FROM THE DAY IN 1647 when Governor Peter Stuyvesant planted an apple tree on the corner of what is now Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street in Manhattan, New York State has been the hub of apple production in the U.S. At last count, more than 51,000 acres are being cultivated as apple orchards in New York, producing 25 million bushels of apples per year. Some farms have remained small; others have converted into large diversified operations with full-time markets, hayrides, festivals and more. But a common thread binds most apple growers, large and small, together—cider.
In Europe, ask for “cider” and you’ll likely get the alcoholic beverage that we know as “hard cider” (fresh cider, if allowed, will slowly ferment and develop alcohol); in the United States, “cider” generally refers to the fresh, cloudy drink that is pressed from apples, bottled and sold alongside warm cider doughnuts at farms and festivals across the Northeast. The season’s first batch of cider is bittersweet, its crisp, tart flavor a cause for celebration, but its arrival a sure sign that summer is winding down in the Hudson Valley.
Cider production was once simply viewed as a cost-effective way to deal with excess or unsatisfactory apples, but much has changed. “Now people look at cider as a value-added product, not a product of last resort,” notes Mike Biltonen, of Stone Ridge Orchard, in Stone Ridge. While the very best apples still go to fresh apple sales, those that continue on the line towards the cider press are hand-picked, beautifully colored, and crisp. “Some of the bigger producers outside of New York use drops (apples that have fallen from the tree) for cider,” says Eric James of Jenkins & Leuken Orchard in New Paltz. “We would never do that.”
The popularity of fresh cider has risen and fallen many times over the past few decades, but by all indications, its current success in the market and on the taste buds of consumers is here to stay. The New York Apple Association reports 154 cider producers across the state, and has seen a dramatic increase in consumption in recent years. Cider producers are refining their production methods, upping production in general, and finding ways to put a new twist on a traditional product.
At Stone Ridge Orchard, Biltonen and his team see fresh cider as a product with lots of room for experimentation, and each year turn a greater percentage of their crop over to cider. Stone Ridge Orchard will produce around 150,000 gallons of cider this season—a 100 percent increase from the 2006 season. In addition to traditional cider, Stone Ridge recently introduced flavored ciders—red currant, Asian pear, strawberry and raspberry—all made with locally grown fruit. Next on the agenda for Biltonen: nonalcoholic sparkling ciders.
At Golden Harvest Farms, in Valatie, Derek Grout, a third-generation cider producer, will try his hand at distilling vodka (a growing trend in the Hudson Valley) from the farm’s apple cider, using a 400-liter distillery built to spec in Germany.
While cider’s uses are fast expanding, so is the window for pressing. Thanks to advances in cold storage technology, producers of all sizes are now able to keep their apples fresh and crisp well into the following summer, and many press and bottle cider 10 to 12 months a year.
Just as cider producers stand by the quality of the apples they use, they’re obsessive about taste. Each producer uses a unique, signature blend of apples for fresh cider, and those blends are often a carefully guarded secret. Jeff Soons, a lawyer turned farmer at Soons Orchards, in New Hampton (Orange County), uses a blend of apples that includes “base” varieties like Macintosh, Empire and Cortland, “sweet” varieties like Golden Delicious, and “spicy” varieties like Northern Spy and Jonagold. Cider from Golden Harvest Farms is likely to contain at least eight apple varieties. “One might have great flavor, but a lot of sediment, while another is just the opposite. But they all add character,” Grout says. At Jenkins & Lueken Orchard, Eric James notes that the taste of cider can change week to week. “Early, when it’s primarily Macs, it’s really tart,” he says. “People tell us it tastes like drinking a Macintosh apple. Come October, when sweeter apples enter the mix, it has a much sweeter taste.”
According to most producers, these subtle changes are a good thing. “You want complexity with cider—complexity of taste and complex aromas,” Biltonen says. “We appreciate the nuances of a batch of cider.”
Of course, the apples have much to do with the taste of New York cider, but climate plays an equally large role. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, notes, “Every major growing area is affected by a body of water nearby, whether it be the Hudson River or Lake Ontario. Most of [them] have glacial soils—a big attribute—and throughout the fall we have warm growing days and chilly nights, which are just perfect for growing apples.” Those conditions result in apples with a high acid-to-sugar ratio, which Allen says is what makes New York cider “so snappy and brisk.”
Cider presses differ farm to farm. At many cider mills, the entire process is now mechanized; some have clung to time-tested methods, using old presses that have proved their worth. The cider press at Golden Harvest Farms has been around for generations, and is a point of pride for the orchard. “My grandfather bought it in the 1950s from someone in Kinderhook who had been using it for decades before that,” Grout says. He returned to the farm five years ago and considers that the best decision he ever made.
The old press at Soons has a history as well, having been pieced together and added to by the family over the years. “We were cutting some new ground here when we built this,” says Art Soons, patriarch of the orchard. Cider presses like those at Soons and Golden Harvest require significantly more work than a fully mechanized operation, but those who use them swear by them. “The intrinsic value of the work is constant,” says Grout. “It’s rewarding on a daily basis.”
Soons is equally fond of his press and the work it takes to run it. “With some of these guys, it’s like a barn dance, all lazy and slow,” he says with a chuckle, “but I get a couple of good guys out here on the press and we can do 250 gallons per hour.” That might not seem impressive by a large-scale, mechanized standard, but watching the men work is humbling. Their movements are practically a blur as they spread pulverized apples onto burlap sacks, layer upon layer, until the press is full. Powered largely by gravity, the old press forces the juice from the apples, and cider rains down around the men who wear yellow, hooded slickers. Then they start again.
Just how cider should be treated—with preservatives, pasteurized, UV treated, or not at all—is an issue of intense debate, both for consumers and producers. A law has been on the books since the late-1990s, requiring any cider producer who wholesales cider to treat it with pasteurization or ultraviolet (UV) technology. An exemption was written for small producers who sold to the public only at the farm, but as of January 2007, that exemption is gone, and the sale of any raw cider is illegal. This has meant that many small-scale producers who can’t afford the necessary UV or pasteurization equipment (and some who simply refuse it, touting the benefits of raw cider), are no longer able to sell their product to customers. “I know a lot of guys who used to make cider but they just said, ‘Forget about it, I’m not going through this,'” James says, “and believe me, there’s a lot of red tape behind making cider.” Though most producers will tell you that their raw cider is safe and delicious, they also support the new law, having seen firsthand what an outbreak of bacteria can do to the industry. “All it takes is one bad apple—no pun intended—and it can kill business,” Biltonen admits.
At Jenkins & Lueken, Eric James concurs—”One person gets sick, and they throw a blanket over the whole industry. They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, we know Jenkins & Lueken is clean.'” Though producers are largely behind the treatment of cider, how it affects taste and texture is a huge concern. For many, UV treatment technology has been a saving grace. Unlike pasteurization, CiderSure UV treatment doesn’t involve heating the cider (a practice most producers believe negatively affects taste and texture). “Pasteurization would have been, like, the end of the world for us,” Soons says, “but with UV, I can’t taste the difference. It saved every little cider maker.”
The quality of your cider fundamentally sits on the shoulders of the apples you use.
Derrick Grout finds a bright side to UV treatment—shelf life. While it won’t last nearly as long as pasteurized cider (and most producers don’t want it to), UV-treated cider will stay fresh for two weeks before it begins to slowly ferment. “If customers can drink cider for two weeks instead of half a week, they come back more satisfied.”
The use of preservatives such as potassium sorbate in cider is also highly contentious. Though it’s added to increase shelf life (demanded by most large-scale stores), most small producers shun the use of preservatives, maintaining that they negatively affect flavor. At Stone Ridge, which supplies many large grocery stores with fresh cider, Biltonen has taken the middle ground: Though personally against the use of preservatives, he leaves the choice to his wholesale customers and does bottle some cider with preservatives for a few of the largest. “It was a tough call,” he admits, “but, ultimately, do I want them to buy my cider? Do I want more people to be able to drink it? Yes.”
Treatment issues aside, Biltonen notes, “The quality of your cider fundamentally sits on the shoulders of the apples you use.” In the Hudson Valley, cider producers large and small are turning out some of the best cider in the world, sitting on the shoulders of dozens of varieties of apples, from old standbys like Jonagold, Macintosh and Northern Spy, to brand new varieties created in the last ten years. It will be different at every orchard: extra tart and crisp at one farm, smooth and sweet at another. This diversity is an indication of the storied history of cider production in New York, and a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of generations of apple growers.
Because of its versatility, cider is becoming an increasingly popular ingredient in both home and professional kitchens. As a general rule, fresh cider can be substituted for water in most recipes—it adds a sweet, tangy flavor to rice, soups, stocks and more. Pork is a classic pairing: Cider-brined pork chops—perhaps the most well-known recipe using cider—are tender, juicy, and surprising simple.
For a basic brine, combine 2 cups cider, 1 3/4 cups water, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon pepper, bring to a boil (stirring to dissolve salt), and cool. Submerge the pork chops in the cooled brine for at least 24 hours before cooking (pan-searing is the recommended method). If you’re in the mood to braise, try adding cider—it’s excellent with everything from pork sausage (try Heather Ridge Farm’s honey-apple or sweet Italian) to fresh carrots.
On the sweeter side, cider reduced over low heat to a thick, sweet sauce is great on cakes, pastries or ice cream.
Of course, it’s a perfectly satisfying beverage on its own, but a cider cocktail (a shot of flavored vodka over ice in a glass filled with cider) is sweet and tangy, with a kick that only a good flavored liquor can give. And, you’ve heard of a Black & Tan, but how about a Black & Cider? You won’t get two layers in the glass, but a dark stout mixed in equal proportion with fresh cider is surprisingly delicious. Cider doesn’t just rule the house, it rules the kitchen, too.