Friday, November 22, 2013

2014 cider vs. 1814 cider

  Recently I was talking with Ben from The Queen’s Kickshaw, a landmark cider-restaurant in NYC, and he challenged my assertion that early Americans drank history's best cider.  I’ll skip the pros and cons of both arguments but I’m revisiting the thought now in lieu of having just visited John Bunker of Fedco Trees, a nursery and growing resource, in Maine.  Among the many oversights I’m guilty of when I assume 1814 to be the better cider era is the ability for today's cider makers to pick and choose their peers.  What with rapid transportation and instant world communication, we have at our disposal something very adventageous for good cider.
   It's probable that back in the early 1800’s my only sources for inspiration would be other local apple millers and nearby homestead cider makers. Maybe they were learned, but if they weren't my growth would be limited to what was locally only known about apples and cider making.  Now with instant communication, vast markets, and trade groups we are able to "find one another" like never before.  I am able to hand-select my peers from Maine to California, from Australia to Europe.  As a small community spread far and wide today’s networks do, in fact, create cider culture.  And we are able to find the cultural niche that best fits our personal standards and beliefs.   

  I still believe the soil was infinitely better, agricultural practices were better, and the level of community involvement goes unchallenged- it just was better.  The spiritual link to cider is not at a level comparable with 200 years ago but in certain segments of today’s cider community we are discovering our own holism and we are in better position to apply it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Good, Better, Best

  We are often invited to enter competitions but we always decline because it is not our practice to define ourselves in relation to others.  We simply don’t care how we measure on a linear scale.  Polly and I are from a fine art background and we know that there is no measure of excellence other then authenticity and devotion.  I may prefer Morandi over Picasso but I can not rate the two as artists, they were both true to themselves and masters of their craft.

  Authenticity may come in the form of high art, outsider art, popular art and even commercial art, but if it is not authentic then it is not good.  That’s one measure.  The other is devotion.  Call it talent, craft, skill, excellence, or whatever, the artist needs to be a master of their voice.  They need to be devoted to their voice.  Without a developed language (self developed- not borrowed) an artist will be at a loss for words when it comes to articulating their authenticity. 

  I pray other cider makers choose the unfamiliar road.  This a time when consensus is forming on "good-better-best" but placed within a ratings system young cider makers are steered away from finding their true voice.  Just remember: The top cider makers all got there by showing authenticity and devotion to their craft, they did not arrive by climbing.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Nagging reality

  True Cider, not popular Hard Cider, is emerging from behind the skirt of wine and finding a receptive audience from drink connoisseurs.  It, along with Hard Cider (which is emerging from the pant leg of beer), is the fastest growing beverage in America right now.  Yet as established apple farmers and business entrepreneurs get dressed-up for the ball there are two nagging realities which can't be overlooked: real cider apples do not come from established commercial orchards, and cider-making is an art form that one can’t learn in a few year's time.  In fact, it takes longer to develop the artistic capacity for high cider then it does to develop an entirely new orchard comprised of actual cider apples.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

2012 Vintage: Northeast Apples

Briefly: 2012 was defined by an early thaw, early blossom, and subsequent frost which decimated what little crop was anticipated for an off year for apples. (Naturally apples go biennial and fruit every other year or sometimes even three or four year.  Commercial farms manipulate the tree to fruit yearly but I'm referring to old-school apple production and wild apples.)  After a wet Spring and cool dry Summer the season turned out pretty good, the brix were high and fruit was clean.  The problem for cider, apart from shortages and all-around price spikes, was the early harvest.  With an early harvest traditional-style cider makers are left to ferment in warmer then usual temperatures and for longer (starting in September rather then Oct./ Nov.)
   I can't speak for cider makers who temperature regulate the fermentation or add champagne yeast but I can speak for traditional cider making which requires a cellar and a long winter for aging. Usually the fermentation begins in late October and the cold temperatures of late November stop the fermentation just short of dry.  It is then aged and in the Spring it picks up again and goes into MLF.  This year the early apples were bone dry in storage and had even started the MLF pre-winter, but the late apples kept their pattern.  In fact a long cold Spring in 2013 really help age the cider and the initial fruit quality was deeply infused.  If the harvest were three weeks later the 2012 season might have been the banner year we compare all others with because the Winter and 2013 Spring were perfect.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Making Wine -vs- Making Cider

   If you can make good cider you can make good wine, but not the other way around.  For one thing, cider is more difficult to "stabilize", it has less alcohol, the acids are different and lower (higher PH), and it has less tannin.  But more notably, the flavors of cider are more subtle and aloof.  By the time you master blending cider the variations in wine seem easily identifiable and ready to pair.   
   Yet when I hear what my colleagues in the wine industry do to make, say a chardonnay, I'm disappointed by the by-the-book approach they all seem to take.  It's as though academia has given them a "how to" on wine:  You add sugar if the brix aren't right, you add acid if the T.A. is off.  You sulfite the must so that lab yeasts have a sterile start, you sulfite at each rack and you sulfite at bottle for ML bacteria and oxidation.  And is it necessary to use a sterile filter?  Forgettaboutit! Who doesn't?
   This is the cider-makers advantage.  We don't have decades of formula to draw upon and we are given the opportunity to figure it out on our own.  Individually reinventing the wheel trains us to trust our instincts and we learn to self-critique without bias or expectation.  We are more more likely to ignore teachers, advise from "professionals", and even the feedback from the market.  If we can maintain our innocence our products will preserve a spontaneity, creativity and uniqueness lacking in most wine.  Quickly, professionals and academia are jocking for authority in today's revamped cider market, some want to establish a standard, but I elect we maintain a healthy skepticism as cider develops down the path blazed by wine.  Truth is, we need both, explanation and exploration, but we are blessed with fewer hang-ups in our "new" market.  We are free to be kids, and I feel sorry for those self-imprisoned by the tag authority. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring reflections on the cycle of cider and apples:

First week of April 2013, silver tip. 
  Our ciders are still in oak barrels or they are in large glass containers in the cave.  But as the cellar temperatures inch above 50 degrees I expect the cider to awaken, mirroring the activity seen on the tips of the trees.  The two are not unrelated, in fact, cider blending and the apple blossom usually correspond because they are both the result of ground temperatures warming in early Spring.  The warmth causes renewed activity in the cider (sometimes referred to as the malolactic fermentation, although that only partly explains it) and for us it’s only after this change that we know the true character of each batch. 
   We agree with the Colonial practice of cider making which expects cider to reach it’s full potential only after a full winter in cold temperatures.   Just as the trees go dormant, and the energy falls beneath the ground over winter, so too, that happens in the barrel.  Cider clears as the air clears, and the flavors come together, for better or for worse.  If you have trapped SO2, it is now infused.  If you have tannin, it too is infused with other flavors.  (On a related note: This is why we age half our ciders in large glass containers, because we like to infuse fruit character which is usually the first quality to dissipate when aging, especially in oak.)    
   And Winter slumbering in the open air, wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring (Phil Connors.)  We like to think of Spring as a new beginning, and it is, but it’s really the awakening of the same earth, the same linear time line, the same living being.  We are cranky but we are rejuvenated by winter.  We have more energy.  And like the birds, the bees and all the flowering trees, we are ready to procreate.  I’d like to think that that’s what is happening in the cider too- that it is opening up to the world, it is ready to be consumed and it is ready to overtake our sober minds.  Intoxication has two meanings. 
   We give flowers to one another as a show of affection, that’s not far from what nature intends.  As I look at the tree buds swelling and showing green they are still weeks from blossom, but after the tree is fully awake it will be ready for procreation.  That’s when we blend our cider, when it is fully emerged from the cocoon.  It’s now at it’s adult stage, and ready to find the right mate.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New York Big Apple

  New York is the second leading apple producer in the country with about 50,000 acres of commercial apple farms.  Despite having the perfect growing conditions for cider apples (an entirely different crop to eating apples), New York has about 100 bearing acres (1/500th) devoted to this different "little" apple.  With the emergence of artisan cider, growers of true cider-apples had gained a voice in the legislative discussion defining what is "cider," no longer was it hydrated apple concentrate in a beer-bottle.  But now, with the acknowledgement of the market (artisan cider sales are booming,) the majority of big apple farms are looking to cider as an another outlet for their fruit.  This is called "value-added" production, it amounts to retrofitting a specific product (in this case cider) to fit what the farmer already produces (in this case eating apples.) 
   Value added cider production is very threatening to the quality of cider in New York because it puts an entire career- an entire art form- under the management of people who are devoted to something different: the management of a farm.  And that's not assuming that value-added cider producers are growing the wrong apples in the first place.  Yet for marketing's sake, those value-added cider makers will claim to be career artisans of the craft and make no mention of the fact they are only now on board.  Big cider is unscrupulous with their claims, but the value-added cider maker is not much different.  Legislators and customers have a difficult time distinguishing from the bottle, one can only know by taste.  Hence, the voice of true cider is returning to bad odds and although artisans may be squeezed out of the spot light by big-farm and business opportunists, we can at least maintain a alternative choice for the customer.  Unfortunately legislators, who are in the midst of deciding the regulatory definition of cider as we speak, no longer can hear the pleas from true artisans, the very people who got this ball rolling. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

2 ciders

   Customers often have an opinion about cider but rarely do they understand that there are two very different types of cider made in America.  For the sake of clarity, let's refer to the two ciders as "True" cider and "Hard" cider.  Both are alcoholic, so don't think I'm talking about the distinction between sweet cider (really "apple juice") and fermented cider.
   OK.  Originally all cider was "True" cider but a distinction emerged out of post-Prohibition regulation which misguided consumers into thinking cider was like a beer.  True cider is essentially a wine, it is nothing like a beer, but "Hard" cider does at least have some beer similarities and thus the misconception arose. 

   So here's a run down on the differences...
   -True ciders are usually "farm ciders", which means they are made in a barn or cave, whereas Hard ciders are usually made in building referred to as kitchens (essentially factories similar to a brewery.) 
   -Like beer, Hard ciders are "about the recipe", whereas, like wine, True ciders are "about the land and season." 
   -True cider is often a blend of apples grown on one farm, whereas Hard ciders utilize apples (and usually concentrate) from all over the world, they are a blend similar in homogenization to a McDonalds hamburger and no distinct flavor or terroir is discernible.  And where True ciders seeks to celebrate the land and the season, Hard ciders seeks to celebrate the person making beverage (again, like Beer.  Beer is made from multiple ingredients from all over the world, no terroir is discernible except from the "chef".  In other words, it's about the beer-maker's skill.) 
   -True ciders are made from 100% whole apples (not concentrate) with no added sugar, artificial carbonation, water or preservatives. Hard ciders tend to use all of the above.  Unfortunately many farm-based ciders creep toward Hard cider when they become commercially licensed.  For instance, they will add sulfite or small amounts of sugar, but they retain mostly True cider properties.
   -Hard ciders are watered down to conform to regulation so that they are under 7% alcohol (thus sold along side beer.) 
   -Hard ciders are always forced carbonated with CO2 gas to give it flavorless carbonation, True ciders are carbonated naturally with alive yeasts which produce lees and added character. 
   -True ciders are rarely filtered and True ciders are often aged for a minimum 6 months.  Hard ciders are "drinkable" and sold in less then 6 weeks. 
   -Less then 1/1000th the cider made in America is True cider.

  In the end, Hard cider mimics beer in it's factory-like production and eradication of farm qualities, while True cider is like a true wine in that it's about the land and the season.  I don't say this because I hate Hard cider, or beer, or for any reason except for the fact that it is absolutely true and very few people know about it.  So if you say you don't like cider, you need to try the diversity of at least 30 True ciders before you can make that judgement. At the very least, you will emerge knowing how different True cider is from Hard cider.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More Cider

I regret being so disparaging on recent posts. Really, I want to encourage as many cider makers as possible, licensed or otherwise. The goal is not to allow cider to become an industry of "efficiency".  In some ways, it was the first to succumb to the economy-of-scale 100 years ago when the modern world rewarded the companies that did things bigger, faster, cheaper and in greater quantity then their competition,  Now cider has the chance to be the first (OK, the second- the micro beer movement is proving first) industry to prove those 20th century business ideas wrong.  In fact, 100 cideries will employ about 20x the people of just one cidery producing the same number of gallons.  It's not as "efficient", nobody will become "Wall Street rich", but the diversity in the product is good for customer.  MORE CIDER MAKERS!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Non-Organic Cider Business

Cider is clearly growing too fast.  In this instantaneous era, entrepreneurs are trying to create a drink that reflects the experience of a specialized farmer and fermenter, and then trying to replicate the sales of a business that arose organically out of the craft and from a relationship with the consumer.

Cider, as the industry now defines it, is hallow shell of (1) entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on the next start-up craze and (2) opportunistic farmers trying to rebrand their tired operation to make it look like they were hip to cider all along.  Right now, the only safety net is the consumer.  It is up to you to recognize the real deal because the producers and the government are conspiring to sell you crap in sheep's clothing.

But let's not just pick on the "outside" entrepreneurs, let's also be critical of opportunistic farmers.
Pretend for a minute: Your grandfather got into the art supply business 70 years ago making paints.  back then, then there was a real market for it and he personally enjoyed working with artists too.  Now, you come along and you inherit this art supply company, does that make you an artist?  It didn't even make your grandfather and artist, so why should we expect today's apple growers to be expert cider makers?  They need to learn the formal qualities of the craft just like everyone else (which is a full-time endeavour in itself,) and just like with art, only a few people are natural talented for it.  You can't write that into a business plan.

Update 2013

I would much prefer to rant and rail about cider but why don't I just give a state of the nation address instead.
The state of cider is...good. 
The industry is in a volatile and explosive stage, but for now, in this season of inventory, let's sum up this past year of record starts as "mostly good."

(perhaps I'll update this post over the course of January)