confesses preferring sour cider, closer in flavor to sour beer, over traditional cider. “Which is probably why I’m on such a crusade to expose people to this old style of cider that I think should be popularized. Craft beer drinkers are always looking for new experiences.”
Sherrer ferments raw apple juice with natural yeast occurring on the apple skins and a wild yeast strain from a wild apple tree in New Paltz to produce his core and seasonal ciders. “The yeast and bacteria are creating the majority of the flavor profiles in our ciders, as opposed to the apple varietals,” he says, adding that there’s little research available on this kind of production. He’s hired Chef David Hall to experiment, and works with Alec Steinnetz, a yeast geneticist from Mount Saint Mary College, on quality control.
Sherrer’s enthusiastic about the drink’s potential. “There are so many things that haven’t been explored. We can be the founders and plant our flag, and say, ‘Hey, these are all the cool things we can do with cider.’”
S.J. Pennings / Photo by Greg Rhein
Pennings cider, photo by Caylena Cahill / Hardscrabble team, photo by Marisa Tartaglia