Note: This story first appeared in the November/December issue of The Good Life Central New York magazine.
It sounds like a bad pun, but it seems to be true: Hard apple cider has lots of appeal.
“It’s a fresh taste, like eating an apple itself,” says Don Agate, who serves as executive chef for a group of Central New York restaurants, including the Colgate Inn in Hamilton.
“There are wine drinkers and there are beer drinkers, and then there is hard cider, which seems to be finding its own audience.”
The evidence isn’t hard to see in Central New York, home to a big local apple industry. Hard cider, the alcoholic beverage made from the juice of pressed apples, is finding an ever-increasing local audience.
Across New York state, the nation’s second-leading producer of apples (after Washington), the number of hard cider-makers stood at 29 this fall, up from just 5 in 2011. Most are in Upstate New York. (See listing below).
Local brands, like 1911 Spirits and Harvest Moon Cidery, are competing for space in bars, and sometimes on store shelves, with increasing numbers of national brands. The national brands include Anheuser-Busch’s Johnny Appleseed, launched this year and made exclusively at A-B’s brewery near Baldwinsville.
And consider the trees. Beak & Skiff Apple Farms in LaFayette, home to the ciders made under its 1911 Spirits brand, is planting 15,000 new apple trees this year, and 5,000 of them will be varieties especially suited for hard cider.
In Cazenovia, Critz Farms, home to Harvest Moon, planted 500 cider apple trees this year and plans another 500 next year and perhaps 1,000 the year after that.
“The cider business is good,” said Matthew Critz, who launched Harvest Moon Cidery with his wife, Juanita, in 2011. Harvest Moon has doubled its annual production of cider since then. “Certainly we’re seeing more bars with a cider on tap.”
At the larger Beak& Skiff, the growth is even easier to see. This fall 1911 Spirits opened a new cider production and bottling facility that will allow it for the first time to package its hard cider in 6-packs of 12-ounce bottles (until now it was available only in 750-mililiter bottles or draft).
The new 1911 production facility, across Route 80 from Beak & Skiff’s Apple Hill visitors’ center, is expected to boost the production of cider from 180 gallons at a time to 2,800 gallons at a time.
“They (Beak & Skiff) are putting a lot of time and investment in hard cider,” said Luke Powers, who was hired last year to make 1911 Spirits’ hard cider and distill its vodkas and gins, also made from apples. “We’re not going to be huge, but we are going to be a large, fully integrated cider producer, from the apples on the trees all the way to the finished product.”
A sign of what’s happening in the hard cider market: Some analysts expect Angry Orchard Cider to outsell its beer sibling Sam Adams Boston Lager in 2014.
About hard cider
It’s pretty simple: Hard cider is an alcoholic drink that is typically produced closer to the strength of beer (about 5 percent alcohol by volume), rather than to wine (about 12 percent) or hard spirits (about 40 percent).
Hard cider can be sparkling (carbonated like beer), or still (like wine). It can be almost bone dry or range up to extremely sweet. Most are blends of different apples, though some cider-makers also produce “varietals,” made from the juice of one apple.
Cider is also frequently flavored with other ingredients, like raspberry or strawberry, or maybe maple. At 1911 Spirits, a version made with hops was released this year.
It’s unusual among alcoholic beverages in New York because it be sold in grocery stores, like beer, or in liquor stores, like wine or spirits.
Cider is made primarily from the same raw ingredient that makes the gallons of “sweet cider” consumed by people of all ages: fresh pressed juice. (At Critz Farms, they use a 125-year-old hand-cranked press, while Beak & Skiff has a more mechanized process).
The boom in hard cider is also sparking talk and research into exactly which type of apples are best for cider.
Many of the familiar varieties — like MacIntosh, Honeycrisp, Empire and Cortland – are classified as dessert apples, good for eating fresh or baking, said Chis Gerling, an extension associate in Cornell University’s food science lab in Geneva.
That doesn’t necessarily make them bad for cider, Gerling said, but Cornell is working on expanding the varieties that New York growers have to work with.
“The dessert apples are sweet and crisp, and they look good, but they don’t have a lot of character for cider,” Gerling said.
For hard cider, the best varieties are high in both sugars and acidity. Northern Spy is a good variety, as are some English apples like Braeburn or newer U.S. apples like New Town Pippen. These cider apples are often blended with the more common dessert apples by cider makers.
But they are not commonly planted in Central New York, at least not yet. Pure cider apples are more common in Europe, especially England.
“We are looking at the options, seeing what’s out there, and determining what can work in New York,” Gerling said.
One local cider maker that has long made use of older English varieties for cider is Bellwether Cidery in Trumansburg, near Ithaca. It is the oldest cidery in Central New York, and one that also makes several varietals, or single-apple versions.
The mix of apples does make a difference, said Powers at 1911 Spirits. But there’s also a need for the cider to have a consistent taste.
“So we’re looking at the blend all the time,” he said.
Agate, the chef at Colgate Inn, hosted a cider-and-food pairing dinner at The Colgate Inn this fall. It featured selections from both 1911 Spirits and Harvest Moon. He believes cider is an excellent match for hearty fall/winter foods, especially pork dishes, and with harvest-fresh fruit desserts.
“It’s kind of a new taste for a lot of people when it comes to alcoholic beverages,” Agate said. “It’s an interesting thing to play around with.”
Here’s a look at the some of the hard cider available in Central New York from local producers:
• 1911 Hard Cider, LaFayette: This is part of the family of 1911 spirits (including vodka and gin) created by Beak & Skiff Apple Farms in LaFayette. The ciders are produced in a range from dry to sweet, and include the original recipe (1911 Hard Cider), plus Raspberry, Blueberry, Light & Crisp and Sweet Apple. Available in stores, bars and restaurants around the state (including NBT Stadium for Syracuse Chiefs games). Check their web site for retail locations. The Apple Hill visitors center includes a store and tavern at 2708 Lords Hill Road, LaFayette.
• Critz Farms/Harvest Moon Cidery, Cazenovia: Its ciders range from dry to semi-sweet, including a champagne-style, a raspberry blend and a maple blend. Available in bottles and on tap at the farm (open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday) and at other locations (check web site for specifics). Critz Farms is on Route 13 in Cazenovia about 3.5 miles south of Route 20.
Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard, Cooperstown: Powered by an authentic and traditional water wheel, Fly Creek produces all manner of apple products, plus cheeses and other specialty foods. It has two hard ciders, Original and Apple-Raspberry, available in 22-ounce bottles only at the mill or online. The mill/store is at 288 Goose St. in Fly Creek, just outside Cooperstown.