There are plenty of lessons to be learned from artist-turned-farmer Andy Brennan’s forthcoming Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living (Chelsea Green, 285 pages, $24.95 hardcover). Inspiring, intriguing, enlightening, at times verging on fanatical, the book chronicles the genesis, growth and philosophical underpinnings of Aaron Burr Cider, Brennan’s small farm cidery in Wurtsboro (Sullivan County).
What makes Brennan’s tale different from the average “How I Gave Up Everything and Went Back to the Land” story is that he remains steadfast and independent throughout. “Compromise” in his view equals “sellout,” and neither word is in his dictionary.
Brennan’s first attempt at establishing a conventional orchard failed miserably. He refocused his efforts after literally stumbling upon some “wild” apple trees growing in the edge of the Catskills forest in Sullivan County. A thorough researcher, he outlines the history of apples in this country, beginning with the Pilgrims’ apple plantings from seeds 200 years before Johnny Appleseed took his walk. Brennan develops a single-minded objective: to show that genuine, authentic American cider (a world-class drink) was, and still can be, produced from apples grown from seed and uncultivated (rather than from the hybridized and grafted stock now universally marketed and so recognizable in orchards here and elsewhere).
‘Nothing is worse than a sellout.’
Modern commercial apples are hybrids, their genetics carefully guided and developed to emphasize certain characteristics like size, shape, color and other factors. The genetic characteristics of “real” apples, grown from seed, are unpredictable—each fruit contains five seeds, and each seed contains a different mix of the parents’ genes; basically, each seed will produce a different variety of apple. Some will not survive, of course, but the ultimate result of apple seed planting would be a mind-boggling number of apple varieties—tens of thousands—in just a few generations. Each tree would adapt as best it could to the environment; each fruit might be shaped differently, but, more importantly, each would taste unique.
These are the apples that populated the region into the eighteenth century, descended from the seeds planted by the Pilgrims. They were even crudely cultivated by some Native American groups.
Brennan remains both an independent businessman and an independent thinker. Uncultivated remains part history, part philosophical text, part memoir, and it offers plenty of insight into the reasoning behind almost every decision Brennan makes on the way to becoming the first commercial producer of wild-apple hard cider. (The difficulty finding, gathering and hauling these apples limits his production to only 1,500 gallons a year, if that.) Brennan cogently argues that, for various reasons, only wild apples can legitimately exhibit the terroir of the region.
Ultimately, Uncultivated is a book about Brennan’s life, not just his cidery. The philosophy that guides his foraging treks also guides his search for investors and customers and business methods. If there is a guiding slogan that could be posted above the door in his barn, it might be a quote from the book: “Nothing is worse than a sellout.”