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!