The Genie in the Bottle
Area Cider-makers Revive a Forgotten Merrimack Valley Tradition.
Wine and beer are found on many Thanksgiving tables, but hard cider is perhaps even more fitting for the holiday feast.
Legend has it that the early settlers on the Mayflower brought along provisions for producing apple cider and even stitched precious apple seeds into their clothing to keep them secure. In the new land, water was not a trusted source of hydration. Hard cider, with a generally lower alcohol content than wine or spirits, was often the drink of choice. It was consumed at all hours of the day by everyone from farmers to aristocrats, old folks and children.
The Volstead Act and Prohibition were disastrous for the cider industry and the ramifications are still felt today. According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian Magazine, the FBI joined in the widespread destruction of cider apple orchards. Many varietals were lost forever.
The challenge of reviving this delicious lost art sparks passion among many craft hard cider producers and has contributed to an exploding market.
“If it weren’t for Prohibition, New England would be the Bordeaux of cider,” says Patrick Soucy, a Boston-based chef, farmer and blogger at DiggingForRootsBlog.com. Soucy is especially passionate about hard cider and made about 100 gallons of it last year.
Nationally, the hard cider market has tripled between 2011 and 2013. Here in the Merrimack Valley region, where the climate is ideal for apple growing, the revival has just begun. It is gaining adherents among consumers who would typically grab an IPA. The timing happens to coincide with a significant health trend — most ciders are gluten-free.
Jared Walters, the beer manager at Andover Classic Wines, says locally made craft hard cider is encroaching on beer’s shelf space. “Within the past couple of years, we’ve picked up so many new hard ciders,” he says, “and just within the past nine months, we have tripled our inventory.”
There will always be demand for the big names such as Boston Beer Co.’s Angry Orchard, which accounts for about half of the state’s hard cider sales, Walters says, but he has also been nudging his customers to try ciders from some of the newer and smaller cider houses, such as Far From the Tree Hard Cider in Salem, Mass., where owners Al and Denise Snape are dedicated to traditional production methods and regional ingredients from orchards in central Massachusetts and Maine.
Walters says the biggest trend in hard cider is the addition of dry hops, clearly an effort to convert beer drinkers. Also popular is the experimentation with flavors such as blackberry, cinnamon or pumpkin — another inspiration from the world of craft breweries.
Some producers prefer a more purist approach. “Flavored ciders can be cool,” says Caleb Noble, who, along with his wife, Emily, launched Saintly Cider this March in rented space at Mill River Winery in Rowley, Mass. “But I like to go with what they did back in the day, to stay close to history and let the apple flavor come through.”
That approach seems to be working for them. What was started in his parents’ basement three years ago is now on tap in some bars, including the Grog in Newburyport. To prepare for this holiday season, they have been busily transferring their flagship offering, the Cornerstone Traditional New England Hard Cider, from kegs to 750-ml bottles. This cider features 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and a pleasantly sharp taste.
Another newcomer to the cider business is Chadd Cook of Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury, where nonalcoholic sweet cider has always been a big draw. Inspired by history and the colonists’ favorite beverage, Cider Hill was planning to debut three new varieties this fall. The first two are small batch releases — Raspberry Harvest and Sour Cherry Harvest. The third, Winter, is a dessert cider.
Cider Hill’s entrance into the market has been modest and deliberate. The low-key approach retains the farm’s connection with the Amesbury community. “My parents started this farm on their honeymoon,” Cook says. “We are not interested in mass production. We like the connection with our customers — those people who visit us year after year — and we want to keep it that way.”
To help educate people and introduce them to the farm’s offerings, Cook plans to open a tasting room similar to what is found at a winery.
Some apples aren’t suitable for an alcoholic cider. Producers such as Cook work hard to strike the right balance of tangy acidity and honey-like sweetness. Of the 80 varieties of apples grown at Cider Hill Farm, he says only about 10 make a quality hard cider. These include pippins, Newtons and some heirloom varieties. One type of apple that he especially likes is the Kingston Black, a varietal that originated in the United Kingdom. “It has the perfect balance of sugar, acid and tannin — and the flavor is extraordinary,” Cook says.
It was only a few years ago when he struggled to find the best apple trees for cider. They gradually became more available, and now the farm boasts 500 of them. Cook takes great pride in only using apples grown at Cider Hill Farm to produce a gently sparkling cider. With an ABV of 8 percent, it is well-suited for inspiring conversation at the holiday table.
As the public becomes more aware of hard cider’s history, Cook says an appreciation for the product and sales will continue to increase. The drink’s versatility in food pairings doesn’t hurt, as traditional cider pairs well with classic and contemporary New England cooking. From sharp Vermont cheddar to roasted lamb and grilled salmon, cider complements a range of dishes from the savory to the delicate. When you taste a locally-produced cider, you are participating in a centuries-old local tradition that evokes the firewood and fallen leaves of late fall and early winter in New England.
And, of course, drinking cider is fun. Johnny Appleseed, Cook says, was clearly on the right track. “He wasn’t planting apples because he liked pie,” Cook jokes. “Hard cider is rooted in history, and it’s now coming back in a big way. It’s not just a trend. The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back.”
[Please note that at the time of publication, the businesses noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates.]
Andover Classic Wines
Cider Hill Farm
Far From the Tree Cider