We are sitting at the bar of the Harvest Moon tasting room and I am sampling ciders as we talk. Outside is the Critz Farms compound of red barns on stretches of green mown lawns, with signposts pointing to other attractions such as the hop house, the petting zoo, and the café. Critz, who has a background as a forester and a civil engineer, purchased the farm with his wife Juanita in 1984 to grow Christmas trees, but soon expanded into blueberries, strawberries, and pumpkins and, finally, apples. Six of the farm’s 350 acres are devoted to apple trees. “When I started pressing the apples, a whole bunch of people immediately asked when I would start making hard cider,” said Critz.
The Harvest Moon Cidery opened its doors in 2011, after several years of experimentation with cider-making, with the twin goals of making a hard cider that not only tastes good, but is “repeatable,” said Critz—that is, it should taste the same every time. “It’s like making wine,” said Critz. “All the steps you use are essentially the same.” The Critzes have 2,500 trees, a mix of American dessert apple varieties such as Cortland, Empire, and McIntosh. Varieties grown specifcally for cider, with such appealing names as Brown Snout and Kingston Black, have been added recently. “In my personal opinion, the best cider is made from a blend of ten different types, including both American dessert and European cider apples,” said Critz. “The European cider apples aren’t very good to eat, because they contain a lot of tannins, but give more depth of character to the cider, more flavor in the mouth.”
Like wine, hard cider has a long history. The practice of fermenting apples existed in all of the apple-growing areas of Europe and Central Asia and dates back to at least the Roman era. Brought to this country by early European settlers who found the climate more congenial to apple orchards than vineyards, hard cider became the preferred beverage of the American colonists. They drank it with all of their meals, including breakfast, believing it to be healthier than water. It was also a way to preserve their apple harvest for drinking over the long, cold winters. They called it simply “cider” and still do in British pubs where, according to Critz, it makes up twenty percent of the total beverage market.
American hard cider fell on hard times during the nineteenth century. Although it never completely disappeared from the countryside, it lost popularity as our population gravitated away from rural areas toward cities. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, commonly called Prohibition, in the early twentieth century, prohibited all alcoholic beverages, substantially reduced the manufacture of hard cider, and even led to the destruction of some apple orchards by zealous farmers.
At the end of the twentieth century, the “farm to table” movement took hold, and hard cider began to regain an audience. The apple growers of Central New York took note of this phenomenon and are responding with small craft cideries to offer consumers a more intense cider experience. As Critz said, “It’s a ‘value-added’ industry, a great way to use apples that aren’t perfect in appearance, but still taste good.”
Hard cider starts with the pressing of apples to create apple juice, these days frequently called “sweet cider.” Traditionally, this was left to ferment until it became dry and alcoholic, at which point sugar could be added to make it more palatable. Fully fermented hard cider can be a rough and almost tasteless beverage.
The hard cider offered by craft cideries today is a very different drink. At the Harvest Moon Cidery tasting room, visitors are offered sips of nine different ciders, poured into wine glasses from elegant bottles. They range from extra-dry, which resembles Champagne, to sweeter blends, which may have honey, maple syrup, or fruits like raspberries and blueberries added to them.
One blend features the addition of locally grown hops. Another, called “Four Screw,” is a blend of sweet and tart apples sweetened with Critz Farms’s own maple syrup and named in honor of the cidery’s huge antique rack-and-cloth apple
Critz Farms prides itself on the quality of its smallbatch ciders made from its own apple orchard with its antique press. Beak & Skiff, the largest retail orchard in the region, has 350 acres of apples planted in its 1,000-acre site in LaFayette and is proud of its new “state of the art” cider production and bottling facility opening for public viewing this fall. Last year the orchard opened a tasting room on Route 20 for its “1911” line of hard ciders. Steve Morse, Beak & Skiff’s original hard cider maker until his recent retirement, agreed that the market for hard cider is growing by leaps and bounds. “We made about 4,000 gallons in 2012,” said Morse, “but produced closer to 10,000 gallons in 2013 and probably will triple that in 2014.” Luke Powers, Morse’s successor at Beak & Skiff, added, “Right now each batch we make produces about 185 gallons. When the new center opens, we’ll have the capacity to make 3,000 gallons in each batch.”
The “1911” label on Beak & Skiff’s ciders refers to the year the farm started in the apple-growing business, although it didn’t start making hard cider until 2001. Like Critz, Morse cites the improvement in taste as a factor in the beverage’s growing popularity. “Brewers today have found a way to stop the fermentation process before the cider loses all of its sweetness and apple “avor,” said Morse. Beak & Skiff offers five flavors of hard cider, along with apple wines and apple-based gin and vodka, all made from its own apples.