Friday, November 12, 2010

Cider Days 2010

Just back from Cider Days in Franklin County, MA, the Northeast's biggest (hard) cider event held annually in November. I was not feeling well so I missed the evening salon which is the main draw, but the day events made the experience well worth the travel. My only complaint is I couldn't be in two places at the same time as many valuable sessions occurred simultaneously. These were my highlights:
-Claude Jolicoer delivered a particularly inspirational talk on apple blending just as we showed up on Saturday. He is making cider of fine-wine quality, just as I would like to. He defies industry practice by incorporating old "run-down" trees. So far, my best cider has come from the fruit of these undervalued old timers!
-Also I met Michael Phillips of organic apple fame. I'll say for the first time, because I hope to join him on his farm or organic orchardist meetings in the future.
-Judi Malloney was busy all weekend (the whole weekend was dedicated in honor of her late husband) but we did see her again briefly, which was super. I contend she is the most positive human being on the planet.
-Bring-your-own cider was a crowd pleaser. Paul Correnty and Charlie Olchowski are brilliantly insightful and tasted over 20 amateur ciders including my own. The New England regional preference for dry, high-alcohol and multi-ingredient ciders really came out (I'll blog on this later as it's a huge topic.) Nothing was sub par. No one was sober when it was over.
-Finally the visit to organic Bear Swamp Orchard topped my weekend. Jen and Steve Gougeon are my new heros, creating a diversified organic homestead and growing a home farm business all in the head-winds of this economy by maintaining additional day jobs . Their companionship is important to us as we share many of the same goals, virtues and situations.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

5 Things Commonly Misunderstood About Cider

Forgetting sometimes that most people don't live on an apple farm, that they are not making hard cider professionally, or that their only exposure to cider is the "sweet cider" variety available only in the fall (locally fresh, that is), here is some 411:

1) What Americans call "hard cider" is historically and internationally known only as "cider." We have confused the issue by calling sweet cider, "cider", and we call real cider, "hard cider", but the truest definition of cider is simply the fermented apple juice (w/ alcohol.)

2) Cider and wine are the same thing, the base fruit is the only difference. A good cider-maker will also be a good wine-maker, and vica versa. To make a good wine, you must be skilled, knowledgeable and equipped with the right tools. Most important, you must have good grapes. Good wine-grapes make all the difference in wine making, so too: good cider-apples make all the difference in ciders.

3) There are eating apples and then there are cider-apples. 99.99% of Americans could not name a single cider-apple variety because 99.99999% of the apples grown in the U.S. are eating apples. (Even most orchardists are unaware of cider-apples!) Remember this: You can't make good wine from eating-grapes (nor would you would enjoy eating wine-grapes) and you can't make good cider from eating-apples.

4) America was a nation of cider drinkers for 300 years. Cider was drank in greater volume then beer, wine, and hard liquor combined! Ordinary Americans grew apples like the Greeks grow fig trees, one in every yard. We had American apple terroir like the French have regions of wine fame. Everyone drank cider, even children (a watered-down version,) because cider was safer to drink then most water sources.

5) 100 years ago there were over 14,000 varieties of apples grown in the U.S.; today there is less then 1/10th that. Prohibition, subsidized farming, cheep fuel and government subversion teamed up to devastate our apple culture. Prohibition sought to end home-brewing practices like moon-shining, it also made it illegal to craft one's own dinner drink. It's hard to imagine now, but it's impossible to understate the magnitude of this interruption in relation to the age-old tradition of home-brewing which was a major past-time in rural America. The tradition never recovered. Eventually cheep fuel and federally funded highways made it possible to bring subsidized farm produce from one side of the country to the other for seemingly less energy then growing it ourselves! This made prepared and pre-packaged foods like beer incredibly cheep to produce. The progression of "America's Century" essentially resulted in a monumental break in man-kinds ancient connection to our farming and food-preparing past. So too, 10's of thousands of apple varieties were lost.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Loss of Tradition

America has a puritanical instinct which at times has enjoyed periods of success, none more powerful then the anti-alcohol movement resulting in Prohibition. Because of the ban on alcohol the tradition of home-brewing was severed and many of the ties to our historic diet and agricultural traditions were lost. Where we once were a people who understood how food ended up on our plates, we now see agriculture as a specialists' occupation similar to the way we see technology: We look to "certain people" to provide us with computers and we look to "certain people" to provide us food. (Let that sink in.)
Same is true with drink. We once not only understood how our glasses were full, we participated and shaped fruit cultivation by bringing mills our home-grown fruit. Apples were among the only fruit hardy enough to grow in the populated Northeast, thus cider became the main American beverage for 300 years prior to Prohibition. Pride-in-ownership and taste preferences inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to grow apples on their property, and eventually tens of thousand of apple cultivars gave our country regional cider fame, like wine to France.
In so many ways we lost touch with our dietary and agricultural traditions during the 20th century. Ask most Americans and they think 'fermented' is a bad thing; they don't even realize beer and wine, which they like, undergoes fermentation in a process resulting in alcohol. After Prohibition, we let Budweiser and Miller Beer do the alcoholic beverage thinking for us. The traditions of the past are so severed that few of us are even interested in discovering what we ate and drank in the days before trucks, trains and refrigeration. With cider we are left to look toward France and England, who had not suffered a forcible ban on alcohol, so that we may imagine what our country would be like if it were not for Prohibition. Ironically, our Mother-Country, the country we rebelled against, has upheld the traditions of our past. England, with their "cideries" and "scrumpy" can help us get back on our feet in terms of cider production. Across the Atlantic, cider traditions have been continued and have evolved while we slumbered the duration on the 20th century. They have brought cider and cider-apple growing techniques to the 21st century and we now need to use their cider practices to bridge the divide from our dietary past.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

More on less sprays

Every inch of earth around us is combed over by an animal. Be it a squirrel, bird, rabbit, or whatever- not a single blade of grass is skipped over. I know this from our geese who keep 1,000 square feet of grass PERFECTLY mowed. Yet as I see weeds shoot up in my garden, like most Americans, I compulsively think of an easy solution for weed-killing. What about those geese!?! How can I lay down a chemical when I can be 100% sure that if my geese stumble across that area they will ingest the poison? This is what RoundUp and other weed-killers don't want you to do: put two and two together and think of animals as you picture your garden. But is it just for "our" animals that we don't spray? Are the only animals we care about pets? Of course not. But it helps to think of all the world's animals as pets when we consider, amongst other reasons, why we should avoid easy chemical weed-killers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"CIDER" the word

"Cider" is to apple juice, what "Wine" is to grape juice. And even in America prior to WWII, the word "cider" was held to exclusively describe the fermented drink produced from the juice of apples. This fresh juice however has recently become known as "cider" here in America, rather then the fermented drink, because farmers sought a way to market their superior juice over the artificially sweetened "apple juice" that one sees in quick-marts and gas stations. My sympathies go out to them, but even those farmers know "cider" is in fact a fermented drink. There is no questioning that- just do some historical and international research on cider and you'll be embarrassed for our country's use of the word. You'll also be embarrassed that you have little knowledge and experience with one of the worlds best fermented drinks. Only wine rivals cider's complexity, diversity and subtlety.
Why not concede to the confusion and just call it "hard cider?" I do not like the term, "hard cider," because to me it is suggestive of "hard drinking." That would also suggest the general purpose of quantity- not quality. Hard cider, in fact, does carry negative associations in modern day America. It is often associated with young or sloppy home-brewers who lack the funds, knowledge, patience, and hygiene to perfect their craft. Their product is likely to carry sickness-causing bacteria and it's often"spiked" for increased alcohol. If getting drunk for cheap were the mission, "hard" cider has fit that niche.
But there is a cure. With the resurgence of micro-brewing in the beer industry, modern day drinking Americans have divided into two camps: their approach can generally be summed as 'quantity vs. quality'. (Interesting that the wine industry never saw the dark ages between prohibition and the 21st century which degraded the beer industry and nearly obliterated all cider production in America.) Buyers of good beer know that taste matters more then penny-pinching. My hope is that cider can also be resuscitated in this improved market. Is it elitist, is it classist -to let the two camps divide among seemingly economic means? Not at all. Taste, despite what the elitists tell you, is not bought. And anyone who knows economics, especially the economy of "local", will also know that the ramifications of buying for quality effects personal finance in a cyclical manner. In other words, buying for quality effects the quality of the broader local market to which you support. The British, who coincidentally are also the worlds premier cider drinkers, have a phrase: Penny wise, pound foolish.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Seeds for 2010

As you plan your 2010 garden PLEASE be thoughtful. If you are worried about crop diseases and are careful with chemical sprays because of concern for food quality and the environment, please also consider the implications of genetic manipulation in the seed supply. Many disease resistant crops are sold as improved cultivars but the research behind the gene ranges from benevolent to malevolent. Small farms and state extensions, for instance, release improved culivars but generally don't charge patent royalties. On the other hand, large companies also claim to have improved cultivars or LESS EXPENSIVE plants and seeds (available everywhere) because they are releasing patented genes into the food supply expecting cross-pollination and increased market royalties. You can not imagine the health and environmental implications of corporations owning gene patents, but please believe me when I say that it threatens to turn farmers into low-wage assemblymen of their products.
Just remember, when ordering seeds (and when buying plants and sprays) do the research, order over the phone and talk with someone knowledgeable, and if possible, buy from a small-scale local seed-saver. DON'T get your plants from box stores or a mega-nursery! Convenience and cheapness tempts you to be an enabler in a broader scheme, plain and simple.
Please also encourage friends and neighbors to be thoughtful when buying seeds plants.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Chemical Century

Prior to "The American Century," (a term I refuse to accept describing the 1900's) orchardists literally shook bugs out of trees using a long sticks; they then collected the fallen on white sheets and squashed the critters with their bare fingers. Come on, what's more American then that?
The 20th century not only started with WWI and the use of chemical warfare on people, it proceeded with constant chemical warfare against agricultural pests and diseases. One company, Monsanto, sprung-up around that time to provide farmers and the U.S. Government chemical and geno-weapons against natural pests, which optimistically, seemed controllable through scientific advancement. By mid-century, Monsanto's research realized Agent Orange and the Manhattan Project, and the environment was ingesting heavy loads of DDt, but still, chemical warfare raged on. In 1970, Mansanto brought us "Roundup" which it still claims to be "environmental" (see their PR site:, and compare their info with that of a watch dog: .) Is the 20th century approach to agriculture representative of a good America?
Before you answer, check out the Monsanto's newest front on agriculture and you'll get a direct look at how their warfare accepts farmer and consumer health as "acceptable collateral damage." Check out this video and keep in mind the Supreme Court's recent decision concerning cooperate campaign funding.
The American century.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Rewind that century

Prior to the 20th century there were 14000 varieties of apples in America. Farming was without chemical or genetic manipulation; it was organic, local, and economically sustainable. Cider was the alcoholic drink consumed in the majority of households, it was considered American table wine. Orchard fruit was for fermentation, not dessert.
No taxes were collected on this alcohol consumption because it was so local (often as local as one's basement.) Wonder why cider disappeared during the 20th century? Prohibition cracked down disproportionately on cider and enabled large companies (who's taxable revenew could be monitored) to emerge mid-century. By then, cider makers who had suffered the depression, loss of farm, and persecution could not compete with a extremely cheap Millers and Budweiser.