About five years ago, if you mentioned hard cider in the U.S., you were pretty much talking about Woodchuck. Now the industry has exploded, and there’s a lot more going on in the state. Melissa Pasanen, who writes for the Savorvore section of the Burlington Free Press, has been watching the cider world grow and evolve.
Pasanen says the wild claims are true: There really has been a cider explosion, albeit off a “very small base,” and she cites the market’s double-digit growth over the last several years. “Last I checked, almost 100 percent growth versus a year ago,” she says. “A lot of that growth is due to huge brands – big national brands like Boston Beer Company – entering the segment because they see growth with brands like Angry Orchard, and Woodchuck.”
Craft beer, meet craft cider
But while big companies have been seeding the national market, Pasanen has kept track of the smaller operations producing what she calls the “craft-beer equivalents” of ciders – those that make traditional and European-style vintages. She counts about 15 craft cideries currently in Vermont.
“You’ve got everyone from people like Champlain Orchards, who are known for their apples, doing their own cider … To folks like Stowe Cider … and Citizen Cider, who have a pretty high profile now, and then Shacksbury, where I spent a lot of time, in the Middlebury area,” Pasanen says. “So a lot of … sort of following the craft-beer model, people really getting into doing it in an artisanal way.”
Hard cider was popular with Vermonters back in the 1800s, but hasn’t had much of a resurgence until now. “It was one of the original homemade alcohols,” Pasanen says. “And Prohibition obviously killed all sorts of alcohol traditions, but apparently hit cider pretty hard, because one of the things they did was cut down all the cider trees in a lot of parts of the country. So, the resurgence has, I think, a lot to do with everyone’s love of all things craft and retro, and it is something you can fairly easily do in your home basement.”
Co-founder Stefan Windler is originally from New Hampshire, and was first exposed to hard cider when he attended school in Virginia, Pasanen says. “The home of Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, who had a strong interest in cider … [Windler’s] flagship farmhouse cider is a very dry style, unfiltered, which is what a lot of these newer European-style ciders are. Very different than what my friend Ben Watson, who is an author and cider expert in New Hampshire, calls the more ‘apply, wine-cooler stuff’ that a lot of the big national companies are marketing.”
It’s important to remember that hard cider is indeed an apple wine. “And as Ben says, when people say to them, ‘Well, it doesn’t taste like apple!’ he says to them, ‘Does wine taste like grapes?’”
Pasanen says that when she spoke to Stefan Windler, he attributed cider’s growing popularity to its simplicity. “He said [ciders] are pretty straightforward. They’re pure and natural; most of the ingredients are just apples and yeast, and there you have it.”
Launched in Shoreham in 2013 by Colin Davis and David Dolginow – two Middlebury College grads who didn’t know each other during school – Shacksbury also makes European-style ciders.
“Shacksbury is a really interesting little company,” Pasanen says. “They are importing base from Spain’s Basque region, and Herefordshire in England, two areas famous in Europe for great ciders. So, they really really want to make cider with traditional cider apples.”
For those who don’t know the difference, Pasanen explains that most cider apples aren’t as tasty as your regular Macintosh or Empire. “Most cider apples you would not pick off a tree and take a bite and go, ‘Yum!’ They would be really tannic, they would be very tart, they might be so hard they’d almost crack your teeth. They are not made to be eaten off of a tree. But they are made to add layers of complexity to a beverage once the fermentation process is through,” she says.
Pasanen visited with Davis and Dolginow at Sunrise Orchards, a wholesale commercial orchard run by Barney Hodges in Cornwall. “Barney is working with them to grow cider apples. So that is a new opportunity for him,” Pasanen says. “There actually is recognition that this might be an opportunity for other Vermont apple orchards – University of Vermont has a USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] grant to look into that, which is very cool."
Pasanen gives credit to Steve Wood, an early adopter, of Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire. “He has been a leader in cultivating cider apples, making his own very highly regarded cider, and sharing that knowledge very generously with cider makers and apple orchardists around the country,” she says.
In addition to importing from Europe, Shacksbury is also running something called the Lost Apple Project, collecting cider apples from orchards that were once domesticated, but are now untended. “Whether you call them ‘wild’ – I tend to call them ‘feral,’" Pasanen says, “these are apple trees that … have escaped, basically. And nobody’s tending to them. But they still often bear fruit. You have no idea what that fruit really is going to taste like. So their goal is to go out and collect fruit growing on these wild, 'lost' apple trees and create a vintage of cider out of that.”
Shacksbury used Vermont-grown apples to make The 1840, which won a prestigious Good Food Award earlier this year. Pasanen says, “they’re very proud of that and are continuing to expand it.”
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