Cider's turn toward elegance
Vermont Sunday Magazine
Published September 23, 2007
Cider's turn toward elegance
In the American colonial period, the universal drink, even for children, was apple cider. That's cider as in hard cider, mildly alcoholic, with just a touch of sweetness. President John Adams is said to have had a tankard every day for breakfast.
Hard cider had pretty much disappeared from the American table by the 20th century, the victim of safer water supplies as well as huge increases first in beer and then in wine. Now hard cider is coming back, and just as New England was the focus of early apple growing in this country, it is the epicenter of the cider renaissance.
A clear leader in this development is Farnum Hill of Lebanon, N.H., operated by Steve Wood and his wife, Louisa. Wood has transformed his traditional New England orchard of mostly McIntosh into a fascinating hybrid of antique eating and cooking apples and an array of cider apples from England and France that few in this country have ever encountered — Ashmead's Kernel, Stoke Red, Foxwhelp, Kingston Black and dozens of others. Some of his varieties, such as Golden Russet, Esopus Spitzenberg and Ashmead's Kernel, are good for both eating and cider.
For Wood, the operative word is good: He is aiming at the high end of the market, hoping to inspire the growth of demand for fine cider that would parallel the modern wine market, in which large numbers of producers make excellent wines that differ from one another only slightly, with aficionados debating the nuances of bouquet, taste, color and finish. And paying high prices into the bargain.
At this point, the hard cider market barely qualifies as embryonic, but Wood seems to be meeting the quality challenge. His Farnum Hill ciders have received rave reviews from various food and general publications, including the Wine Enthusiast, Saveur and The Atlantic. Vincent Gasnier, a prominent British sommelier and wine writer, says that he agreed with the company's claim that it produces the best ciders in the United States. "I would even say these ciders are comparable to the best from France," he wrote.
Writing in The New York Times, food writer Amanda Hesser surveyed the hard cider revival in the United States and concluded: "Farnum Hill Ciders stand alone. If you swirl a glass of the sparkling semidry, a waft of citrus blossoms and pear travels up your nose. It is dry and crisp, with a gentle warming quality, like Scotch. … His extra dry has the same kind of vibrancy, with an aroma of cherries and melon that seem to leap from the glass. It is dry and distinct with a pleasant sharpness reminiscent of bitter oranges. Both would be terrific with a meal."
Despite these encomiums, Farnum Hill and other quality cider makers face difficult barriers in penetrating a market dominated by wine and beer. Farnum Hill has succeeded in getting its ciders onto the menu in some high-end restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern in New York City. But you can't find Farnum Hill ciders at the Burlington City Market, or the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, although buyers at both say they consider hard cider an interesting product.
You can buy them at the Hanover Coop's outlets in Hanover and Lebanon, N.H., which also carries Woodchuck, a commercial variety made in Middlebury, and a hard cider imported from Ireland. Dave Phillips, a beverage buyer at the Hanover Coop, says Farnum Hill represents the high-quality line at his stores. He said he personally likes Farnum Hill's farmhouse and summer ciders, as well as the Kingston Black varietal, but that the extra dry is a little too dry for his palette.
Farnum Hill is more than competitive at the Hanover and Lebanon sites of the Hanover Coop. In 2006, Farnum Hill sold just over 1,700 bottles of its cider, compared to just under 1,000 six packs of Woodchuck, the main low-end cider sold. "It's like drinking Bud Lite versus something like Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout," Phillips said. "I've had many customers come in and say Farnum Hill is the closest thing I've had here to an English cider," Philips said.
The production of fine cider is so new that it is difficult to get figures on its importance in the overall beverage market. A Cornell University study estimated that cider production didn't begin to recover in the United States until the early 1990s, but that it has grown rapidly since then. In 1990, total production amounted to 115,000 cases. By 1995, the total was 1.6 million cases, and by 1997 the number reached 2.7 million cases. The industry target is 75 million cases by 2015.
Much of this is less expensive cider, usually sold in six packs and made from apple juice concentrate, similar to bulk wines made from generic grape juice. A major distributor of six-pack cider is Green Mountain Beverage, which is based in Middlebury. Green Mountain comprises the former Green Mountain Cidery and the American Cider Co. Both were acquired in the late 1990s by Bulmers, a huge British producer and then sold in 2003 to the Vermont group. Green Mountain Beverage (its actual corporate name) distributes several styles of cider, including Woodchuck, Cider Jack, Strongbow (imported from Britain) and Woodpecker, made in Middlebury from a Bulmer's recipe. The firm actually accounts for about half the U.S cider market.
Boston Beer, the maker of Sam Adams, is also now making cider called HardCore, and it has experimented with high-end production. In 1999, for example, it made a limited edition, special batch made from 100 bushels of eight varieties of classic cider apples. The apples are supplied by Farnum Hill.
The ability of boutique cider makers in Northern New England to build a market for their products bears considerable significance for the overall apple industry in the region. For the industry has been under siege for a decade, with costs rising rapidly and prices stagnant, especially for McIntosh, the main mass-market eating apple grown here. Some growers, like Scott farm in Dummerston, and the Steve Wood operation, have been able to get much higher prices for unusual varieties. At Scott Farm, Zeke Goodband, the orchard manager, grows some 70 varieties of apples in a 6,000-tree orchard and gets almost twice as much per pound for his exotic varieties as other growers receive for more traditional mass-market apples, such as McIntosh.
The exotic varieties originally fell out of mass-market favor for many reasons. Some simply didn't look very good. Some were brown, or greenish brown when consumers wanted only bright red. Some tasted bland or even terrible when eaten out of hand, but were much better when cooked in pies, or made into sauce. Others were good mainly for cider. Varieties that were good all around sometimes didn't keep well, or bruised too easily, or had too small a selling window — good for a week or two, then they fade. That's too short a time for them to be transported and sold.
What Wood and other growers of the old time varieties have found is that some consumers, although by no means a new mass market, will pay for the virtues of these old varieties. The potential problem, of course, is that many producers can begin to grow them and flood the market, driving down the prices. The virtue of a high-quality cider market is that consumers will pay good prices for the small differences in flavors based on the blending of ciders from different varieties. It all comes down to the skills and tastes of the producer.
Steve Wood, a tall, powerfully built man of 52, got into the apple cider business as a response to market conditions, mediated by serendipity. He grew up in Lebanon, where his father was a family doctor with a penchant for hard work and accumulating land. In the early 1960s, when Doctor Wood had paid off his medical school bills, he began buying land around Farnum Hill; one of the major pieces included an orchard and a sprawling old farm house on Poverty Lane, which runs up Farnum Hill from Route Four. The site looks west to the valley of the Connecticut and the Green Mountains beyond.
As a kid, Steve worked on the farm for his father, who he describes as a slave driver. He mowed, pruned trees, baled hay for mulch, worked on machinery, but he had no intention of getting involved in the farming operation. Both before and after graduating from Harvard, Steve went west, working in hard mining, partly to test himself physically, and partly because his father had done the same thing to finance medical school.
By the 1970s, however, the farm began encountering more and more financial difficulties, in part because of Doctor Wood's appetite for land and his reluctance to develop it. The long and the short of it was that in 1979, Steve decided to take a year to see if he could get the orchard back on its feet. That involved selling some of the land and managing the orchard. In 1984, he and his wife Louisa bought the orchard property outright.
Known as Poverty Lane Orchards, the business was a traditional New England apple operation. They had about 80 plus acres of trees, medium size for an orchard in the region, and they grew and sold mostly McIntosh apples, along with some Cortlands and Golden Delicious, marketing them through a broker.
In the 1980s, however, Wood's orchard – along with every other orchard in New England – began running into serious trouble. The problem was that the market was softening: People were eating fewer apples, and the prices were dropping, while costs were steadily rising. For example, new equipment was needed to pack apples mechanically. Orchard owners felt they had to build controlled-atmosphere storage facilities, so they could hold fall-picked apples for sale in the spring. Supermarkets, meanwhile, were imposing new requirements on growers. The apples had to be absolutely blemish-free; they had to be waxed, and they had to be as big as possible because they were sold by the pound, whereas most consumers purchase a specific number of apples.
And in the early 1970s, a truly nasty challenge in the form of the first Granny Smith apple showed up from the southern hemisphere. "That should have waked up the whole industry to the fact that we were going to receive freshly picked fruit in the spring and it doesn't matter how good a storage operator you are, you can't produce an apple out of CA storage that is in as good condition as an apple that was picked two weeks ago," he says.
What most New England orchard operators did was to keep investing in the machinery and infrastructure they assumed was necessary to stay in business. Wood didn't invest in any of it.
"I just chickened out," he says. "I couldn't imagine spending that huge portion of my equity on those machines, so I just didn't do it."
He continued to grow and sell high-quality fruit, and contracting for packing and other services that he couldn't do himself, but by the mid 1990s, Steve and Louisa realized that they just couldn't make enough money. "I think it was probably five years ago I sent my last trailer-load of fruit off to a packer," he says, "and the return was such a joke that I thought, 'let's never do that again.'"
So they began to shift their focus, which is where the serendipity came in. A decade earlier, Wood and his wife had begun visiting friends and family in Wales, flying to London and driving through southwest England to reach their destination. Southwest England is the home of the British cider industry, and Steve would occasionally pull over to look at what seemed to him very weird apples.
Eventually he began gathering scion wood — twigs clipped from the cider apple trees — and he grafted them onto the old standards in his orchard. In fact, he had two stands of these old standards down the hill from the house; they call those stands "Below the Barn, One and Two." At the same time, he became interested in and began grafting uncommon American apples. Hundreds of these old varieties had been imported to the United States in the 19th century from England, France, Central Europe and Russia; most had failed the test of the modern market place, and had retreated to the fringe of the apple business, surviving in old, abandoned orchards or in museum plantings. Wood grafted dozens of these also, often exchanging scion wood with his friend, Zeke Goodband, who was doing the same thing, first in southern New Hampshire, and now at Scott Farm in southern Vermont. In addition, he made contact in Britain with many cider apple growers and producers and he learned much by talking to them.
"I got the notion that this would be an interesting sideline," he says. "I could conduct a horticultural experiment to see which of these cider apples would grow to a high standard in our growing conditions. Herefordshire and Somerset, the cider districts of England, don't have our extreme cold, and they have longer growing seasons." At the time, he considered neither the cider apple project nor the growing of antique, or uncommon varieties, as any kind of grand business scheme.
"I was treating this as a commercial experiment, but to be honest, it was as much gardening as anything … I was just fooling around with apple trees."
Nevertheless, the flowering of the experiment converged with Wood's growing realization that the traditional business model of the New England apple orchard no longer worked. So the original business has morphed into his Poverty Lane Orchards, which sells antique varieties, such as Esopus Spitzenberg, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Golden Russet and dozens of others, directly to retail outlets both in the region, and in high-end stores in New York and several other major cities. The Woods market their ciders under the name Farnum Hill Ciders, and they have been working hard to get the ciders into the marketplace.
The first part of the cider challenge has been met. Wood has determined which varieties, especially which of his English cider varieties, will do well in Northern New England. He can grow them now reliably, and he has a more than sufficient supply to serve the very small existing market. In fact, he almost certainly has far more of these varieties than anyone else. Many of his friends and colleagues are also growing cider apples, but Wood appears to be the only one who has them in any real volume.
This year, for example, Wood has 4,000 cider apple trees coming into production at a site he calls the Black Hill in Plainfield, N.H., a short drive from Farnum Hill. He has thousands more at three different sites on Farnum Hill itself that are in full production. These are in addition to the uncommon eating varieties that he produces. In fact, Wood has more cider apples than he needs, in the hopes that the market for fine ciders will grow.
Growing the cider apples, however, is just the first step, and for a lifelong apple expert like Wood, the easiest. Producing outstanding cider from those apples is another challenge entirely.
The nerve center of the Farnum Hill operation is a cluster of three high-ceilinged rooms in the basement of an old barn, just off Poverty Lane. Two of the rooms house a couple of dozen storage containers — very tall steel tanks, some squat plastic ones, and an array of classical, old-oak 55-gallon barrels laid horizontally on racks, the contents and year chalked on their ends.
The third room contains some storage facilities, but is devoted primarily to the mechanical ganglia of a fermentation business, including an ancient French device to measure alcohol content. A small lab opens off this room, where Steve and his crew take samples to help determine how to blend the final products.
When Steve shows a visitor through the place, he'll draw off a couple of small glasses from this tank and the other, swirling them, looking at the color, and then musing in an impromptu tasting about the characteristics each might bring to a final blend for the market. How much sweetness, or bitterness does it have? Can you feel the astringency, the drying sensation, of the tannins? How acidic is it? What kind of mouth feel does it have, and what about the finish, the lingering taste notes after it has been swallowed?
There are four different classifications of apples, based on different combinations of acid and tannin, and the whole enterprise rests on the ability of Steve and Louisa and the other tasters to blend them into an appealing product. It isn't easy.
"I throw away a lot of cider," Steve says. "One of the biggest mistakes people make when they get into this is to make more cider than they can afford to throw away. It's an intensely competitive market. … People don't come back and try something a second time if they didn't like it the first. I mess around a lot."
At Farnum Hill, the blending of individual ciders is a highly rigorous process. Steve convenes a four-person panel, that includes himself and Louisa and two others. One of the tasters is often one of the Farnum employees, Nicole Leibon, who has what Steve considers a very sensitive and reliable palette. The remaining tasters could include one of the Wood's two sons, Brian Goodwin, a member of the staff; Brenda Bailey, who manages the administrative side of the business, and Fitzgerald Campbell, a transplanted Jamaican who now lives in Lebanon and does the day-to-day management of the apple-growing side of the business.
Steve and Louisa have taken professional tasting courses in Europe, but they and their employees have developed a process of their own that works well. "The idea is to empty your mind," Steve says, "and simply react to the smells and tastes you experience — a peach, leather, dust, the neighbor's dog … we have one we call FYM, for farm yard manure." The Farnum panel tastes the sample, swirls it around, spits it out. Then they discuss their impressions of the various flavors they've sensed, the degree of acid and tannins they perceive, and they speculate about how consumers will react to it. On the basis of this sensory data base, Steve blends and bottles the cider.
At various times, Farnum Hill has had various blended ciders on the market. In July and August, the emphasis was on a summer cider they released in May. The others they regularly make include a Farmhouse cider, semi-dry sparkling and still ciders and extra dry sparkling and still ciders. On the evidence of the written criticism in the foodie press, they've done very well.
The pressure of the market place, however, hangs over the process, and it shows up particularly on the issue of whether Farnum Hill ought to send to market varietal ciders, those made from the juice of a single type of apple. In the past, Steve has bottled and sold a cider from the juice of Kingston Black apples, a particular favorite in Britain and one thought to have enough balance to stand on its own. It brings the highest price of any of his ciders, anywhere from $14 a bottle locally to as much as $30 in New York.
But Steve is scared to death of it. Many people love it, but some don't. The cider is a lovely amber color, and it is smooth and almost rich, but some drinkers sense a slightly musty odor. In the trade they call it butterscotch, but in fact, it very faintly evokes the barnyard. FYM. This bouquet is counted a virtue in Normandy in northern France, the spiritual home of cider. But not necessarily in a country with little to no acquaintance with hard cider.
"Even though we have been able to sell it, and sell it quite profitably, at high prices, it's a terrible introduction to cider," he says. "The worst reviews we have had are from people who go into a New York shop and pick up a bottle of Kingston Black, and don't pick up any of our other ciders. I mean, Kingston Black is just too freaking weird."
And in any case, Wood believes that cider ought to be blended to get the best result. "You get a wider and more pleasing range of flavors and aromas, a more balanced mouth feel, a cleaner, more structured finish than any single variety is likely to give," he says. So when it came time to blend the currently-on-the-market summer cider, he had to decide whether to add in a truly wonderful varietal, Ribston Pippin. Everybody who tried it loved it and urged Steve to release it as a varietal cider. But he tested it with the other components of the prospective summer cider, and it made a real, positive difference.
"So, phttp, in it went … there it goes. It's not Ribston Pippin anymore," he says mournfully. "The goal is to make the regular cider as good as we can make it."
Farnum Hill currently sells about 2,000 cases of cider a year, well below its capacity. Wood has far more cider apples than he needs, partly because doesn't want to run out of raw material if the market develops rapidly. But he has no target volumes for the operation.
"I know that for this to work we need to sell considerably more cider than we are selling right now," he says. "I don't know whether the right number is 8,000 or 20,000. I'm pretty sure it isn't 50."
The marketing end of the business is handled by Louisa Spencer, Steve's wife. It is a hard challenge, and Louisa is looking forward to turning it over to a professional marketing person who will come to work for Farnum Hill this fall. The essential problem, Louisa says, is that most people know nothing about hard cider; in fact, most don't know that it exists. Even the basic name is a problem.
Everywhere else in the world the word "cider" means fermented juice of apples. In the United States, by contrast, cider is considered to be the unfermented, or sweet juice of apples. Fermented apple juice has been known as "hard cider." American (hard) cider makers are trying to persuade people to call their products just plain "cider," but they have a long way to go.
So, Louisa spends much of her time traveling around, talking to retailers and state liquor-control buyers about cider, its long history, the differences between fine and commercial ciders, describing how they are made, and so forth. She often starts with a power point presentation that lays out these issues. This is all before she even gets to actually sell her own ciders.
A second major hurdle is that the sale of any alcoholic beverage is hedged about by a huge web of federal and state regulations. In many states, for example, including Vermont, a producer can't simply approach a retailer to sell his cider, rather he must work through a distributor. The distributor's major lines are likely to be beer and wine, and if he doesn't pay much attention to cider, there isn't much you can do about it.
And even if you get a retailer to market your cider, the lack of a big customer base is a tremendous drag on sales. "We can get into a fancy wine shop in New York," Steve Wood says, "and they taste the cider and they love it; but they don't have any place to put it. Where do you put it? … They don't have a cider section. So it winds up on the dusty back shelf with the fruit wines, where nobody ever goes … with the Slivovitz."
The Woods' response to this is to do whatever they can to encourage competition, to inspire friends in the apple business to make high-quality ciders in hopes that the resulting market would take off, resembling the wine market.
"The wine market is the only agricultural market that not only doesn't punish small differences between similar things, but actually pays for them," Steve says. "Nobody expects a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot-Cabernet Franc combination grown in Bordeaux to smell and taste like one grown in Western Australia, to smell or taste like one in Willamette Valley, or in Washington, or the Napa Valley, or Long Island.
"What's implicit in this is that if we can develop a market not only can it tolerate a lot of competition, it would welcome it. What I would like to see is a lot more good cider being made from good fruit because at the moment our biggest marketing challenge is the absence of a category of fine cider in the market."
In pursuit of this idea, Wood has urged Evan Darrow at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney to try making cider. Green Mountain is the biggest apple grower in Vermont, and has the capacity to become a major producer. Evan has tried a few batches, but has not pursued it. Wood also hopes that Zeke Goodband at Scott Farm in Dummerston will get into the hard-cider business. Goodband grows an impressive array of excellent cider apples, but Scott Farm currently has no plans to open a cider operation.
There are some other commercial cider makers in the region who make small volumes of hard cider, but the ciders that come closest to the Farnum Hill products have been made by what one might describe as very strong amateurs. One of those is Terry Bradshaw, the chief apple technician at the University of Vermont Horticultural Farm. He has planted a small selection of French and British cider apple trees at the Hort Farm in South Burlington, and a small cider orchard at his home in Calais. He makes very nice cider for himself and his friends, but has no plans to produce cider for the market.
Another is Jason MacArthur, a 31-year-old Marlboro, Vt., carpenter, who makes cider with a friend, Forrest Holzapfel, whose day job is Marlboro town lister. MacArthur became interested in wine during a visit to France as a teenager, and when he came back he thought: "Maybe cider is a local alternative."
Their approach has been to mix European cider apples with the best American antique varieties. "It wasn't a scientific thing," MacArthur says.
At the outset they bought most of their apples from Scott Farm, but four years ago Jason planted a 50-tree cider orchard on a side-hill pasture on his grandfather's farm. He got a good crop last year, and this fall will be in full production. The new orchard fulfills Steve Wood's precept that fine cider requires a blend of the best apple varieties. MacArthur has planted the best — Kingston Black, Golden Russet, Ribston Pippen, Esopus Spitzenberg, Wickson.
His ciders are considered very good but might benefit some from more aging. The amateurs generally age their ciders for six months or so, whereas Farnum Hill will often age for a year, or two. MacArthur and Forrest are making 50 to 60 gallons of cider a season in a dozen or so five-gallon carboys, and like Wood, they throw a lot out.
Have they thought about producing cider for the market?
"I don't know," MacArthur says. "I'd love to; it's a great way to make a living, but to get the space you need and the right fruit and the pressing equipment … to put it all together … is a pretty big investment."
There are no hard figures for establishing commercial cidery, but it could run from tens of thousands of dollars to well up into six figures, depending on what one starts with. What's needed is an orchard, a barn with some concrete floors, equipment, plenty of it.
So what is the devotee of fine cider to do? You may stumble upon something from Farnum Hill, but you cannot find it reliably. If you know somebody like Terry Bradshaw or Jason MacArthur, they might give you a bottle, but they can't sell it under the law, and they don't have much. You can pick up what purports to be fine cider from small producers, and some of it is and some of it isn't.
And even the best producers have to suppress their adventuresome instincts in deference to a skittish embryonic market.
One day in July, Steve Wood pointed out a trio of barrels lying against a wall in one of his storage rooms. Two-year-old Ashmead's Kernel. He found a piece of rubber tubing, clambered up onto the rack and siphoned off two glasses. It was terrific, every bit as good as the Kingston Black, but without the barnyard bouquet that offends some consumers.
Is he going to bottle it? Probably not, he says. "It's so risky to release varietals," he says. "I'll probably just dump it into a blend."
After some, well, wheedling, he agreed to siphon off and sell a couple of bottles to his visitor. Would the visitor share?
Don't even ask.
Hamilton E. Davis is a Burlington freelance writer.