Cider With the Soul of Wine

By Lise Funderburg

The New York Times
November 12, 2003

The second-floor chapel of the old Brick Meetinghouse in this Berkshire mountain town was standing room only. Simple white pews spilled over with hard cider enthusiasts, amateur fermenters and fall-color weekenders who found their way here earlier this month for Cider Day, the largest — and possibly only — national celebration of artisanal ciders, heirloom apples and every doughnut, juice and jelly in between. On the first weekend of November, Colrain and other towns across Franklin County held apple festivals and grafting workshops, cooking demonstrations and cider making clinics.
In the Colrain church, volunteers patrolled the aisles, pouring generous samples of hard cider, while six cider makers sat at folding tables under the altar, explaining production methods and gently sparring over issues of pest management and sulfite use.

The ciders — sparkling and still, sweet to bone dry, all less than 10 percent alcohol — won’t be found in supermarket beer sections. Part of a renaissance of cider making over the past decade, they are complex blends and varietals made in the styles of northwestern France, western England and Colonial America.
Cider Day was founded nine years ago by Terry and Judith Maloney, who helped lead the revival in 1984 when they started West County Cider. They produced 300 cases their first year; this fall they expect to make 2,100. They still ferment cider in their basement, crammed now with giant stainless steel fermentation tanks, which look like wayward props from the set of “Lost in Space.”

Hard cider, nearly eradicated by Prohibition, showed signs of a comeback 20 years ago on the heels of the microbrewing movement. Like many early microbrews, artisanal ciders are labors of love. Cider makers — some still holding day jobs as orchardists, emergency room physicians and cattle farmers — have tirelessly promoted their product in restaurants, liquor stores and specialty-food shops. The proselytizing has paid off, and producers are seeing a loyal (and finally expanding) customer base.

Producers have been inspired by the trend toward sustainable agriculture — these ciders rely on fresh juice from local sources. Cider makers are constantly fighting the consumer perception that their products fall into the same category as mass-produced ciders made from the concentrated juice of nondescript apples.
“Once you taste an artisanal cider, which usually takes about a year from the time you start fermenting, versus the stuff that’s made in under a month, it’s like night and day,” said one of the panelists, Roger Mansfield, whose Traditional Company is based in Culver, Ore.

Mr. Mansfield and his Cider Day colleagues have different solutions to the perception problem. Mr. Mansfield calls cider the other white wine. Flag Hill Farms in Vershire, Vt., uses the slogan “Cyder with a ‘Y.’ ” The spelling of Furnace Brook Winery’s barrel-aged cidre declares the drink’s ties to French production methods, and Rhyne Cyder in Sonoma, Calif., refers to its sparkling cider as “Champagne-lite,” promoting its low alcohol content.
“It is not simply alcoholic fruit juice, but it’s not wine either,” said Charles McGonegal of AEppel Treow Winery in Burlington, Wis., which uses the labor-intensive Champagne method to produce cider. “It has its own tartness and tannin profile that sets it apart.”

Most ciders retail for under $10, but Matt Wilson, the fine- and rare-wine specialist at Chelsea Wine Vault in Manhattan, made cider history by charging $24.99 for Farnum Hill’s 2001 varietal reserve, Kingston Black. “People love the idea that it’s dry and palate-cleansing,” Mr. Wilson said. “A lot of people drink it with sushi. I like it with simple stuff like roast chicken or turkey.”

No one expects hard cider to regain the prominence it held centuries ago when taverns and families made their own and children were given a weakened version called ciderkin. Hard cider constitutes only one-tenth of a percent of the alcoholic beverage market in the United States, according to Impact Databank, an industry publication. Most producers are not set up to navigate the complexities of interstate alcohol distribution laws, and so, to cider enthusiasts’ consternation and travelers’ delight, artisanal ciders are likely to remain treasures to be experienced in situ.

“There’s a lot of potential for growth, but it’s really one person at a time,” said Ben Watson, the author of “Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own” (Countryman, 2003).
Steve Wood, from Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, N.H., agreed.
“We practically have to kneel on people’s chests and pry open their mouths to get them to drink this stuff,” Mr. Wood said. “And then they generally like it.”
Sipping the Essence of Autumn
Farnum Hill ciders are sold in several wine stores
and restaurants in New York City. Many hard cider
producers have Web sites with their locations and regional retail outlets.

Burlington, Wis., (262) 878-5345,
Lebanon, N.H., (603) 448-1511,
Vershire, Vt, (802) 685-7724,
Richmond, Mass., (800) 833-6274,
Sonoma, Calif., (707) 824-1440,
Culver, Ore., (541) 546-2400,
Colrain, Mass., (413) 624-3481,