A Special Delivery
New York State is the nation’s second largest apple producer. The vast majority of its fifty-five thousand apple-growing acres are dedicated to varieties for eating. About half of the state’s overall apple crop goes directly to the fresh consumer market, with the remainder dedicated mostly to juice production, value-added products (e.g. apple butter, apple sauce, pie filling) and fresh cider. Some portion of this harvest undoubtedly ends up as fermented cider, but demand for regionally grown cider-specific apples is currently bigger than supply. A diversity of apples that are grown intentionally for hard cider results in more interesting and complex beverages, with all the nuance and terroir of fine wine. Understanding the opportunities for expansion of production and access to locally grown cider apples is the next phase of Glynwood’s Cider Project.
Seven years ago, Glynwood’s VP of Programs, Sara Grady, designed a learning exchange between Hudson Valley cider makers and their counterparts in Le Perche, France – an historic cider region. Beyond gaining firsthand experience with traditional production practices, the Hudson Valley’s coterie of pioneering producers were deeply inspired to develop a market for orchard-based hard cider as the signature beverage of our region.This month, a second educational journey is taking off in collaboration with our neighbors at Angry Orchard’s Innovation Cider House in Walden, New York, for apple growers to explore planting techniques and harvesting technologies in the United Kingdom.
Our work is coming full circle in other ways. The primary aim of the Cider Project is to ensure the viability of Hudson Valley’s distinctive orchards. Supporting regional cider makers is one tactic to achieve this goal – in part with the inception of Cider Week – re-establishing cider-specific apple varieties in Hudson Valley orchards is also very much a piece of the foundational thinking. Our endeavors have led to the recent incorporation of the New York Cider Association (NYCA), the first statewide trade group of its kind, now advocating for Hudson Valley’s hard cider and those involved at all levels of its production. With its formation, the Cider Project has renewed leverage to champion regional cider production by involving a broader community of growers in improving and diversifying the raw materials: the cider apple itself.
Craft cider makers passionate about reviving hard cider’s popularity need local orchards to plant more cider apple trees. Conversely, potential suppliers (nurseries) need to be convinced there is sufficient interest in stocking them. Inspired by conversations on that original trip to France, Dan Wilson of Slyboro Ciderhouse has long wanted to pull together a collaborative nursery order for cider trees with other Hudson Valley orchardists, as cider varieties are not readily available or affordable to purchase at the “boutique” scale many local growers and cider makers can handle. Fruit trees are a long-term investment for an orchard or farm cidery and are specially ordered at considerable cost, which, taken together, can be risky for the small operator.
A version of Dan’s dream came to fruition this year, aided by serendipity. This past winter, Cummins Nursery (Ithaca, New York) found itself with an unanticipated surplus of cider tree saplings. Last year, Angry Orchard established a ciderhouse, orchard and learning center here in the Hudson Valley and had looked to Glynwood, with its considerable experience building creative programs to strengthen regional agricultural, to develop projects they could support that would strengthen efforts to build the community and market for regional, farm-based cider making. These trees presented a unique opportunity.
In partnership with Angry Orchard and with consulting support from Cornell University’s Ian Merwin and EricShatt, Megan Larmer, Glynwood’s Director of Regional Food, devised a plan to buy 5,000 of these young trees and distribute them to fifteen growers across the state. While the original goal was to plant cider varieties where none were currently grown, it became clear through conversation with growers that orchardists really needed more information about the market value for the juice before jumping in. Apple trees require about five or six years until they are producing, during which time they take up space and resources – issues that can make a new entrant hesitant. Anecdotally, there is ample evidence that Hudson Valley cider makers are interested in purchasing local juice from cider apples, but the market isn’t established enough to confirm…yet.
Rather than approach growers with no previous cider experience, the project shifted focus to those who were already growing apples for cider production, or who had a very strong interest in doing so. Within this context, this tree planting project will now provide an important experimental opportunity for participating growers to collect valuable information about cider varieties: how productive certain apple types are, how they react to variations in climate and what it will cost to grow them, as well as data on plant proclivity and mortality, optimal irrigation systems and harvesting techniques.
On a recent spring day, apple orchards in full bloom, Grady and Larmer hit the byways of the Hudson Valley in a U-Haul truck to personally deliver trees to their new homes. Glynwood received 20 trees to be planted and maintained at our farm in Cold Spring, New York – cider apple roots taking hold of our soil for the first time in nearly 100 years. While Hudson Valley cider has found its way to taps and pints across the state and country, there is a different brand of excitement about planting more cider apple trees in regional orchards. Perhaps it is a satisfying sense of connection between the Cider Project and the land itself, or the gratification of knowing a new cycle of learning and growing has begun.
While the goals of the project might seem removed from the craft beverage enthusiast, even those who enjoy a tipple will be tickled by the long-term results. Once these trees begin to bear fruit, we anticipate our cidery partners will begin work on the first cider to be made under the auspices of the Cider Project. Though each vintage will bear its own provenance and the cider maker who crafted it, they will all share the ineffable beauty of apples grown exclusively in and for New York. Many of these apples have charming names: Ashmead’s Kernel, Brown Snout, Ellis Bitter, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Porter’s Perfection, Reinette Zabergau and Somerset Redstreak, to name a few. Beneath the evocative moniker, each apple possesses unique flavor qualities that lend complexity and depth to hard cider, and each will speak with great elegance of the very special place where they flourish.
Cider Week Hudson Valley is coming up this year, beginning on June 9. Stay tuned for more stories about hard cider production in the Hudson Valley.
All photos by Eva Deitch for Glynwood/Angry Orchard.