A cider exchange between
France and the Hudson Valley
BY PETER BARRETT
All photos accompanying this story, courtesy of Glynwood
merican hard cider, the oft-forgotten grog of the colonies, has an actual longer history than the country itself. John Adams drank it every morning, and Thomas Jefferson made his own. When Johnny Appleseed traveled the northern Midwest planting orchards, those apples were used almost exclusively for cider and applejack; because of the rampant waterborne illnesses, hard cider was the standard drink of most colonial Americans, regardless of age. Prohibition in the 1920s put an end to the hard cider industry, though, and orchards switched from cider apples to growing the table varieties we all know today. For over 200 years, though, hard cider was America’s number one apple product and table wine.
Now we are in a time of great growth and change in the hard cider industry. Consumer interest has jumped—a result of the huge successes of both craft brewing and the locavore movement—and although the total volume is small, compared to beer, the increase in consumption of cider over the last 18 months has been dramatic. So dramatic, in fact, that it has drawn the big players: MillerCoors recently bought the Minnesota-based Crispin Cider Company in February, and Anheuser-Busch will be launching a Michelob-branded lowcalorie cider this year. So it was fortuitous that Colette Rossant, a food writer who divides her time between France and New York, had an idea to help our apple farmers make cider as a way of coping with the serious challenges of their business in the current economic climate.
Rossant has a house in Le Perche, in Normandy, a region famous for its cider and Calvados, the renowned apple brandy. It also has a climate not unlike the Hudson Valley. “I heard that the apple growers here had problems; for example Walmart started buying cheaper Chinese apples and juice. So I thought that if we could teach the farmers here how to make real, high-quality hard cider, we would save the Hudson Valley’s agricultural character. But I couldn’t do it myself.” So she contacted Glynwood, the Cold Spring nonprofit devoted to sustainable agriculture. “I said ‘I can get six of the best producers and bring them here to see the farms and operations, and then the Americans can go over there and see how they make these high-quality products.’” Funding for travel was secured independently on both sides of the Atlantic, with the French making the first visit and the American cider makers to follow. Sara Grady, director of special projects at Glynwood, organized the Apple Exchange for Glynwood, which has a broad history of coordinating international exchanges through their Countryside Exchange programs serving select communities in Japan, Europe and Canada.
“We know it’s expensive and challenging to farm here. One of the ways that farmers survive is by diversifying and making higher-value products.” Imbuing farm products with added value is a common strategy on farms here and elsewhere, since cheese is worth more than milk, bacon is worth more than pork, and hard cider is worth more than apples. Grady is unrelenting in her enthusiasm for this international exchange of ideas. “We viewed this project as an opportunity to save agriculture in this region.
I thought I might encounter some skepticism or hesitation, but there is this amazing group of talented, savvy people who were already doing this. It was just a question of putting them together. Most of them are self-taught, learning on their own. This was a chance for them to meet and learn from people who have had cider making as a longstanding and enduring cultural traditon.”
The Apple Exchange ended up being just one aspect of a threepart Apple Project. “We realized that if we were going to focus on the production of these things,” explains Grady, “we also had to address the market demand side of it, with the goal being galvanizing the local cider industry and making the Hudson Valley known as a cider region.” The Hudson Valley Cider Route is now official (although it is continually evolving) , with an interactive map on their website that shows all the producers of cider and brandy throughout the region. And Cider Week, launched by Glynwood, an annual fall celebration (set for October 12 – 21st of this year) of the drink intended to raise consumer awareness, had a tremendously successful first year.
Imbuing farm products with added value is a common strategy on farms here and elsewhere, since cheese is worth more than milk, bacon is worth more than pork, and hard cider is worth more than apples.
The French producers, all medal-winners in prestigious local and regional competitions for cider, Calvados and pommeau (Calvados mixed with fresh apple juice), came from Le Perche for a week last October. They toured and tasted, visiting orchards, cideries and distilleries up and down the valley. But truth be told, they were not overly impressed with the ciders they tasted, unanimously finding that they lacked the subtlety and complexity of the French versions.
They attributed this to two things: the types of apples being used and the fermentation technique. For the most part, orchards in our region are planted exclusively with sweet table varieties. The French—and the Percheron especially—have hundreds of types of apples and a detailed system for classifying them according to their proportions of sweet, bitter and acid.
Most European cider apples are bittersweet and bittersharp (apples relatively high in both acidity and tannins, often tasting astringent); purely sweet apples are for eating. By blending apple varieties, the European producers are able to achieve a wide range of nuanced flavors that can approach wine in elegance. They also leave a small amount of residual sugar in most of their ciders, which imparts a round, fruity profile without tasting particularly sweet. This is a specific French style; many English ciders are fermented bone dry so that the bitterness and tannins feature more prominently, and most of the American cider makers prefer that drier style, although American consumers still have a preference for something a bit more sweet. So while it is certainly true that the French ciders are much more complex and refined, the issue of residual sugar comes down to a question of taste and preference.
A pivotal moment in the week happened at Dressel Farms in New Paltz, where after a week of resplendent fall weather, the sky finally clouded over and threatened rain. Another bumpy orchard tour in another tractor-pulled trailer followed by another tour of another cidery made for a slightly fatigued and ratty crew. The cold, wet weather wasn’t helping, either, though the hot mulled cider at the farm stand was a big hit among the French visitors and prompted much discussion, including some hasty iPhone research on what allspice is called in French (le piment de la Jamique). Tim Dressel, of Dressel Farms, when discussing the different types of apples they use on the farm, mentioned that he received some old cider varieties that Cornell Cooperative Extension was about to toss out. Dressel got them for free, but had to go dig them up himself and drive them back to his farm. He led the group across the road and into a sloped and muddy field where he had put the young trees. They were a bit askew after the summer’s severe storms—Dressel had just spent some time standing them up and bracing them—but they were fruiting. The French visitors took some interest.
Dressel began by explaining their slightly cockeyed bearing: “Some took to transplanting better than others. They were six years old when I got them, so now they’re eight. I expect to get some real fruit off of them next year. Grégoire Ferré interrupted him, with unrestrained excitement: “These are the bittersweet types that are great for making hard cider! This one, Médaille d’Or, is from our area. These are types that we know very well.”
All the French producers were suddenly animated, talking, grabbing fruit and tasting slices that Ferré deftly peeled and cut with his pocketknife. As they identified the various types—Brown Snout, Somerset Redstreak, Dabinette, Bedan, Major—Jean-François Leroux informed Dressel, “We have 4,000 varieties of apple in France. I use 30 different ones.” Michel Aguinet chimed in, “It’s a shame you don’t have 10 hectares [20 acres] of these. With these, you can make cider.” Ferré continued: “When you use this fruit combined with the fruit you have, very soon you will notice an improvement in your cider, much more range. This will help you to change your product and make it better.” Dressel was visibly pleased at their excitement, which confirmed his hunch that these rare trees were worth transplanting. “I have already gotten calls from people up and down the coast asking for cuttings and bud wood. Hopefully this winter I’ll be able to graft some.” Some cider makers in the region are now talking to nurseries about placing bulk orders for these old varieties.
Tuthilltown Spirits, the distillery in Gardiner regarded for its fine single malt whiskey and baby bourbon, has already begun grafting and planting old colonial varieties like Kingston Black, Spitzenberg, Wixen and Jersey Chisel. Manager Joel Elder’s goal is to make an American Apple Brandy (Calvados is an exclusive French distinction). “Not to imitate them,” he emphasizes, “but make our version of it and make it world class.” At Tuthilltown, Elder shared some of his effort with the visitors (aged in whiskey barrels, Tuthilltown’s Apple Brandy is not on the market yet), who were visibly pleased at the result, even if it differs greatly from what they do. Ferré’s reaction was typical, encouraging but critical: “This is very good. It has a real identity, but it’s very woody. Traditionally in Calvados we age it for 10 to 20 years on old wood for a much more delicate result.” Over time, alcohol evaporates and the wood infuses the liquor with complex overtones, though in Calvados they use old, used barrels—the older the better—so that the effect of the wood is subtle, making for a smooth and refined product.
Derek Grout’s work at Harvest Spirits in Valatie also impressed the guests, especially his vodka and pear eau de vie. But in keeping with their taste, the French were less animated about his applejack and barrel-aged pear brandy, because of their strong oak character (again, it is a matter of taste). Ferré acknowledged their bias but spun it well: “We should not all do the same thing. You find your own method and style.” All of the French visitors admired the work that the Hudson Valley’s local distillers are doing, and some even expressed envy at their freewheeling experimentation that is not bound by generations of tradition. This freedom of experimentation is an attribute that typifies many American artisan products
“So I thought that if we could teach the farmers here how to make real, high-quality hard cider, we would save the Hudson Valley’s agricultural character.”
The American Invasion
In November, the Americans headed over to France for part two of the exchange. They visited all of the farmers who made the initial trip to the Hudson Valley, plus some others, and were fêted with meals, toasts and induction into La Commanderie Percheronne des Gouste Cidre, the official tasting society, in a ceremony complete with traditional costumes. Elizabeth Ryan, proprietor of Breezy Hill and Stone Ridge Orchards, is one of several who used the phrase “life-changing” to describe the trip.
“I’m not a novice; I have a degree in pomology from Cornell, I worked in the wine business and I studied distillation. You think you know a lot about something, but the trip to France was deeply revelatory. And that was unexpected. It was an extraordinary opportunity to access the body of experience and technical information that I’ve lusted after for 30 years.” For Ryan, the connections were more than merely professional, too, especially for the French portion of the trip: “When we went there, we felt like family. These were our people, our tribe! We were embraced. They were so open.” DanWilson of Slyboro Cider inWashington County had a similar reaction: “That region is all about cider, not wine. It was great to see how deep and rich that apple culture is. I never saw someone eat something that wasn’t local.”
Grady, who got plaudits from all the participants for the flawless organization, concluded: “The real power of the trip came from long visits to people’s homes and farms, and seeing how life and food integrate so seamlessly over there.”
The most influential technique that the American producers learned in France was a method known as keeving, which involves adding calcium chloride and pectic enzymes to the fermenting juice. This removes nitrogen from the juice and gels the pectin, robbing the yeast of nutrients and making for a dramatically longer fermentation and lower alcohol. The obvious sign that keeving has worked is le chapeau brun (“the brown hat”), a thick and frothy cap of pungent solids that forms on top. There was much emphasis on the importance of this and on the fact that it only works with wild yeast, which is far less aggressive than cultured commercial varieties. The French were shocked that everyone they met in New York uses cultivated yeast rather than the abundant wild varieties. (That whitish haze you buff off an apple with your shirt? That’s yeast). “They need to trust nature more,” said GillesMichaudel, who farms organically. Jean-François Leroux agreed: “They take risks with the business all the time, but not the product.”
Several of the New Yorkers have already tried what they saw in France. Adam Fincke of the Annandale Cidery reports that “I made a cider using just wild yeast and it smells exactly like the French stuff!” It’s too early to determine if the taste is equally on the money, since it’s still fermenting. Elizabeth Ryan, again of Breezy Hill and Stone Ridge Orchards, also jumps right in: “We came back and I have done it successfully three times; I have some bottles conditioning as we speak. I never could have done it without the trip; these things have to be seen and experienced.” The result? “So far so good, but the proof is in the bottle.” Grout has also tried it, and although his sweet table apples aren’t yet giving him the results he wants, he remains experimental in his pursuit.
Despite the long tradition of cider making in Normandy, the French producers are not so far ahead of their new American friends when it comes to the business side of the endeavor. They were impressed with the commerce at all the farm stands, and the merchandise (T-shirts, mugs, other local products) that generates significant revenue for many of the Hudson Valley’s farms. They are also trying to get an AOC designation for Percheron cider, which has required them to work together and define the specific identity of their product in a way that has never happened before. Within France, they struggle with cider’s tiny market share outside their region; it has a reputation for being a peasant homebrew, ranking far below wine. Gilles Michaudel put it succinctly: “Everyone loves cider, and nobody drinks it. Outside of our region it hardly sells. It’s a problem of marketing.” The exchange has been great for their group dynamic, says Maurice Levier: “You can’t sit next to someone on planes and buses for a week without getting closer to him.” Rossant is ebullient at the success of the exchange on both sides. “Everything I dreamed of turned out to be even better than I imagined.”
While the many local distilled spirits have already gained a strong reputation and pride of place behind the bar in many fine establishments, the Hudson Valley is at the very beginning of a serious regional cider industry. Local producers, made up of participants in the exchange group, have already formed the Hudson Valley Cider Association (a similar organization in the Pacific Northwest has also been founded) and are meeting regularly, with the ongoing support of Glynwood, to discuss how best to grow their businesses in the rapidly changing landscape. Levier, an éminence grise in the Calvados world, offered this perspective: “It’s important that many of them are young and optimistic, because it’s going to be a lot of work.” Thanks to Rossant’s vision and Glynwood’s expertise, our best producers are now sufficiently organized, motivated and knowledgeable to return the apple and its many fine libations to their rightful place of prominence in our region. The only element still missing is educated consumers. Go forth, and drink: it’s as American as apple cider.
For more information on the Apple Project, as well as the 2012 Cider Week, which will take place October 12th – 21st, visit ciderweek.com.