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Growing Cider in New York

March 2, 2015

Hard cider has been a part of my life for over 20 years, mostly because my friend S has always loved the stuff. Whenever she would come over to visit, I would make sure to have it on hand.

Once my Welsh neighbor came over and said in his thick accent, “That’s not cider.” It reminded me a bit of that Crocodile Dundee movie. But this fellow lovingly recounted the chunky potent jars of rotting apple juice that adorned the pub counters of his homeland. It sounded like wild and wonderful stuff. You know, the kind of thing that our government would never let us enjoy.

Then a few years ago I went to Paris for the first time and tasted some small production Brittany farmhouse ciders for the first time. Man, those were good and funky. More recently I tried a Basque still cider that I spied in a small specialty shop in Princeton.

The point is, there is cider made all over the world, and every place it’s made has a different take on the beverage. Here in New York, we’re experiencing a bit of a cider renaissance, and last weekend marked the one year anniversary of the state’s farm cider license. Nine Pin Cider Works in Albany is license holder number one, and they invited other craft cideries to join them in celebration.

So what does cider look like in New York? After trying dozens of them in one morning, I have a much clearer picture of what’s out there, and which ones I like best.

New York has long been called a melting pot of cultures. And I totally saw this in the cider represented at the Gathering of the New York Farm Cideries.

Descendant Cider Company out of Queens, NY is making a German style cider called Succession. German cider? It’s got high acid and relatively low alcohol, which would make it absolutely brilliant with food. It was one of my favorites of the day, and a pleasant surprise to learn about a national cider heritage that was totally off my radar. But it makes perfect sense that Germans would have a cider tradition.

Descendant also made a pomegranate and hibiscus cider I expected to hate, but really enjoyed. Instead of being fruity and flowery, the pomegranate brought in a little bit of funk, and the flowers helped to balance it out in a dry and flavorful package. I’d prefer the funk from the apples themselves, but I”ll get those deep notes wherever I can find them.

Cider Creek in Canisteo, NY doesn’t filter their ciders and it was very obvious in their Farmhouse cider that was in a Normandy style with champagne yeast. That was one cloudy cider, and I loved that rustic charm. Cider Creek also took cues from Belgium with their Saison Reserve, which had a bit more depth of flavor from those Belgian yeasts.

What was most remarkable about Cider Creek was the cider that I expected to hate. I actually hated the Winter’s Cinn which they describe as being “made with Bavarian Wheat yeast and fresh cinnamon stick.” The cinnamon was overpowering, and I couldn’t even finish my sample pour. So I had little hope for the Cascade Hopricot which was made with West Coast Ale yeast, apricot puree and NY Cascade hops. It sounded like a disaster, but it tasted like a dream. Because somehow the cider maker was able to get all those flavors to come into balance. It was like a string quartet in beautiful harmony.

Blackduck Cidery takes its cues from Spain’s northern Basque region. Their ciders are unafraid of presenting bitterness and tannin in an unfiltered still cider. Still ciders aren’t my favorite style, but I did enjoy their pear cider and their dry apple bottling. Blackduck also made one with the black currants that grow on their farm, which contributed some complementary notes on the nose, but was probably my least favorite of the three.

Bad Seed Hard Cider is made in Highland, NY and if you like cider dry, this is the cider for you. Because it is dry. Dry dry. So, really, really dry. They made one that was called dry apple pie, which was just a bad idea. Because cinnamon really wants to be sweet. In my world, dry cinnamon isn’t a pleasurable thing. The Old Elmer comes in cans and is much better without the cinnamon. My favorite was the IPC (India Pale Cider) which brought some additional complementary flavors the the party.

There were also producers that opted for the sweeter side of cider. Blue Toad Hard Cider out of Rochester gets the fermentation of their Roc Hard Amber going with some help from brown sugar and molasses. And those caramelized sugar notes are present in the cider. They do have a Flower City Blonde is a bit lighter and brighter.

Kaneb Orchards was simply looking for a style that would be popular with consumers instead of pushing their own cider agenda into the marketplace. Their St. Lawrence Cider isn’t overly sweet, but it’s on the juicier side of the spectrum. They do offer a version with the balancing acidity of pressed cranberry juice, made from local berries.

Sun Dog Cider in Chatham, NY gets their cider direct from Samascott orchards and ferments it with ginger to help keep the sweetness in check.

So what about the local favorite?

Nine Pin Cider seems to be everywhere you look these days. I did have a taste of their cider one night at The Ruck since I’ve been back in the area, but I never had the chance to really try and get to understand what they do, and figure out which of their offerings really shine.

I swear that Duncan Crary didn’t put me up to this, but Nine Pin has an extraordinary ginger. It’s a hard apple cider with three kinds of ginger and a little bit of orange peel in the mix. It has the unusual ability to be refreshing and warming at both the same time. It’s a lustrous cider that’s perfect for Albany’s brutally long winters and I’m now a fan.

The other flavors that pleasantly surprised me were the bright true expression of summer berries in the raspberry cider. I was told this was a co-fermentation so the raspberries go into the tank with the pressed cider to make the finished product. I may need some of this soon as the winter fades away but the warmth of spring remains elusive.

Nine Pin also makes a Yerba Mate cider that is also remarkably good, as it brought a lot of herbal complexity to Nine Pin’s signature cider. Speaking of which, the signature cider was crisp and balanced, and the Belgian yeast version added some more estery flavors without diverting too far from the signature’s profile. I also enjoyed the one that spent some time in Albany Distilling Co’s used rye whiskey barrel. The only ones that fell short for me were the blueberry and the vanilla molasses, which didn’t quite carry the oomph of the other flavored ciders in the line.

So, that was a lot of cider. And really, it’s a small fraction of what’s on the market. There is a whole wide world of cider out there, and New York cideries are representing the flavors of the world. But the farm cideries in New York are still new. They are still growing, and it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Richard Ball from New York’s department of Agriculture and Markets spoke briefly at this event. And he thought it was great to see New York agriculture heralded as part of the state’s economic development. I couldn’t agree more.

Drink local. It’s great for farmers. It’s great for the local economy. And these days there are enough choices to satisfy a range of tastes and preferences.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Drew permalink
    March 2, 2015 12:31 pm

    I’m surprised you disliked Winter’s Cinn so much, I thought it was what the “dry apple pie” cider should have been! Oh well, that’s why this event was so much fun. It’s rare to see so many ciders in one room, and a great chance to show off that hard ciders can cover a wide spectrum of flavors, when they are so often pigeonholed into the sugary sweet stuff that gets sold nationally.

    Nice write up!

  2. Jack C permalink
    March 2, 2015 2:56 pm

    That was a really fun, really crowded event. Of the non-Nine Pin offerings, I loved the Cider Creek Saison and Bad Seed IPC the most and we ended up taking home a growler of the CC Saison and a bottle of each of the Descendant offerings. My least favorites of the day were the black currant from Blackduck (too tart without anything to balance it out) and Sun Dog (cloyingly sweet).

    As for Nine Pin, their signature will always have a place in my fridge. I can’t get enough of that stuff. I also love the Ginger, but since my wife prefers the signature, we typically go with that. The Belgian doesn’t impress me all that much. They need to bottle the Maté version ASAP – I would drink that stuff every day. The single-varieties (Ida red, golden russet, etc.) usually don’t impress me too much, but I’m open to trying more of them.

    The Spartan and Dirty Pig sliders with jalapeño and bacon mac ‘n cheese put the finishing touches on this fantastic event.

  3. March 2, 2015 3:08 pm

    Sounds like a great event!

    I’ve had the Nine Pin via my parents, who are all major fans (All three of them!) Good stuff! I’ve been noticing a lot more hopped ciders on the market — for someone who would like to drink beer but can’t, they provide some of that nice hoppy flavor I crave.

    Unsurprisingly, I have pretty much hated the cider offerings put forth by the major conglomerates — way, way too sweet.

    I’d really like to do a cider trade with someone one of these day. I’d like to try a Santa Cruz cider side-by-side with an Albany, NY-area cider. Anyone down?

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