Monthly Archive for February, 2012

Cider Road Trip Pt. 3 – New England cont.

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!

 

Cider Road Trip Pt. 2 – New England

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.

 

Next stop, Scott Farm and Farnum Hill Ciders…

Cider Road Trip Pt. 1 – Texas

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.

 

Next stop, New England…