Cultivating Catskills heritage through cider
PHOTOGRAPH: NATALIE CHITWOD
Alex Wilson’s cider making began as a young man in England when he paired up with a friend’s grandfather to learn the process. In 2008, Wilson moved to the Catskills and met Irene Hussey, his business partner, during a cider contest at Table on Ten, the restaurant in Bloomville. Hussey won the cider contest; Wilson came in second. When someone suggested they pair up, they took the advice and formed Wayside Cider. The partnership has turned out to be one of the best pairings since ham and cheese, judging both by their exquisite cider and reverential stewardship of their land.
Wilson owns a 25-acre property, which he bought with his wife eight years ago when they needed an escape from Manhattan life. Hussey is a Catskills native herself, having grown up on her family farm in Delhi, a childhood that was both idyllic and hard work. With a passion for the land, she left the Catskills to study environmental studies at Carlton College in Minnesota. She had done trail maintenance work in Minnesota but wound up returning to the Catskills about five years ago. “It happened to be a good time for cider in terms of public interest, and New York State has been pretty supportive of small craft beverage producers in the last few years.”
The pair produced a test batch of cider in December 2013 using apples from Diamond Orchard Farms in Ithaca. They liked the result and decided to go ahead with their cider business in 2014, purchasing a cider press that runs on water and installing it at the Hussey orchard in Delhi. By the wayside is where you’ll find “the apples that aren’t picked up,” says Wilson. “They’ve been abandoned. They’re never going to be picked.” And there’s something of the championing of the underdog in his ethos, as if the wild apple has been underappreciated and ill favored by the public, who prefers perfection in their fruit. Consumers won’t buy ugly or misshapen apples, but the cider apple doesn’t have to be gorgeous.
Wayside Cider began selling in 2015, and the result was like a fine, sparkling wine: light, delicately balanced and flavorful. Three batches of cider were offered for sale: Skinny Dip, Halfwild and Catskill. This year, Skinny Dip was replaced with a dry crabapple blend called Dry Town, a name that gives a nod to Hussey’s character.
Both enthusiastic perfectionists, Wilson and Hussey are fond of experimenting and blending their cider to acquire a taste that suits them. “We tend toward longer, slower, colder ferment, which I think produces a slightly more complex, interesting flavor,” Hussey says. Hussey has even used an old method of carbonation to make the cider sparkling, occasionally “doing a wild fermentation with the naturally occurring yeast that is already kicking around.”
Extraordinary attention to detail has been paid to the heritage of cider and the humble New York apple. The pair forage for most of their apples by hand using bushel baskets on neighbors’ land. Apples that were foraged in last year’s abundant season were supplemented by dessert apples from the Hudson Valley.
Wilson and Hussey are in this for the long haul. They recently purchased a large barn and its accompanying carriage house in Andes, which now houses their tap room. The tap room offers a small bar menu with simple, reasonably priced local fare.
Of their dream to develop the perfect Catskills apple, Wilson says, “Irene and I are thinking 100 years ahead in terms of tree development and everything else. With agriculture, we live in a world where you have to be the next big thing tomorrow. Well, no, actually, everything that’s good takes time. It’s going to be 15 years before we see the fruits of the experiments we’re doing now.”— J. N. Urbanski
55 Redden Lane, Andes