Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A plug for taste.

Imagine if the only goal in art was to "Save the Artist"...
it didn't matter what the art looked like,
it didn't matter if the art was inspirational or spoke to people,
it didn't matter if the artist had talent,
it didn't matter if the art was beautiful,
and it didn't even matter if the art was seen by anyone,
all that matters in this imaginary scenario is that we, the buyers, support artists so that they can keep doing what they do, "making art."
The thinking behind this is: If we can save the artist an entire economy can continue sucking in dollars and everyone involved gets to keep their jobs.

   Well, it's that system of commerce that caused me to run- not walk- away from the art world.  Success, as measured in dollars, does not support the art itself, but only the people who make their living off of it.  And it's that very threat which will destroy cider too. Is this drink a flash-in-the-pan value-added product, or will we all be drinking cider 30 years from now? If you are worried about jobs I can tell you the cider will suffer. Just focus on the art itself and not the ability to sell it. And if you insist on putting the trade above the product, I'll toast you with champagne in 2043.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why I'm against a national face for cider.

(And why I support only regional/ local chapters of cider organization...)

   Recently U.S. cider producers have organized and pressed for a unified face to “U.S. cider.”  The thought is that by uniting we can influence the government to change cider regulation.  I’m all for that one mission, but beyond it I would like to see our focus and energy spent listening to and engaging with the people in our local markets.  The "life" of cider is in the relationship of people to the land (by way of the apple tree) and we fermenters/ farmers are ambassadors of that relationship.  This is where our attention must be.  Going "national" is a distraction, and it might even go so far as to destroy that intimate relationship.  "National Cider" might be a scheme to put cider-makers 3000 miles away on the same page as local cider-makers in lucrative markets like the Northeast.
   
   In fact, I always just assumed cider was particular to the Northeast (from Virgina to Maine) and a few other more sparsely populated regions.  In historic apple growing regions it's ridiculous to think of cider as a new trend.  And frankly, I feel protective about this heritage.  I want the majority of cider to be drank in the very region it was produced.  And because we here in the Northeast have the farms to develop cider for our local markets, I think we need to prioritize saving these farms and focus on internal alliances.  We have the population to support our product, but we need to get the production to support our population.  That's what a relationship is.  But beware: While we don’t care to invade other markets, outside cider makers most definitely want in on our Northeast market.

   I can't stress enough the importance of locality.  Cider is birthed from the land and all it's properties.  This includes the human footprint and not just the climate and terrain influences.  When we look at "the people of this land" we will see exactly why outside cider makers want to plug into our circuit...
   So what is our market here in the Northeast?  First of all, let's forget the arbitrary state-by-state delineation and recognize the Northeast for what it is:  a region approximately 400 miles in radius from the New York City area.  This includes everything from Virginia to Maine and out to Buffalo and Pittsburgh.  This region amounts to about 180,000 square miles which is small, less then 1/17th of the combined land mass of just the “lower 48” states.  But despite this fractional size, it hosts over 70 million people, which is almost 1/4rth the total U.S. population.  And greater still, its economic and political influence generates over a 1/3rd of the total U.S. GDP. 
   This is the world we live in and these are the people we represent.  When we seek to make a drink which "expresses the land" it's fair to expect a drink which represents those 70,000,000 people.  You can't do that with cider from Minnesota or Washington.  
   As far as U.S. Cider is concerned: Let's work together to change the misguided regulation in D.C.  But after that let's call it a night and build a relationship with our own respective markets.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shame on UPS




   UPS denied our Wine Shipper application, denying us (a licensed and bonded winery) to mail our product. Why? Because of the word “cider.” They have further confused an already confused law stating: ciders above 7% abv are no longer “hard ciders,  instead, those ciders are to be considered and taxed as “apple-wines.” (Note that ciders naturally ferment to become +\- 7% depending on the year.)  Long story short: the federal government uses the word “wine” as an umbrella term, i.e. “fruit wine,” “dandelion wine”, etc.
   OK, we concede to the wine tax, wine regulations and all the restrictions that come with it, but that’s not enough.  Now we have to stop using the word “cider” too.  I repeat: We can’t call a cider a "cider."  If we can’t legally call the sky, “the sky,” then something is obviously wrong with the law.  But now UPS has taken it one step further and said they won’t ship our apple-wine either, so long as it has the word “cider” somewhere on the label!  Despite the fact that the federal TTB, the wine-label overseer, approved our wine label with the word “cider” on it, UPS takes still a harsher stand: erase-the-word “cider”.
   It’s a coward’s move.  They don’t want to take the time to navigate the federal blunder and so they run.  Shame on them for choosing to hide, UPS is erring on the wrong side of caution.  I can say with 100% conviction, that it hurts our small farm. Is that their intention?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Show a little effort



   Yeats once described poetry as countless unseen hours in an effort to create something that appears effortless…

“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

   Dare I say farming is the same way?  When a farmer markets their product the image they put forth is always ideal: red barns, hay fields, old wooden cider presses, and cows dotting a hillside.  Just look on the package of any food product and you will see exactly that.  But the fact of the matter- and I know everyone knows this deep inside- is that farming is grueling, angry, dirty and disparaging work.  It’s a constant outpouring of physical and psychological energy.

   I was thinking this because when people look at my life they imagine I have the best of both worlds.  I live/work on a beautiful farm and I must be making a decent living… 15$ a bottle, 550 gallons, that’s like $40,000.  But ignoring, of course, the taxes, wholesale, overhead and all the other costs that reduce the income by two thirds (actually even more), what people don’t see is the 15 hour days, day after day, frantically working to wrap-up a task just to start on the next 'urgent job' from a queue of never ending urgent jobs.   

But like all farm products, if it doesn’t appear a simple creation of nature, our pain and struggle will be for naught.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Originality + Craft = Fine

  For those trying our ciders for the first time, let me admit that they might not instantly appeal.  We have aligned ourselves with a very small number of craft cider makers- one or two from each Northeastern state -who have been experimenting for years far beyond the entry levels of Cider 101.  In this cider-for-ciders-sake world it's easy to forget that there is a massive realm of sweetened commercial cider and most people have only those drinks to reference when they see our label.  Rather then mention what our cider is not, let me talk about "fine cider" using the terminology of "fine wine" presented by Matt Kramer, wine writer for the Wine Spectator.
  He writes:  "Originality + Craft = Fine."  (As for the 'Craft' part of that equation, Kramer leaves that for another essay, but it should assumed that the formal skills, the basics, are required in fine wine.) He continues...

"But how do you know if a wine is original? You keep drinking, you keep tasting, you try one wine and then another and pretty soon (if you are paying attention) a pattern emerges. You discover that many wines- too many wines- taste more alike than not. That's your "Aha!" moment because that's when you recognize originality. You have achieved context."
 
  For Cider, it's pardonable that that context is 'hard' to achieve in America.  This is because there aren't a lot of fine ciders to familiarize oneself with and finding them is even more difficult.  But things are changing for the better.  We are now witnessing a ton of wineries and hipster start-ups (today's dot-coms) enter the cider field and even if 'fine cider' still remains elusive, some of those launches will be listening to the apple rather then popular demand for sweet hard ciders.  Clearly our own ciders stand out on that level, but I want our ciders to stand out amongst "fine ciders" too.  I am certain our Homestead Cider is a shining example of originality but not just from the context of crap ciders, from fine ciders too.
  So I recommend achieving context.  For those who haven't tasted the rainbow, I suggest familiarizing oneself with the Norman, Basque and English West-Country ciders and I'd be happy to recommend those Northeast cider makers too.  Just email me. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Artisanal, shmartisanal

   Quiznos now serves a "handcrafted" sandwich on "artisanal" bread.  Is there any more incentive to avoid using those terms?  We have known for some time that this was coming, large companies always come late to the party dressed to blend in with the cool kids, but now we see this has happened in the cider world too.  Woodchuck Cider has a product built seemingly around the words: "handcrafted", "artisanal", "farmhouse"  and "made in small batches." Coors and Miller have done the same. (And BTW, I tried that Vermont brand... OMG, it's sugary- I actually prefer their original 6-pack cider.)  But this brings me to my inquiry:  Are these companies trying to devalue our accomplishments by taking the power out of the true word meanings, or are they just trying to cash in on the trend?   I'd love to have sat in on that Quiznos board meeting.
   Let me say, as someone who's background is in art, as someone not interested in making 'real' money off of cider, as someone free to experiment and explore the craft, and as someone 100% engaged in my ciders -from fruit selection, to tree planting, orchard maintenance, milling, pressing, fermenting, aging, blending, and bottling, labeling, marketing, etc. (all truly by my hand, btw) - I can swear to you: art and business don't mix. They seek opposite horizons.  And although business people will never admit this, true artists unanimously agree, talent is not transferable.  Business might be it's own art, but it's the opposite of the art itself.     
   I commend the businesses that are trying to save farms and farmland.  I commend the farms that want to feed the world.   I commend the farms and businesses that are employing people and keeping the local economies afloat.  Those are all very honorable and good reasons to farm and make cider.  But that's not what I'm doing.  I am making art, and if that's not reason enough then there is no place for me.  Personally, I think I'm doing the world a service too, but it's art first-and-foremost.  Customers have to first prioritize this if they truly want artisanal cider, and farmers have to go toward art, not business, if they want to learn how to make artisanal products.
   And, no, I don't appreciate wolves dressing up like artists or the masses faining support, but that's always been the case with art.  That's why trends migrate, because artists can't stand insincerity.  I, personally, don't posses the self-confidence to feel genuine and excited by my craft when it's saturated by those numbers.  Maybe that's what Woodchuck wants, for us to get out?  Whatever is going on, it's definately time for true artists to find a new underworld because it sure isn't artisanal foods.  But I'll try to stick it out.  Maybe I'll learn to thrive under the lights, or - more likely - the trend will pass. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Growing Begun

  The frost which decimated our 2012 crop was not actually a "late frost," it's suppose to be cold in April.  The problem was an early blossom, the result of warmer-then-usual soil temperatures in March.  Now it is nearly June and the trees are instead investing in new and regenerative growth.  Such is life. 
  Other things: We have another wave of French and English cider apple varieties planted in the nursery but as I watch them leaf-out, I'm finding my interest in wild and obscure American Heirloom varieties grow.  I now think the buzz about Euro cider apples is overrated.  I believe the growing conditions are what make supreme and sophisticated ciders.  I think the natural approach (call it organic, or whatever) serves my need for new and interesting flavors because the apple, if left to it's own devices, produce self-protective qualities which are adventitious to aging (as in cider): tannin, high sugar (thus high alcohol) and acidity.  And those qualities are precisely how cider apples are different then eating apples.  Johnny Appleseed was doing it right. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Recent Vintages

It would seem every other crop year hits a new high or low, with the last two years appearing as extreme as an ECG of a heart attack.
In 2010 the Spring started quickly with blossom in the third/ fourth week of April. A May freeze threatened to destroy the crop but the damage turned out to be nominal. By Harvest, 2010 apples had a long, sunny season and the dry Autumn kept rots to a minimum. I give 2010 an "A".
By contrast, 2011 was a rainy, rainy year with mild temperatures. Constant humidity and morning fogs created a scary situation for vigorous trees. Shoot blight and rot were prevalent. Some grape growers lost their entire crop. By Harvest flooding from two hurricanes added to soil saturation and the apples were visibly larger then normal (similar to 2009.) That's good for farmers selling eating apples by the pound, but that's bad for cider, where we like small, dense, fully ripened apples. I give 2011 a "D".
The recent warm winter made matters worse. Cellar temps speed the fermentation and it was impossible to naturally control residual sweetness. Now, at Spring bottling, I am choosing to blend vintages so that the water-thin 2011's have more body. I would never add sugar, but back-sweetening seems desirable when your back's to the wall. Luckily I have enough 2010 to round-out the bottle.
2012 is off to a similar start to 2010, but with an even earlier blossom predicted. We are all holding our breath, the traditional frost-free date isn't until May 14. And it's been dry- that's never good for Spring. Still, the conditions are in place for an excellent 2012. Perhaps 2012's will sit along side 2010, and 2007 in the basement (that is, if we haven't drank it all.) Cheers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cloudy

Are you opposed to sediment at the bottom of your wine, beer or cider bottle? Do you like it clear? That's because if you are old enough to drink, you were born in the 20th century, a 100-year stretch which, coincidentally, nearly destroyed sustainable farming in the name of profit, efficiency and ease. Staying to the point: Cider, wine and beer are living beverages, the yeasts and natural sugars would still be evident in the final drink if this were the 19th century or beyond, and the flavors would be stronger as we would have no need for sterile-filtering and sulfiting. Will we continue being germaphobes, microbe-fearing USDA lemmings willing to sacrifice quality for consistency? Or will we reverse the tide and regain our connection to land, farming, and community- living systems analogous to the living cultures in foods such as yogurt, cheese, and rightfully: cider, wine and beer. You know my vote.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mergers and Acquisitions

Recently a largish U.S. hard cider producer sold-out to a huge beer company which wanted in on cider's impressive numbers and booming charts. I've heard several voices from within the cider community expressing displeasure, yet for me, I don't think the news is even relevant for us "farm cider" producers. That product the beer company inherited is just one of many unappealing artificially-carbonated, sugar-sweetened, and sterile-filtered concoctions that have long since given "hard cider" its reputation. We, on the other hand, are "farm cider", and as farmers our preference is to keep things simple and real. We are not prone to conceptual speculation and we are not driven by the need for money, acclaim, or trend participation. Hard cider is a distant third because it thrives in our folksy world, and few other places. I suspect that that big beer company is going to take a bath on their miscalculation.

In the end, taste-driven and moral-oriented customers (it's them driving cider back into the spotlight, not savvy farmers!) want face-to-face contact and accountability. More importantly, they want location. They do not want some company in a warehouse using billions apples from everywhere mixed like beef in a McDonalds hamburger. They want a single, real farm. Predictably, the big producers will play-up the farm image like Cracker Barrel, and of course, they will do what Sam Adams does and sell us an imaginary character, the artisan toiling away at his hand-crafted product, but 21st century consumers are not that easily fooled. They have taste. Just as with wine, the high-end consumers will seek-out farms, while the big companies will be left the dregs in the cheap market.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cider, the word (part 2)


I too am annoyed by wine snobbishness, the “notes of cherry”, the “fruit-forward”, but there is something accurate about wine lingo and the thoughtful word choices shouldn't be dismissed. If we in the cider industry could wade through lesser rhetoric we’d see that our own carelessness and lack of organization has lead to the devaluing of our own goals, our product, and our life style.
Take for instance, the word “hard”, commonly and legally used in conjunction with “cider” to denote fermentation and subsequent alcohol content. Maybe it’s just me, but the word “hard” conjures unsavory likening to “hard times”, “hard luck”, “hard lemonade”, and unpleasant human characteristics, “i.e. hard ass.” (Note to business strategists: “Hard Boiled Cider” isn’t taken yet! A whole marketing campaign awaits the exploitation of our gutter image… picture: film-noir stills or a black-and-white cartoon, men in rimmed hats, street lamps, sidewalks and high-heeled shoes. Come on.)
Anyway, what I’m saying is the word “cider” is an ancient word spanning many cultures. It has served to tie people of all walks to farms, to nature, and to the lightness of being. Our failure to promote that image is a failure in unity because what we are up against is a formidable challenger.
Cider was intentionally sabotaged in the mid 20th century by a post-Prohibition government intent on total oversight of alcohol sales by way of favoring bigger and more visible producers. Yes, Democratic-leaning as I am, this is a case where “big central government”, corrupted or not, succeeded in squashing the viability of millions of small farms and homestead production. And the result was bad for consumers too. Lack of compitition meant no need for quality. So that’s what we 21st century craft (or artisanal) cider makers inherited. But just as beer was a wretch until the micro-brew revolution, that upheaval has shown the triumph of taste. And it starts with the elimination of the word “hard” .
Cider is as bucolic as the orchard it comes from. Phonetically it even kicks wine’s ass, “SY-der.” So get out there and explain to people what cider means. The customer is not always right.