Sunday, September 17, 2017

Two Umbrellas

To me, a healthy cider industry is one which accepts the delineation between Modern-Industrial and the Traditional-“Hand-Made” without insisting that they fall under the same umbrella, “Cider.” Recognizing the hypocrisy, a mature producer wouldn't attempt to be both. And at the larger level, a mature cider industry will let each path run it's separate course toward respective horizons without restraining the two in the middle-ground. (The same tethering effect, btw, is occurring on the agricultural side of this industry.)

But for now you won't find much talk of separation at trade associations, in its' marketing, or even at the customer level in restaurants and in stores. "No siree", says the industry, "We don't exclude anyone," and I continue to take flack for suggesting the customer is being mislead. The problem, I think, is that many new producers view cider and apple farming from the vantage point of immediate needs and pressures -the Modern perspective -and effecting every decision is the misguided belief that this is a "new industry." It's within this perspective (and this perspective alone) that the hypocrisy can exist. Here, both the industrial producers and mom-and-pop craftsmen are just making variations of the same thing. Something "new" needs to develop, and we all benefit from development, right?

Let me provide some background. For many years now American cider producers, the small and the large, have been jockeying among themselves to establish respectability and to carve out pocket niches. No one will argue this. But all-the-while, the same producers, the large and the small, have been using each other to increase visibility within the larger beverage industry. Not every small producer has colluded but enough have that they became part of the formation of all-inclusive state and national trade associations. The blurring occurred, the large and the small now share marketing programs with the goal of increasing "all cider" sales. And even though this non-congruity ought to alarm the customers who believe they are drinking cider from one of two traditions (i.e., a mom-and-pop farmhouse creation or an industrially produced canned cider) there is now a conscious effort to degrade those assumptions in the market place. "The same body is capable of both origins," now say producers on both sides of the aisle.

My writing here may seem theoretical and unnecessary. The market is what it is and producers will do what they need to do. That's fine, and I agree my point is not all that important. Except for one thing: It really bothers me (and many others) that companies misrepresent themselves and products. As an insider I can see what's going on and I know what is being intentionally withheld. Trade association information campaigns (or misinformation, depending on your viewpoint) about the farms and companies behind the creations has infiltrated the industry so deeply that now many new producers honestly believe they can be both artisan makers of small, "hand-crafted" batches, and owners of exponentially growing businesses making, like beer, a cheap drink from a limitless resource. They might say one project funds the other but they will not say that one devalues the other.

This cake-and-eat-it-too strategy would seem an obvious approach from the big-guy perspective. We know now that customers are weary of corporations these days. A walk through Wholefoods will show this. From Mondavi to Remy to Four Roses, the trick is to look like a hand-crafted product while enacting the very same industrial measures the customers were trying to avoid. But smaller producers are vulnerable of thinking like a big guy too. Not only might they adopt the "new industry" premise but there are many examples of small companies being bought-out by larger ones. This sudden pay day is like a carrot that eats at the presumed integrity of smaller craftsmen.

But it is still possible to escape that window and to view cider from the traditional viewpoint. One suddenly remembers this is NOT a new industry at all. It's been around for thousands of years. It's only the Modern-industrial way of making cider that is new, and it's only they who have to figure out where they belong in relationship to cider. In contrast, the age-old tradition goes on without the same economic pressures to keep up with. Traditional small producers make a living, just not a killing. And without lofty economic ambitions as the great equation (or specifically "limitless economic growth") there are no worries about cider: No need for a trade association, no identity crisis, and NO NEED for development.

Viewing cider as a "new industry" excuses non-congruities and bold experimentation in the same way Freshman during their first months at college behave inconsistently. It's at these highly insecure times that people tend to reach for the nearest group for companionship and security. But the same group won't still be their circle of friends come Junior year when they have found their suitable clique. My hope is that when "the new cider" industry moves beyond this awkward Freshman state and into something more confident the smaller producers will act as smaller producers again, focusing on the life of the product and not economic growth. This might mean the bigger producers and the self-proclaimed hybrids (who are actually just industrial producers too) will make off with all the money. That's fine. Their "new industry" will be secured just as wine-coolers have with wine. And as with wine, two production traditions will have zero association with each other. Chateau La Croix Davids does not sit down and conspire with Yellow Tail.

I hope I made it clear I'm not opposed to big cider or hybrid small-industrial cider. I'm not opposed to them any more than I am Wholefoods or fast food. They can exist, I'm fine with that. I can even be friendly with their owners and employees but I absolutely won't support them. I'm opposed to the association they deliberately make with with an unrelated product and tradition.

A mature cider industry will one day resemble the wine and art world where business-minded entrepreneurs find it hard to penetrate. They will try and fail to glom-on to the traditional producers, but meanwhile the artists and lovers of tradition (and horticulture) will accomplish for themselves different fetes. Call these fetes personal satisfaction or moments of beauty, the delineation comes down to motivation. Money-people can't see this. They sit in another window viewing the world from another perspective. But all accomplishments are not, as economists insist, powered by financial reward. There are other reasons for action. And two people walking toward two different horizons can not share the same umbrella.

Disclosure: In addition to my "Homestead" label I started selling cider in 2010 with the now-retired "Ginger Cider" and active "Appinette". Both of these ciders were made from big-farm apples, mostly Northern Spy and Golden Russet which were decidedly NOT grown as cider fruit. Yes, those two ciders helped fund my operation but I contend this was not the goal. I was just making original wines and had no intention of mass-producing them.Yet I can see how this might put me in the same boat as the cake-and-eat-it-too camp, a boat I'm happy to torpedo. I regret any instances during my Freshman years when I helped mass-producers of cider and apples use the traditional approach to advance their initiative. But this post is about a different topic. Re-read the intro paragraph if you need to.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"All Ships Rise in Rising Waters! Hop Aboard or Drown On Your Land"-Says Cider Market

Trending in the wine world is talk over embracing "industrial production."
For those who don't know what that means, that’s essentially the antithesis to “traditional wine” by way of all the modern tools available today. These tools, or 'advancements', extend far beyond the actual wine making part too and include advancements in grape farming, business financing, marketing and global distribution. A lot has changed in the 8000-year-old world of wine in just the last 40 years.

Proponents of industrial production say that it appropriately responds to our ever-growing economy and escalating human population by scaling itself accordingly, and its use of scientific and technological advances are in keeping with the modern lives real people live today. By employing all these measures industrially produced wine is able to keep prices far lower than traditional wine and reach more people who otherwise would never drink wine.

But critics argue that real wine can not be elevated above the natural processes. Industrial manipulation and scaling-up only creates a fake version of the real thing so it’s an erosion of the truth to liken it to the authentic version. “It’s either real or it’s not,” the purists claim. And traditional wine is usually characterized by it’s business models which are individually owned and personally financed. This, arguably, keeps outside pressures at bay and the focus on nature.

You can read more about leading arguments on both sides from Bianca Bosker and Eric Asamov, whos' opinions toil with additional baggage such as wine snobbery, farm and cultural ethics, and true artistry. These are great reads!

I think both sides have good, valid points but my ultimate opinion comes down to this one questions: What is more accurate in the minds of the consumer? Or asked another way, what does the customer picture when they picture wine? Because this is a matter of truth we are talking about. And it would seem to me that we are entering dangerous territory when we start eroding or manipulating this truth. Efficiency and economics aside, in my opinion, there is no acceptable trade-off when we compromise the understanding of wine.

Do customers picture the truth when they grab a 10$ bottle of wine from Trader Joes, or, is there something hiding in the bottle that the industrial wine-producer doesn't want us to know about the farming, the business model, and the wine-production methods? Well, yeah, probably there is something that the producer would rather not say. But that leads us to the slippery slope that we're talking about: Is it assumed that wine marketing is intentionally misleading, and if so, is that tolerable or acceptable now that we've entered a new world of other accepted half-truths?
(This ends up looking a lot like the “fake news” argument: Does misleading people eventually become an accepted form of new reality? Can one argue everything is subjective? No wonder this is a timely debate going on in the wine world today!)

Well, well, well... If the wine world only knew what was going on in the cider world these past five years!!! As the US Cider Association and other trade organizations have quickly, perhaps hastily, sought to unify any-and-all things "cider," the most pressing question of all has been intentionally subverted: Is industrial produced/ industrial farmed/ and industrially financed hard-cider really cider at all? And, if isn't, how can true cider align itself with the fake?

You can guess my opinion on the matter. And it’s not very compromising. I can understand why industrial producers would want to associate with the little guy (to make it look like their product is linked to nature, small farms, and tradition) but why did the majority of smaller producers help subvert this all-important distinction? When cider-alliances were being formed (and a lot have recently) why have so many small guys shelved their only advantage?

The answer I get time and time again is this: “The rising tide floats all boats.” Like Bianca Bosker, they argue smaller producers will reap unforeseen benefits from the influx of industrial-sized marketing dollars. They believe that having cider available everywhere, like beer and cheap wine, extends cider into markets and a demographic that may eventually find true cider too.

What they argue might be correct. I concede that “All cider” sales are up these past five years (including mine,) and a possible reason for this is the increased visibility of “cider” from dubious sources, but I reject the trade-off with elements of the truth. This involves what the customers imagine to be true. Are customers 100% aware of where industrial/ Modern cider breaks from their vision of cider? Absolutely not.

Big cider money might amount to free advertising for the little guy... but nothing is free.

I have seen mega-companies spend millions of dollars to lure customer into associating their products with traditional cider. And working the other way around, I have also seen dozens of small companies from Vermont to Maryland, from Michigan to Oregon attempt to "go industrial” without losing the perception of being traditional. But in the end, I will not, and can not, cooperate with them in the erosion of truth as presented to the customer, even if it were beneficial to me. Protecting the truth is more important than money.

Getting back to the real definition of cider (and is industrial cider still “cider”)… The relationship we have with the customer is inseparably part of the definition. The customer is not a blank slate for marketing to persuade. To the contrary, the customer is part of the tradition. They have a vision for cider. They believe in it, and they deserve input on the definition. We must serve that truth, or be very clear that we are approaching it differently.

This is my flood warning to all those who wish to collaborate with the big guy (Big cider, Bigger money, and Big apple farming): The rising tide does float all boats if  the boat is no longer tethered to land. But cider is not a tide, it is the land. Business is the tide. Cider is: farms, farmers, apple trees, and the local population, all immediately clustered around these combined components. This is what the customer still believes. And this is the goal. So to stretch the truth by "going-industrial”, scaling above your area, or to mislead the customer about the process, in my mind, is unforgivable. Even if a portion of the product is authentic the overall brand becomes tainted by dishonestly. And this extends up into trade associations too: Some of the producers might be the real deal, but if they are aligned with dishonest producers their credibility and the truth is undermined.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 2016 vintage (if the Fed lets me call it that)

(For CSA details and available ciders see link: AB Ciders)
Greetings to you all, 
May 2017: The trees, the cider, Polly and I are all emerging from dormancy and ready for a new growing season while simultaneously welcoming the product from last years’ fruit. We are accustom to Springs’ double workload after the natural period of rest, but this year the beating sounds of winter’s fury threatened to disrupt our slumber. And it was a warm winter.
2016 was by many standards a disaster –I’m speaking agriculturally now. Blossom-time frosts erased the apple crop for the majority of the apple growers in the Northeast. Then following the warm, dry winter of 2015-16, the growing season was defined by prolonged drought. In all, it was a stressful year for the trees. (They responded by setting-up fruit buds for an abundant 2017 season.)
For those who did have apples last year, the Fall was the one bright spot. It too was dry but that’s when you want it to be so. We started getting our cool nights later than usual but the frost-free period lasted well into November creating a good ripening period. I have no qualms about the mild December because that’s when I’m outside cleaning barrels and accidentally spraying myself with the hose. Unfortunately, the winter, especially January, was way too mild and that’s when trees and cider are supposed to be at rest. For the second straight year our ciders were dry by February, threatening the “fruit” notes (In 2012 I learned to prepare for this with Sussreserves.)  
Despite all the environmental stresses (and I’m not just talking agriculturally now) the 2016 ciders, as limited as they are in quantity, still managed to triumph over it all. I think that speaks directly of the apple tree. Foraging under abandoned trees now for almost 25 years I have an inkling why they are known as the tree of wisdom. With a better perspective on time and a more sensitive feel for what’s going on in the environment, the apple tree calmly and wisely decides how to deal with what life throws at it. In contrast to our hysterics and brutal decisions, the apple tree is the champion of acclimation. It is not an “invasive”, but it knows how to assimilate to new and existing factors. And just like its juice sitting dormant in the winter barrel, it all comes together no thanks to our presumed intelligence.
So what are we looking at this year? As mentioned a killing frost found the blossoms in most of the Northeast but in higher elevations the trees held onto dormancy a bit longer and escaped. We had apples along the Shawangunk Ridge, the Neversink Highlands, and in the high valleys of the East Branch. Those trees had fruit but that still doesn’t mean they were loaded –it was going to be an off-year anyhow. So in total, we have less than 10% our previous Homestead Apple year and about 75% the quantities of Appinette and Elderberry Cider from farmed apples. And that brings us to the CSA, our first release of those ciders.
If I could, I’d love to sit down with each and every customer who tries these ciders to discuss the background of each product, to introduce ourselves and our methods, and to show you real-world examples of free apple trees (a rarity these days.) But alas, we can’t engage with customers year-round while still maintaining our focus on the trees and cider. We are “back-of-the-house” artists devoted to the language of taste; our goal is to create the conditions that allow the trees to speak for themselves. They are the subjects, but they require our whole presence.  
Our solution is to have two CSA days each year to welcome cider supporters to our home. During these two days you can hangout and sample the range, talk shop with in the cider barn, walk the orchards, or just pick up your cases. No Instagram post can capture the miracle of real apple trees, perhaps no cider can either. But for you to be here, the cider drinker, that’s another spoke in the wheel. It completes the cycle. Whether you come here or not, we thank you immensely for completing the whole.
Sincerely, Andy Brennan and Polly Giragosian