September 19, 2012

For a Day, Apples Rule the Roost at Astor Center

From a stinky "Sidra Natural" Basque cider, left, to Slyboro Ciderhouse's Old Sin cider, far right , a Cider Week preview.

For a brief afternoon yesterday, the grape ceded center stage to the apple at Astor Center.

The event was a trade and media preview of October’s CiderWeek in New York, designed to showcase the refreshing fermented beverage once brewed by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The affair had the secret-handshake feel of a persecuted religious sect revival, where makers—many of whom started out as small apple growers trying to figure out how to stay relevant in a globalizing market-- shared not-so-distant memories of being “treated like complete martians” at wine events, or being asked at tastings “where are the doughnuts?”

All that’s changing, though. Sales of apple cider were up 23 percent last year, and the big beer manufacturers, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch included, have all bought stakes in the emerging market, according to David Flaherty, operations and bar manager at Hearth and Terroir Wine Bars and a blogger of all things alcoholic. 

The small artisanal producers are feeling the pressure to show Americans what the good, small-batch stuff tastes like before the bigs move in. Judging by the impressive selections they had on offer, as well as their enthusiasm, drive and ability geek-out on a par with the most hard-core winemakers, they could be on their way to becoming the next artisanal breakthrough product.

One delicious example was the Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider that Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchard is producing in weekly batches. Her brew, the color of Fuji apple juice, is unfiltered, unsulphered, and sold in 2-liter growlers at selected farmer’s markets. Typically the alcohol content of ciders is low; hers is about 6 percent, and its taste will become more robust as the apple season progresses and she moves from Empire, Ginger Gold and Honeycrisp apples to Baldwin, Winesap  and Jonathans. Ryan was still high on a 12-day visit she made to Cidrerie du Perche in Normandy, France, maker of a gorgeous cidre brut that has the signature leather and barnyard funk of classic cider tempered by floral notes.

Louisa Spencer of New Hampshire’s Farnum Hill Ciders said she switched from farming Cortland and McIntosh apples to grow European cider varieties. Not only have they thrived in the soil of the Northeast, she added, they’ve become hardier, more intensely flavored and better fruit-bearing than in native soil.

Bullish on the future of artisanal cider, Spencer added, “There’s no reason that we can’t become the Sonoma of cider.” 

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