When it comes to cider, I’m from the land of plenty. We English don’t know how lucky we are. Bittersweet apples, some of the best apples for cider making, are everywhere in England, particularly in the South West where I’m from (they literally ‘grow on trees’!). A craft cider maker in England would rarely put more than 25% eating apples in a cider blend, that’s just not what you do, you make your cider with cider apples, because they’re everywhere.
So I grew up drinking these dry ciders that are full of flavor with deep, deep tannins and a delicious tangy acidity and to some extent took it for granted. It was only when I came to America and started trying American ciders made with dessert apples (eating apples) that I started to appreciate what those bittersweet apples were bringing to the flavor. Some dessert apple ciders I really enjoy (try Docs Draft Hard Cider for great cider made only with dessert apples, or indeed Texas’ own Argus Cidery) but being so accustomed to the tannin and acidity of English style ciders I find some others are not to my taste.
So when I discovered how rare bittersweet apples are in America, I was presented with a dilemma. I wanted to make cider with American apples, but I also wanted to make cider that I would love. I wanted to make cider like the cider I grew up with, cider like that made in the US before Prohibition, when there were many more apple varieties available.
Was it possible to make a cider mainly with dessert apples that I would honestly really love? There was only one way to find out. About 6 months ago we started running test ferments on different blends of European bittersweet apples and American dessert apples with various carefully selected wine yeasts. From about 30 test ferments we took 9 blends to a finished state and then sat down to try them. I was absolutely blown away, some of them were really solid. We agreed on our favorite recipe and began excited preparations to launch ‘Eastciders Original’ this Spring.
After much debate, we decided to package Eastciders Original in a can, it’s the perfect format for the outdoor lifestyle of the lake, the pool, music festivals etc. in summertime Austin. Once again I returned to the man, the myth, Simon Walker to ask him if he would design the package. Simon has become MUCH more in demand since he designed the Gold Top bottle for us a couple of years ago, but he was super excited to try his hand at can design, so much to my delight he agreed. We decided to ask the advice of the guy responsible for the coolest cans in Austin up until now, awesome designer Christian Helms of Austin Beerworks fame. This was invaluable, designing cans is NOT easy as we came to learn along the way. Color matching on cans is hugely challenging due to the fact that you are printing everything on a grey base. I ended up travelling to South Carolina to the Crown Canning plant to work with the great team on the pilot line there to nail the colors. The final can turned out to be an absolute beauty, well worth all the heartache. We enlisted the help of new Austin mobile canning co American Canning to put the cider in the cans. They have been amazing and have stuck with us battling through endless technical problems to get the cider into the cans tasting as good as it does.
The first Eastciders Original ferment finished about a week ago. I say ‘finished’, in reality the ferment was really, really slow and we had to make the decision to stop it just a little sooner than planned, with a little bit more residual sugar than intended, or let down a lot of people we had promised the product to. Therefore the first batch of Eastciders Original is very slightly sweeter than planned. Besides that, it’s awesome! Due to the very young age at which we are finishing the cider, the aromas are still incredibly fruity and complex and the taste is extremely fresh, with surprising citrus, tropical fruit and stone fruit notes. And the mouthfeel is superb, with good bite and a long tannic finish
We are calling Eastciders Original a fusion of Old World and New World cider styles, but really it’s just a great cider to lie in the pool with on a 110 degree day in Austin! I hope you enjoy doing that as much as I will. Try it with BBQ, fine cheeses and pizza, it may also make a great pairing with spicy foods. Eastciders Original will be available in bars, restaurants and select fine grocery stores (inc. select HEBs) across Texas from late April.
Finally we have cider! Kegs of Gold Top will be going out to our distributor from Monday. Work on our ‘Urban Cidery’ is still bogged down in permitting with the city, but our wonderful friends at Flat Creek Estate, a fantastic winery about 40 miles from downtown Austin, very kindly offered to help us out with production until our site is up and running. Due to all the delays, we had to ferment all our 2012 vintage English cider apples in England, where Master Cidermaker Martin has a cider farm. The 2012 vintage has now been shipped to Flat Creek, where work has just been completed on blending and finishing for the first batch of Gold Top kegs.
Martin will be acting as mentor to local boy Nick Doughty, a born and bred Austinite who relentlessly hounded us from New Zealand until we agreed to interview him for the role of Cidermaker. Nick turned out to be the perfect man for the job. He has spent the last few years travelling the world working at some great wineries, harboring a growing passion for craft cider and a growing desire to get back home to Austin. Nick brings us invaluable knowledge of modern winemaking techniques and shares our enthusiasm for the goal of bringing high quality craft cider production to ATX.
Fermentations of rare US cider apple varieties will begin at Flat Creek in the next week, along with various test fermentations and bench trials for much larger ferments beginning at our facility in January. We hope to have some packaged product in stores early in the New Year, but in the meantime we will be rolling out Gold Top kegs across Austin and perhaps further afield. We are also aiming to have a few special releases for you over the coming months, followed by our first official Small Batch ciders, most likely a Texas Winesap blend and an Arkansas Black blend.
It appears we are ready just in time for Austin Beer Week, running from Oct 25th-Nov 3rd. We’ll be having a few tasting events around town over the period, check out the Austin Beer Week calendar for more details. We are also planning a little launch party in the garden/railroad station at our East Austin site on Sat Nov 2nd. The cider will be free-flowing and there will hopefully be some outstanding local BBQ and local musical guests on hand for your delight and delectation. We very much look forward to seeing you there. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Gold Top taps appearing around town.
If you see our tap, why not give it a try, let us know how you like it. And if your local bar doesn’t have a Gold Top tap a couple of weeks from now, ask them why not!
More than a year after the release of our preview batch of cider, we’re excited and relieved to finally be able to confirm the location of our ‘urban cidery’! It’s taken a lot longer than planned to find the right place and gather enough money to make a start, but we finally have an amazing site secured, we couldn’t be more excited about it!
I never really considered the extra challenges we would be creating by calling the business Austin Eastciders and therefore restricting the search area to one very small part of the city! But being a part of what’s happening in East Austin was fundamental to what we wanted to do, so locating elsewhere was never really an option. We also wanted a site that could double up as a performance space. Unlike breweries, Texas ‘wineries’ are allowed to sell booze directly for consumption onsite, so we wanted to take advantage of this and create a real destination and event space. All this was frankly setting the bar very high, especially with an extremely limited budget, but somehow we’ve secured the perfect spot.
Our ‘urban cidery’ will be located at 979 Springdale Rd, 5 minutes from the heart of the Eastside. We’ve secured a prime space at the old US Foods site, down the street from the new ‘Canopy’ development of artists studios, galleries etc. The best thing about our unit is the charming, secluded outdoor space it sits in – and this unbelievably cool little feature…
The guy who originally built the site was a huge railroad enthusiast. He purchased this beautiful vintage railroad station and rebuilt it in a quiet, secluded corner of the site, creating this really magical outdoor space. Our unit and the railroad station sit in a leafy little area hidden away off Springdale with room to hold maybe 1000 people. With a bit of TLC this area could be a really cool outdoor performance space. We’re planning to throw regular parties here and very much looking forward to firing up the smoker and inviting you all over to enjoy the incredible food pairing that is Texas BBQ and craft cider.
Our plans for the interior bar and production space are a fusion of vintage soda pop bottling plant and traditional English cider farm. For those of you who’ve never been to a traditional English cider farm – it’s like the best dive bar you’ve ever been to…but on a farm! There’s a lot of work to do, but we hope to be open sometime this summer…cross fingers that getting the place open takes less time than finding it did.
Just as hard as finding the site was finding the money. Suffice to say, if you’re not a tech start-up, you have no assets and you have no US credit history, you’ve got a fight on your hands. We managed to raise what we will need for ‘Phase 1′ through local independent investors, but it was far from easy and we are still actively seeking more funds. Crowdfunding becomes legal in the US this year and we’re interested in the idea of getting any additional investment that way, enabling the local people who support us to share in our success.
More updates to follow, but for now we very much look forward to seeing you at 979 Springdale Rd for a cider, some good music and some great BBQ some time this summer!
So at the end of the least successful day you could imagine in my search for real cider apples in America, I had finally been given a red hot lead…by a random girl in a random bar in a random town I was never even supposed to be visiting. Now hidden in there is a valuable life lesson folks!
Next morning I duly headed off to find Ronnie at Gross’ Orchards, very aware that I had to make it to Vintage Virginia Apples & Albemarle Ciderworks near Charlottesville before the end of the day. In my original research for Eastciders, Vintage Virginia Apples had been a really intriguing discovery, a Southern nursery with all sorts of fascinating old apple varieties who had themselves recently started making cider. If there was one place I had to visit on this leg of the cider road trip it was there.
The name Gross’ Orchard is a bit of a misnomer to say the least, it’s a really beautiful orchard in a glorious setting…and YESSSSS!!!…finally I got my first sighting of a real heirloom cider apple in Virginia. Some Winesap, some Grimes Golden AND some Blacktwig! Ronnie turned out to be a good guy, straight-talking and knowledgeable, with considerable experience in growing heirloom apples and a real interest in working with us to get more of these varieties being cultivated. Everything was looking good…until he told me how much he currently had, which was not very much! We need about 80 bushels of any given variety in order to make it practical for us. Ronnie was talking about at most 50 bushels, frustratingly close but not quite enough. However, he gave me two other promisingly leads on cider apples, recommending I stop at Morris Orchards and Drumheller Orchards on my way up to Charlottesville and he seemed genuinely interested to work with us on the long term plan. So this was definite progress.
Morris Orchards turned out to be in an equally beautiful setting, where father and son Scott & Will Barnes had some small amounts of very interesting old cider varieties inc. Golden Russet, Stayman, Albemarle/Newtown Pippin and Arkansas Black. Scott & Will were incredibly helpful, giving me all sorts of contacts and information and were also keen to work with us over the long term to cultivate much larger crops of these old varieties. They were growing maybe slightly more than Ronnie, it seemed we might just about be able to get 80 bushels of something from them, but running out of time to make it to Albemarle Ciderworks I had to cut things short and arrange to reconvene over email.
Feeling much more positive about things I jumped back in the car and high-tailed it towards Charlottesville as fast as I could. I made it to Vintage Virginia Apples with 20 minutes to spare and stumbled into their beautiful tasting room, very much ready for a cider. I was lucky enough to be greeted by Anne Shelton, daughter of founder Chuck, who was extremely welcoming. Anne very kindly took the time to take me through all of their ciders, their whole production facility and some of the orchards too!
Sampling Albemarle’s ciders with Anne was invaluable. It gave me some of my first inklings as to the characteristics these celebrated old Southern apples were capable of bringing to a cider. I was able to try some blends incorporating Blacktwig, Winesap and Albemarle Pippin plus a single variety Winesap and even a single variety Hewes Crab. We’ll talk more about single variety vs blended ciders in another post, but for now here’s a massive generalisation…cider is the opposite of wine, the best ciders are generally blends of many many varieties, because it’s very rare to find just the right balance of acids, tannins and sugars along with enough complexity of flavor in just one apple. There are exceptions, and those varieties are highly prized by those making single variety ciders.
Albemarle’s ciders were all delicious. Just as had been the case with Farnum Hill, West County and Foggy Ridge, Albemarle’s ciders were in a style very much more simlar to wine or champagne than I’m accustomed to. They were bone dry, very clean and crisp, best sipped and savoured to explore the subtle complexities within. It was immediately clear that Winesap and Hewes Crab are going to bring some wonderful flavours to our blended ciders. I was not immediately convinced they are going to make wonderful single variety ciders within the very different style we intend to follow, but the jury is still out. Albemarle were certainly doing great things with them and I came away very excited to start working with them. But the most surprising discovery for me was hidden within their ‘Ragged Mountain’ blended cider. This incorporated some GoldRush apples, not really an old heirloom variety or indeed a real cider variety, but it seemed to impart a wonderful, tropical citrus note to the blend. It reminded me of the Cox’s blend made by Thatchers Cider in the West of England. This was a really unexpected discovery and really great news, GoldRush is known as an extremely hardy fruit, enormously popular with growers in the US for being so robust and easy to work with. It is also very capable of growing well in the hotter southern climates. So look out for some tropical, citrusy notes in some Eastciders offerings in years to come!
Just as I was about to leave, Chuck & Charlotte appeared and whole new round of drinking and talking commenced. Chuck was very generous with his time and his knowledge (and his cider!) and it was so useful to talk with someone who had been working with these apples for some time and getting good results. Talking to Chuck really finally confirmed for me that there are no great amounts of true cider apples being grown in VA/NC right now. He mentioned a few of the local growers that they got some extra fruit from and I made a mental note to try to avoid approaching these same people. The US cidermaking community is a small tight-knit one, the last thing we want to be doing is upsetting people! But whilst talking to Chuck I had a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment. We were discussing which American cider apples have a decent amount of tannin (vital for good cider production and seemingly quite rare in American apples) and along with suggesting various crab apples varieties like Dolgo, Whitney and Nelson County, Chuck mentioned Arkansas Black. I’d heard Arkansas Black mentioned a lot, but until now had never put two and two together. I suddenly thought ‘Arkansas?? That’s right next to Texas, surely there’s some Arkansas Black somewhere in Arkansas?’. I felt another road trip coming on!
I spent the night in Charlottesville, which to be honest kicks the ass of Charlotte, unlike Austinville when compared to Austin as I discovered the day before. Props to the Blue Moon Diner for a great breakfast hash, after which I headed off to Drumheller Orchard on my way back to N Carolina, though after talking to Chuck I wasn’t expecting very much at all. It was at this point that my Sat Nav lost it’s sense of reason and sent me off the freeway far too early and across country, over ever narrower and narrower dirt tracks, to the point where I wasn’t sure my little Nissan rental car could go on! With a very long drive to Greensboro ahead of me I was ready to give up. Then I spied a beautiful house on a hill surrounded by apple trees, which turned out to be the home of Kevin Drumheller!
Kevin was yet another lovely guy, a real character with a charming, thick Southern accent. Better still, Kevin actually had a few hundred bushels of a some great cider varieties, Pippins, Winesaps, Blacktwigs etc. Finally someone with a decent amount of the good stuff! It seemed he was able to help us. It was only after we’d had a good long chat and I was saying my goodbyes that Kevin said ‘Albemarle Ciderworks are gonna pissed with you guys, they love the Blacktwigs!’. Chuck hadn’t mentioned they got fruit from Drumheller…my heart sank! We talked a little longer and Kevin assured me that he could provide us with some apples without it effecting what he could supply to Chuck, so hopefully that will work out, but we’ll have to see.
After a long drive and a lovely night in Greensboro (props to The Pour House for some good pours!) I headed to the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard established by Lee Calhoun, a direct replica of the 400-variety orchard in his garden which had so tragically been wiped out by fireblight. Lee had told me that funding for the Horne Creek Farm historical site was increasingly limited and that the orchard was not in the best of repair. What greeted me when I got there was pretty tragic. Their truly dedicated orchardist Andrew was struggling single handedly with an enormous workload and the orchard was in a pretty terrible state. Knowing that the only other collection of these super-rare varieties had recently been completely wiped out made this all the worse for me to see. Many of the trees were not producing apples, or falling down, or simply rotting away, it was a very sorry state of affairs. With only two trees of each variety in the orchard, we are genuinely headed for the extinction of multiple species of historic American fruit.
Andrew very kindly took me through the orchard such as it was and gave me lots of insights into the flavor properties of the different apples varieties. He showed me the Hunge, which strangely tastes just like a strawberry, the Fall Pippin which kinda tastes like a pineapple, the Kentucky Limbertwig which tastes like a banana and the Sheepnose which tastes just like a grape…and looks just like a sheep’s nose! I left the orchard full of enthusiasm for what could be done with these varieties but concerned that many could soon be lost forever.
On my return to Texas I went into my local HEB and looked at the apples on sale. My eyes were soon drawn to a plastic-wrapped 4 pack of apples with a funny cartoon graphic and the brandname ‘Grapple’ emblazened on it. What is a Grapple? A ‘Grapple’ is a regular apple wrapped up in child friendly packaging and injected with flavouring to make it taste like a grape…Yep!…to make it taste just like that cute-looking, child friendly, natural, healthy apple teetering on the verge of extinction in that field in N. Carolina. That folks is ‘progress’!
It’s also a pretty good analogy for our approach to cidermaking. We don’t wanna just take whatever apples are cheap and available, then start adding random things to them to try and make them taste good. We wanna use the right apples for the job, ones that naturally create much more subtle, complex and exciting flavours. This leg of the cider road trip has proved beyond doubt that it isn’t gonna be easy to find sources of the right kind of fruit to make outstanding real cider in the US. But I guess if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing! As the great philosopher Jerry Reed once said ‘We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there’…damn straight Jerry…and we’re gonna do what they say can’t be done!…
The first stop in North Carolina on the hunt for real cider apples was a lunch appointment at the home of the world’s foremost expert on Southern Heirloom Apple varieties, Creighton Lee Calhoun, author of ‘Old Southern Apples’. After his retirement from the military, Lee and his wife Edith had travelled the South for almost 20 years, tracking down, documenting and saving literally thousands of rare old apple varieties. So where does the foremost expert on old Southern apples live? On Blacktwig Road of course!
Lee turned out to be the nicest, funniest and most entertaining old guy I’ve ever met. A staunch liberal, he was at first somewhat distressed that we were basing our business in Texas! I tried to explain that Austin is about as liberal a city as you could imagine, but I’m not sure he was entirely convinced. Interestingly, Lee is descended from former Vice-President John Calhoun, who a quick search reveals was a pretty significant figure in American political history, you might say the Ron Paul of his era.
Lee had prepared a delicious assortment of southern delicacies for lunch, including 3 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I dug out a bottle of our cider, a new prototype for a blend we will be calling ‘Eastciders Original’, which Lee very much enjoyed and was very surprised by. He was aware that historically (and still to this day in England) hard ciders had been made with real cider apples, or ‘bittersweets’ and ‘bittersharps’ as they are called, but he had assumed that these apples would give a cider a very aggressive bitter or sour flavour. In fact, counterintuitively the opposite is true. It’s the eating apples that tend to give cider very aggressive upfront flavours, whilst these very strong tasting bittersweets and bittersharps give a cider a much smoother, more rounded taste profile. Think ‘bitter’ in the way that a great cup of coffee or tea is bitter, or a good red wine.
After lunch we talked for several hours. Lee was very supportive of our aim to work with growers to recultivate rare Southern cider apple varieties, but he was also very frank that he thought we were taking on a massive challenge. He told me to expect an enormous amount of reticence and rejection at first from growers, who are generally very conservative people, his exact words were ‘they’ll think it’s some kind of commie plot!’. He also couldn’t name a single grower who was currently growing these historic varieties. I knew it was going to be tough, but it was a big blow to discover that the world expert on these fruits didn’t know anyone at all who was growing them commercially.
Before I left Lee took me around his garden, which until recently had housed his own personal collection of more than 400 extremely rare varieties. Tragically last year, in quick succession Lee lost his dear wife to cancer and then lost his entire orchard, his life’s passion, to fireblight. The Magnum Bonum tree I photographed him with was about the only tree left alive. One small mercy was that Lee had duplicated his collection at the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard which I visited later in the trip, so at least none of these varieties would be lost for ever.
I had a wonderful afternoon in Lee’s company. I left feeling honoured to have met him but very sad for his loss. He had also made me realise just how hard it was going to be to achieve the goal we have set ourselves. The great news was that Lee very kindly offered to join our advisory board and help us in whatever way he could, which is just amazing. This will be an enormous help in what is going to be a long road ahead and a very, very generous offer.
After a night’s rest in Chapel Hill, a lovely little town which I’m told has the highest concentration of PhD’s in the country (!) I called the very few leads for growers of old varieties in N Carolina that Lee gave me. I soon discovered that even those who grew some heirloom apples had been completely wiped out by an unseasonal freeze in late Spring this year. Things were not looking good! At a bit of a loss as to what to do, I decided to get in the car and head north to Virginia with very little plan as to where I was headed and who might be available to see me. Vaguely hoping to meet the people at Century Farm Orchards in northern North Carolina and visit Foggy Ridge Cider in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I drove about 7 hours, only to discover nobody was home at either place! I did however encounter my first ever real-life hillbillies up there in the Appalacians and some interesting local stores…
Hoping for some help from good old Serendipity, I decided to head for a little place called Austinville that jumped out on the map. Austinville turned out to be a town with no shops, no cafes, no bars, no nothing really…just 3 churches and a funeral home. I couldn’t even get a coffee. Broken and battered, as evening set in I picked the biggest looking city within a couple of hours drive, Roanoke, and headed for that. I didn’t even know how to say ‘Roanoke’, never mind know what was there. Frankly I was too tired to care.
Thankfully, Roanoke at least had a bar! In fact it had a bar full of college kids making the most of a $1 deal on PBRs. All I wanted was a seat and a stiff drink, so I waded through the college kids to the one last seat in the house, took my seat at the bar, ordered my bourbon and coke, then quite incredibly…Serendipity finally showed up. After one of the most disappointing days of my life, the last seat in that bar happened to be next to a girl called JJ from Seattle, who was not only a huge cider fan, she also knew all about heirloom apples…AND…she claimed to know of an orchard just outside Roanoke growing real American cider apples. According to her, ‘the best apples you’ve ever tasted in your life!’…
Although real cider apple varieties tend to be among the later ones to ripen, we’re going to have to get a hussle on if we are going to find and secure some real US cider apples from this year’s crop. Several previous posts documented our roadtrip around New England in search of real cider apples last winter, next up had to be Virginia and North Carolina, where America’s cider culture was historically very strong.
Riding solo on this trip, I settled on a plan to fly into NYC, test the temperature of the cider market there, then head down to Charlotte, NC and do a big anti-clockwise loop from there to Charlottesville, VA and back again.
Landing in NYC I got an email out of the blue from some potential investors (yes, we’re still chasing investment!) who wanted to meet right away, so preparing for that meeting along with other work demands meant my research on the NY cider scene was in the end pretty much restricted to Williamsburg where I was staying. Overall, the cider scene was still a little underdeveloped given that there’s some pretty decent cider being made not far north by people like Farnum Hill and West County, though there was a lot of genuine interest in cider from bar managers, cocktail barmen etc. I spoke to. Doc’s Hard Cider seemed to be on quite a few menus around Bburg, including the wonderful Fette Sau BBQ restaurant (whose brisket was pretty close to Franklin’s standard) and the incredible Hotel Delmano, where it featured in one of their amazing signature cocktails.
Doc’s seem to be doing as good a job as is possible of making cider from eating apples. It’s a nice, light, floral affair, without any of the harsh notes you generally get with cider from non-cider apples. Also available quite widely was Foggy Ridge Cider, a Virginia producer using real heirloom cider apples and some English cider varieties. The Foggy Ridge ‘Serious Cider’ I tried was bone dry and very good, though perhaps a little too dry to be able to detect as much of the heirloom cider apples’ characteristics as I would have liked.
I took a brief detour off the cider map to take in the tour at Brooklyn Brewery, one of the inspirations for the Austin Eastciders brand. As the tour ended I was extremely excited to receive a call from a true legend of the heirloom apple world. I had recently sent a letter to Lee Calhoun, author of the definitive book on Southern heirloom apples ‘Old Southern Apples’. It was from this book I had learnt all about apples like Hewes Crab, Winesap, Blacktwig and the Southern cider culture they had played such an important part in. Lee very kindly invited me to lunch with him at his home on my arrival in North Carolina . This was a huge win, it would be incredibly valuable to pick Lee’s brains in person and I was sure he could give me some leads on where I could find some real cider apples.
I left NYC a little disappointed that I hadn’t had time to fully research what was happening with cider in the Big Apple, but extremely excited to get on the road, meet with Lee and start tracking down the good stuff! I’ll leave you with the tune that I always hope will come on the radio when I’m driving in a cab in NYC, but never does…
We are currently in the middle of a frustrating lull as we finalise the funding for our facility here in Austin and tie up lots of rather boring details. You can probably tell I’m DYING to get on with this now! In the meantime, I felt it would be good to write a little something in support of our rather grandiose yet entirely historically accurate slogan ‘Cider – Original Drink of America’. So, here is a brief history of cider in America…
Many of the earliest American settlers, the first to set foot on American soil, originated from the West of England. They set sail from West Country ports like Plymouth (of Plymouth Rock fame) and my home town of Bristol, a very prominent port which shamefully went on to become the epicentre of the world slave trade. The West Country is the cider capital of the world, cider is so popular there that it is a major part of the cultural identity, just like wine is in France, or whisky is in Scotland. The countryside is dotted with cider apple orchards and smallscale artisanal cider farms producing wonderful, very natural, very traditional styles of cider, often referred to as ‘scrumpy’. Outstanding traditional cider has been produced in this part of the world for many hundreds of years, a very different product to anything widely available in America right now.
The earliest American settlers of course brought with them the culture of their homelands…and with so many hailing from the West Country, much of this culture revolved around cider. They brought knowledge of how to produce fine alcoholic drinks using specific varieties of apples and they brought saplings, cuttings and seeds with which to propagate those varieties. They introduced true cider apple varieties with wonderful names like Brown Snout, Foxwhelp and Slack-Ma-Girdle, which alone or blended together can produce delicious, complex, highly refreshing natural alcoholic beverages. Still or lightly effervescent, cloudy and quite dry, these ciders would have had a very refreshing astringency and deliciously tangy acidity, two of the distinct characteristics of cider made with real cider apples. These amazing vintage varieties, along with the unique new ‘heirloom’ cider apples that were cultivated as time went by, made cider the most popular drink in America for centuries, right up until the advent of the Temperance movement and the Prohibition era. That’s right…not moonshine, not whiskey, not beer, Americans were drinking more cider than anything else right up until about a century ago.
Cider played a major part in everyday life, workers were paid their wages in it, goods were bought with it, voters too – in the 1840 presidential campaign the Whigs promised their voters free cider and won a landslide, 234 to 60! They probably didn’t tell you at school that Johnny Appleseed wasn’t cultivating apples for eating, he was planting orchards for cidermaking. Even children were drinking gallons of cider until the mid 19th century, it being a more sanitary alternative than water. The Founding Fathers were huge cider drinkers, John Adams drank a tankard of cider every morning and Thomas Jefferson was a passionate cultivator of cider apples, describing the legendary long-lost Taliaferro apple as “the best cyder apple existing . . . nearer to the silky Champagne”. At the peak of cider consumption in 1840, there were more than 18,000 known apple varieties in America, some of which, like the recently rediscovered Harrison apple, were incredibly highly prized for their cidermaking properties, fetching astronomical prices in the markets of New York.
So what happened? How did cider go from the most popular drink in the land to almost total obsolescence? The answers are far from simple and are shrouded in mystery…
It seems that throughout the 19th century several factors came into play. Firstly, widespread German immigration began to popularise ‘bottom-fermented’ beer styles, which are inherently more consistent and less prone to spoilage than the ‘top-fermented’ beers popular before that time. Secondly, the Temperance movement, which was very much centred around the English immigrant population, began to dramatically reduce consumption of cider amongst this section of society. Thirdly, the process of urbanisation meant that cider would have to travel further from the orchard to it’s consumer far away in the city, and without pasteurisation or preservatives it would often spoil on the journey.
So, by the start of the 20th century cider was already in trouble. Then another intriguing factor came into play, Coca Cola. It seems that Coca Cola, with it’s sweetness, fizz and ‘pep’, was in it’s early days pushed as a cider alternative, often by employers who wanted their employees to stay sober! Then came the death knell for cider in America, Prohibition. The prohibition of alcohol consumption meant that cider apple orchards no longer had a market for their apples, so all the cider orchards were destroyed as farmers reverted to growing eating apples. Thus after Prohibition, there were virtually no real cider apples available to make good cider with, a problem that persists to this day.
Then comes the final, intriguing twist in the tale. The conspiracy theorists would have it that after Prohibition, the now-booming beer companies used their power and influence to ensure without doubt that cider would never return to threaten them. It is suggested that first they bought up and destroyed the remnants of the US cider industry, then in an unexplained and mysterious amendment to Federal alcohol regulations, cider was suddenly expressly prohibited for sale if it contained preservatives. This regulation was not applied to beer or wine, only to cider, all other alcoholic beverages were allowed to be sold with sulfites and other preservatives without restriction.
Thus cider, real cider from real cider apples, the Original Drink of America, arguably the most natural, deliciously refreshing alcoholic drink America has ever seen, was buried seemingly for ever…
So, the hunt for real cider apple varieties and for cider makers using those varieties had got off to a great start. We’d found an (admittedly tiny) amount of fantastic heirloom cider apples at Alyson’s Orchards, NH and we’d discovered a small cidermaker, West County, producing excellent single variety craft ciders in a traditional style, using old classics like Baldwin and a wonderful pink-fleshed variety we’d never heard of called Redfield.
Heading out of Greenfield, MA the next morning, Martin spied a sign on the side of the road saying Apex Orchards. We hadn’t heard of them but decided to turn around and take a look, and we were glad we did. Tim Smith at Apex, a quiet, understated apple grower, turned out to be the guy who was growing the Redfield apples we discovered the night before, though again unfortunately in very small amounts. Tim also had a small amount of some other old heirloom apples with good cider making attributes like Ashmeads Kernel, Spitzenberg and Golden Russet. His crop combined with that of Homer at Alyson’s would probably be enough to satiate a mob of thirsty Austinites for several hours, so, slow but steady progress! The view from Apex was an incredible panorama of the rolling hills of New England. Tim assured us that their other site had an even better view, so we made a mental note to come back soon.
Next stop was Scott Farm. A couple of years ago I read an article about Ezekiel Goodband and his work preserving old heirloom varieties at this amazing old Landmark Trust site. The drive up through the site was just stunning, beautiful countryside and beautiful grand old New England architecture. There we met with Ezekiel, who was as great as his name makes him sound. With his long flowing beard and slow, enunciated voice, he felt like a character from back in the era when heirloom apples thrived all across the land. To Martin’s delight, Zeke was growing a few Foxwhelp trees, Martin’s all time favourite cider apple to work with and one of the key apple varieties in Gold Top. He was also growing a great variety called Sheeps Nose, which we considered to be an old English variety but Zeke thought of as an American heirloom variety, which is also used in Gold Top. The story at Scott Farm was the same as at Alyson’s and Apex, some great old cider apples, including some full bittersweet and bittersharp varieties, but only tiny amounts. We now probably had enough to quench the thirst of the line at Franklin BBQ on a Saturday lunchtime, which is progress, that’s one seriously long line!
Next stop was Farnum Hill. If there’s been one key figure in the growth of interest in real cider from real cider apples in the US, it’s been Steve Wood at Farnum Hill Cider. I’d seen Steve on the documentary film The Botany of Desire and had read a lot about Poverty Lane Orchards over the years, but I’d never tried his cider. When I called him up, it quickly became apparent that he knew almost as much about Somerset (the area I come from in England) as I do! This included being very familiar with Martin and the outstanding cider his family have been making on a small farm there for centuries and generally having an extremely impressive grounding in and appreciation of English cidermaking traditions and techniques.
Visiting Steve’s place was just like visiting a cider farm in Somerset. There was a relaxed, informal atmosphere, a plentiful supply of free flowing cider and an even more plentiful supply of entertaining anecdotes, cider-related and otherwise. It made me realise that with Austin Eastciders we shouldn’t just be focused on repopularising this incredible long lost drink, we should also be focused on recreating the magical atmosphere that has always gone with the places where it has been made. I sincerely hope people feel as welcome at our Austin location when it opens as we were made to feel at Farnum Hill.
Steve Wood’s philosophy on cider making is very much the same as ours. If you want to make good cider you need the right kind of fruit, bittersweet and bittersharp cider apple varieties. When growing eating apples for the wholesale market started to look like an impossible way to make a living for a small operator, Steve took the plunge and turned his whole orchard over to cider apples and started making cider. This means he now has what is probably the largest cider apple orchard in the US. Though small in English terms, Steve’s orchard still produces enough fruit for him to cover his own hard cider production and also sell some small amounts to other cidermakers from time to time. Many of the varieties in Steve’s orchard are the classic apples you would find in an English cider apple orchard. He uses these to make bittersweet/bittersharp base blends, to which he may add single variety heirloom ciders to produce specific desired effects, like the ‘acid-bomb’ Wickson variety, a small but amazing little apple, very high in acid with a somewhat nutty aftertaste.
We tried numerous of Steve’s ciders over a long leisurely afternoon, at first joined by cider aficionado/writer Ben Watson who kindly gifted us a copy of his book Cider Hard & Sweet, which I highly recommend. The ciders were all excellent, very dry and very clean tasting, and the conversation was equally good, sharing stories of Somerset cider legends like Roger Wilkins and picking up some great tips on the characteristics of various American cider apple varieties. We left Farnum Hill weighed down with ciders gifted us by Steve, overflowing with invaluable advice to reflect on and with the feeling we had found a great ally in our efforts to advance the cause of real cider made from real cider apples.
On our final day in New England we came across the guys who source the apples that go into Woodchuck Cider. It seems Woodchuck is about 90% apple concentrate and 10% eating apples, specifically Macintosh and Cortland. We learnt that if we wanted to make hard cider from eating apples as almost everyone else does, we could source the juice for just $1.50 a gallon…and clearly the concentrate is even cheaper than that. When you can find them, the price for the apples we will be using, the real cider apples, averages around $8.00 per gallon. So if anyone reading this blog has access to any heirloom cider apples please get in touch, we’ll pay good money for them…or if you prefer, good cider!
Hello New England! Wow! How much more different could you be from Texas?
Until now it had never really occurred to me, but New England really was a ‘new’ England for those original settlers. It felt very surreal and strangely familiar to be driving through very English-looking countryside, past all these little places with English names, on the hunt for cider farms and cider apples. New England has some of the oldest cider culture in America, a result of the knowledge that those original settlers brought with them from The Westcountry where myself and Martin our cidermaker grew up. It also has a good climate for the growing of various old cider apple varieties, both American heirlooms and some of the original English ones which would have been transplanted from the old country back in the day. So we had high hopes that we would not only find sources of the rare apple varieties we are looking for here, but would actually find them being used to make great ciders.
First stop was Alyson’s Orchards, NH, where the Orchard Manager is one Homer Dunn. I’m a sucker for synchronicity and coincidence, so our beer distributors being called Duff Beer, a guy called Homer definitely deserves a visit! And would you believe Alyson’s Orchards is near the town of Springfield?
Homer turned out to be a great guy, a straight talking, chain smoking, apple growing legend with a real enthusiasm for heirloom apple varieties. And true to the laws of synchronicity, here we found our first heirloom cider apples. Homer has a small section of heirlooms in his orchard, and a small portion of those are varieties suited to making cider. Amongst these, to my enormous excitement, Homer had a handful of some of the most prized apple trees in the history of American cidermaking, the Harrison. This apple, which in previous centuries was valued above all other apples in America, was thought to be extinct until a few years back. It can only be found in a handful of orchards across the country, in tiny numbers. Homer also had several other ancient cider varieties, originally English, that are amongst Martin’s very favourites to work with, Porters Perfection, Harry Masters Jersey, Dabinett and one single solitary tree of Martin’s all-time favourite Foxwhelp, all of which were used in Gold Top. Despite the small numbers, this was a big result. We had a source for some of the best cider apples you could ever hope to find.
Our next planned stop didn’t go quite as well…As the snow began to set in and it began to get dark, we travelled to a very small village called Colrain, in search of a little cidermaker called West County Cider. I had heard from outstanding cider photographer Bill Bradshaw that their cider was the closest thing to the craft produced ciders of England that he had been able to find on a recent visit to New England. Their website only had a PO Box listed and I couldn’t get hold of them on the phone, so we just decided to head there and try and find them. I found a road called Cider Mill Lane and convinced myself we must be close, after which we drove deeper and deeper down a narrow, wooded, snow-covered road to nowhere! After another hour of driving around in the dark we gave up and drove to the nearest town to find a room for the night.
Using the wonders of the internet, I managed to locate a local brew pub that sold West County’s ciders, so we headed there for dinner. The People’s Pint turned out to be one of the nicest bars you could hope to stumble across, with a relaxed atmosphere, lovely friendly staff and some amazing food (try the thai curry!). Here we sampled 3 of West County’s ciders, a Macintosh, a Dry Baldwin and a Redfield. The Mac tasted like a cider made from eating apples, which it was. The Dry Baldwin was really very good. The Redfield was mind-blowingly awesome! We had never even heard of the Redfield heirloom variety until that moment, but we both immediately knew we had just discovered an amazing cider apple. This near-still, medium dry, very clean tasting cider reminded me of a beautiful farmhouse cider made with the Port Wine of Glastonbury variety by Somerset cider gods the Hecks brothers. It also reminded me of a beautiful cider made with the Somerset Redstreak variety by the equally brilliant Perry’s Cider.
After the disappointment of failing to find West County, we ended the night really quite elated. We had discovered an heirloom apple variety we had been completely unaware of, with fantastic properties for cidermaking…AND we had discovered a fantastic cidermaker working in a good, traditional style getting great results with heirloom cider apples.
So 2 weeks ago Martin and Fin arrived in town. Martin is our cidermaker and Fin will be building our production facility. We still haven’t decided what we’re going to refer to it as…’Cider Farm’ is too rural, ‘Cider Factory’ is too industrial, ‘Cidery’ doesn’t really do it for us, ‘Cider Works’? Any ideas? Suggestions gladly received.
Anyways, the first thing we wanted to do was to get out on the road and gather a really good understanding first hand of where the craft cider industry and the apple growing industry (particularly heirloom apple growing) stand right now. Meet the growers, meet the cidermakers, have a drink, spin the yarn…I know, I know, it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it.
Our first stop was Idalou, TX, where our Texas apples come from. There we met up with Cal, who does an incredible job of growing fantastic fruit in one of the most challenging environments you could imagine, given the super hot, super dry, super windy conditions that tend to prevail up there in the Texas Panhandle.
Cal and Martin got on just great, chatting away about all things appley for a couple of hours. We checked over his cider press, a squeezebox kind of design very different to what we’re used to in England, then took a walk around the orchard. Cal has about 6,000 trees, all ‘bush trees’, and is growing about 20 varieties, one of which is Winesap an old Southern heirloom variety very popular for making cider back in the day. Cal only has a tiny amount of Winesap right now, but given that it seems to grow pretty well in his harsh environment up there, that looks like the best option for an heirloom variety which we can work with him to increase production of over the coming years. As soon as we get our local facility open we’ll begin some test fermentations with Winesap and start exploring what unlocked potential lies within this wonderful old fruit.
Our second stop in The Panhandle was the Mcpherson winery in Lubbock. I particularly wanted to take Martin & Fin to Mcpherson’s, not just because of their amazing wines (!) but also because of the incredible job they have done on their facility, which is a beautifully renovated old Dr Pepper Bottling Plant. The feel is similar to the kind of thing I want to create with our place, something that is both a functioning work environment and a fantastic social/event space.
By coincidence as we arrived we bumped into owner Kim Mcpherson, who in true Texas fashion proceeded to show us some incredible hospitality. Kim took us around his whole facility and gave us all sorts of useful information on where to get all the equipment we’re going to need, saving us a whole lot of hard work researching this stuff. We then took Kim to the Triple J Brew Pub around the corner for a drink, where he and Martin enthused to each other at length about the different kinds of flavors their respective fruits can produce, which presented a great analogy to explain what we’re trying to do with Austin Eastciders…
Say you tried to produce a decent tasting bottle of wine with the kind of grapes you buy at the supermarket, the results would be really average at best, right? You’d probably have to throw all sorts of stuff in there just to disguise the taste, or if you were really clever maybe use some interesting yeasts to turn it into a just about palatable drink, but whatever you did it still wouldn’t be a good bottle of wine. On the other hand, if you had the right kind of grapes to start with you wouldn’t need to do all that, and with a little bit of time and patience you’d naturally begin creating some incredible, complex flavors. It’s exactly the same with apples. If you use eating apples, which is what 99.9% of all hard cider in the US is currently made with, you’re going to have to throw all sorts of stuff in there, whether it’s artificial flavourings, syrup, stout yeast or whatever, in order to make it drinkable. If on the other hand you use the right kind of apples, bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples, then with nothing more than a little time and patience you will naturally start to produce some delicious, incredibly complex flavors.
So that’s what we’re all about and that’s what these road trips are the start of. We’re going to hunt down the right kind of apple varieties, wherever they may be, we’re going to bring them to Austin and we’re going to make some amazing tasting ciders with them, using some very simple, natural processes. Then over the coming years, we’re going to work with apple growers all over the South, from Texas to Virginia, to recultivate true Southern cider apple varieties in enough quantities that everyone can enjoy great cider, real cider, at an affordable price.