To make good hard cider, you start with ugly little apples that you’d pass by if they were in a bowl on the tabletop. The fruits may be misshapen, gnarly and sour, but they are full of a character that has sometimes been deepened by a slightly prolonged rest on the orchard floor. They often have high tannin levels that create a richer mouth-feel and flavor in the cider. This quality, combined with the skill of the cider-crafter, makes for a distinctive and refreshing beverage that’s easy to love – especially with the air cooling, leaves falling and apple cravings at their most intense at this time of year.
As you read this, we’re in the middle of an initiative of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring down in Putnam County. Glynwood is an organization that helps preserve small and mid-sized farms threatened by development and inflation, plus dealing with issues like apples from China. Cider Week is part of Glynwood’s Apple Project – “Saving Orchards with Cider” – which focuses specifically on the Hudson Valley’s diminishing apple orchards, the number of which decreased by 25 percent between 2002 and 2007.
Glynwood encourages farmers to diversify the varieties that they grow, provides resources and promotes a niche market that it feels is growing fast: the production of hard ciders and liquors made from apples. The Apple Project includes a cultural and educational exchange with apple-growers in Normandy, France, as well as the promotion of the Hudson Valley Cider Route. See www.appleproject.glynwood.org.
Through this Sunday, 80 shops and restaurants in the Hudson Valley and New York City will feature cider in some way. Tastings and classes are scheduled. A few of the participating businesses in the Hudson Valley include Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, Gigi Hudson Valley in Rhinebeck and Red Hook, Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson and the Village Tea Room in New Paltz, among others.
Softened by Prohibition
There was a time when the word “cider” meant that it was hard by definition. After Prohibition the word “cider” was changed to refer to soft non-alcoholic cider only; hence the American creation of the expression “hard cider.” Before that, what we know of as cider was just…apple juice.
Cider has been around as long as apples have. The English have loved their cider for a couple of millennia; in days past in Europe, cider and ale were consumed by the whole family in place of often-contaminated water. Most of the apple crop harvested by America’s first English settlers was made into cider loved by man, woman and child alike. In 1796 John Adams told his diary that the tankard of hard cider that he drank each morning helped to ease his stomach and cut down on gas. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson brewed his own. So-called teetotalers among the clergy were claimed to have personal cider barrels.
Then Prohibition put a wet blanket on it. Cider orchards were turned to “pie orchards,” and the popularity of cider had to take a dive.
In France’s apple country, Normandy and Brittany, you’ll likely find sparkling cider in corked bottles on the dinner table instead of wine. It ranges from sweet and mild to strong and dry. The Basque and Asturias regions of northwest Spain enjoy their strong sidra aerated for fizz by squirting it from a ten-foot-tall oak barrel to a glass four feet away.
Hardened by Nature
The Hudson Valley has been “apple country” for centuries, and several people have been trying their hand at making hard cider. Sometimes orchardists and farmers do it. Sometimes wineries branch out into cider-making: at best a challenging endeavor to produce and market.
Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery in Orange County does cider-making on the largest scale in the Valley. It makes a crisp, refreshing, semi-dry product called Doc’s Draft (“draft” usually refers to a cider that is relatively low in alcohol, about five to six percent, not how it is dispensed). It uses only New York State fruit and a blend of apples to maintain a consistent acid-to-sugar ratio, says master distiller Jason Grizzanti, a co-owner at Warwick Valley. It also does a cider with pears added to the mix; Doc’s Framboise, with raspberries; and a black-currant-infused one as well. “Juice to the bottle, it takes about ten weeks,” says Grizzanti.
Hudson Valley Draft Cider from Breezy Hill Orchards in Staatsburg was a highly acclaimed cider that is not currently available, but “in production,” according to a couple of sources. Attempts to obtain more information have so far been unsuccessful.
Both these cider-makers use local apples – often heirloom varieties selected for the flavor that they bring to the table. Natural ciders are sometimes fermented by wild yeasts already present in the skins of the fruit. Doc’s Draft adds a champagne yeast.
Next time you are hankering for a beer or a glass of wine, try local hard cider instead. Many local wine stores will have it. Give it a try and see why our forefathers (and foremothers) liked it so much.