An American upbringing saves heritage cider for discovery, but now is the ideal time to experience the revitalization of this age-old drink.
I grew up in the country, in a house my dad built by hand. A horseshoe of woods surrounded our place and the front door enjoyed the obligatory Illinois view of a cornfield. It was a life of growing things: two Irish Setters (and the occasional mama cat and her babies), a garden that did better some years than others, a warren of beehives off-limits without supervision, ticks, hummingbirds, mint patches, mosses and anything green that could survive the Midwestern season shift.
The fanciest (or fanciful) sign of life, to me, was an innocent strand of juvenile fruit trees. An orchard, if you like. Overall, it was unproductive, with a few apples enjoyed by the pollinator community when they hit the ground each fall.
I thought about these trees recently, when I got to know Eleanor Léger, founder of Eden Specialty Ciders in Newport, Vermont. Léger is considered one of the country’s preeminent ice cider and heritage cider makers.
Heritage Cider’s Colonial Roots
Colonial Americans were nuts about alcoholic cider, as were generations of their ancestors back in England. Apples cultivated in Europe (then and now) were not always intended for eating, some even wrapped in tannic skins with blistering acidy, suitable fixtures for “hard” cider.
The colonists loved this libation so much they brought apple trees and honeybees to what would become America, where only two species of apples were native, both crabapple varieties. Another benefit of cider besides the taste and presence of spirit: fermentation overrides nasty diseases, making a sip of cider more approachable than water in colonial times. And while this history lacks an indigenous quality, it is responsible for the cultivation of hundreds of apple species in the U.S., which is currently the second largest producer of the fruit in the world.
Recent impressions of cider haven’t always been so starstruck. Families sip it hot or cold during the fall months—in the form of unfiltered, unpasteurized apple juice—in honor of the things we do get in the spirit of autumn. At least, that’s the feeling that I have when I consider my upbringing. Apples were there in the fall, enjoy them while you can. While this form of seasonal thinking seems obvious, it actually isn’t.
What Happened In The Meantime
I grew in the 1980s, at a time when products on the selves were fancified by what they had in them, not what they didn’t. Simplicity and seasonality weren’t terms that competed in the supermarket where snacks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and preserved by things like sodium benzoate ruled the attention-grabbing roost. Though my mom resisted serving us munchies like Doritos and Pepsi we still found them fascinating, like many kids did then, and still do today. While an apple contains, well, an apple, Doritos contain around 30 ingredients, each of which is likely represented by a group that wants to promote their product…food for thought.
So how does American apple cider, a product made with things that fall off a tree in the backyard, compare with something bubbly, sweet an addictive such as Pepsi? Sorry kids, the answer isn’t exactly for you…it’s for the grown-ups, those of us that survived the 80’s and are now entitled to the products created by Ms. Léger and people with her creative wherewithal to know a good thing when they see it.
Having overcome the idea that cider is more than a kids’ drink or colonial swill, it grows up in a proverbial household with a noisy older brother: beer. Many Americans associate grown-up cider as an alternative to a brew. And here’s the distinction—there are two applications when it comes to cider-making, and for now the marketplace calls them Modern and Heritage.
A Wine-Making Approach
Léger makes heritage ciders, and she puts it this way: “Heritage ciders are made with heirloom and cider-variety apples and are likely made with more traditional wine-making approaches.” Did you catch that key phrase? Traditional wine-making approaches: start with the right fruit, grown the right way, picked at the right time.
In modern agriculture, consumers see a tip of the iceberg when it comes to cultivatable species. Apples are actually an excellent example of this imbalance. In my midwestern supermarket, one can always find some sort of apple supply, but it’s limited to names we all recognize. According to the U.S. Apple Association, the most-produced varieties are Gala, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Rome, Cripps Pink/Pink Lady® and Empire. People like these apples, they transport alright, they sell alright, and let’s face it: we can also get them out of season, shipped in mostly from Chile, Canada and New Zealand—and for consumers that is a win.
But hidden in the agricultural and plant husbandry archives, there are multitudes of apple varieties with names and flavors that would knock your sock off. “Professional nurseryman Andrew Jackson Downing recorded 600 varieties in his tome published in 1859,” according to the U.S. Apple Association.
Léger shares that apples have greater genetic diversity than humans. Balanced in this net of life is the key to what makes heritage cider so lovely and it’s very similar to what makes certain grapes inclined towards fine wine. Some apples—when grown in the right conditions—have the ideal sugar content, acidity and tannin for heritage cider. Eden Specialty Ciders identifies a matrix of these elements as Sweet, Sharp, Bittersweet or Bittersharp, placing each of their apple varieties in one of these quadrants.
For an example, examine the catchy-named Esopus Spitzenberg—a Sharp (high sugar, high acidity and low tannins)—a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, planted in his orchard at Monticello along with 17 other varieties.
According to Albemarle CiderWorks (a stone’s throw from Monticello in North Garden, Virginia), Esopus Spitzenberg looks like this: “It is a large apple, oblong in shape, smooth-skinned and colored a lively, brilliant red, approaching scarlet. It is covered with small yellow specks. In hot and humid regions, the color is not as pronounced. The yellow flesh is rich, juicy, and sprightly, and in taste tests, it usually ranks very high. A shy bearer on slender, willowy limbs, this biennial bearer needs a pollinator.”
Eden Specialty Ciders also uses this variety as a component in several of its ciders, including the simply gorgeous Heirloom Blend Ice Cider. This is, in my opinion, a good place to start because it is utterly delicious.
Like many of the world’s finest dessert wines, the composure of this drink is as much about savory as is it about sweet; the viscous mouthfeel positions the flavor like a bubble on the tongue and the sensation is overly satisfying, a combination of taste and texture as tempting as anything one can drink or eat.
But it isn’t just indulgent; the quality and crafting are pristine yet natural and it is a proxy for the essence of heritage cider as a whole. Like all Eden Specialty Ciders, the heirloom apples are harvested seasonally, at the ideal ripeness. They are pressed at their peak. This happens once per year, in the fall, when the apples are ready because nature says so.
Some of this juice goes on to make ciders in various forms but some of it is set aside to be cold-concentrated in outdoor tanks for the ice cider. The turbulent Vermont winter is the treatment—no facility, just frosty air. No preservatives, color, sugar or flavorings are added (though there are minimal sulfites and organic yeast nutrients, as needed). This process takes one-to-three years and eight pounds of apples for a 375ml bottle that retails for $25.
Albermarle CiderWorks doesn’t experience the cold winter that sweeps Vermont in Virginia’s Piedmont region, so ice cider isn’t in the making there, but they have a slate of products that flexes with customer demand and fruit availability. Over 200 varieties of Virginia apples are grown in Albermarle CiderWorks orchards and owner Charlotte Shelton describes the range as “rich, winey, tart and sweet all at the same time.”
The Shelton family orchard started out as a nursery, a place steeped in Virginia farming culture. Siblings Charlotte and Chuck Shelton got inspiration for extending the scope of their plantings while participating at the Heirloom Apple Tastings conducted by Tom Burford, an author and consultant who has earned the nickname “Professor Apple.” These sessions were part of the Saturday Morning in the Garden series developed by Peter Hatch, Monticello’s long-time director of gardens and grounds.
The Sheltons sold trees and offered workshops to other enthusiasts and felt that the next choice for the business was a cidery, which was established in 2009 and launched with Virginia’s Governor Tim Kaine toasting Albermarle CiderWorks “as a testimony to the enduring appeal and viability of family farms and innovative agricultural enterprise.”
Albermarle CiderWorks nursery manager Bill Shelton sees the cidery as a “connection between the orchard and the glass,” and I think this is a lovely way to reconsider the trees that bear such fascinating fruit, an invitation to bring history, nature and agricultural wisdom into our homes to share with loved ones.
I no longer live in the house surrounded by woods; it belongs to another family now. I’m curious if they still have the little orchard. An apple tree in the Midwest generally lives up to 40 years—elsewhere, other varieties can live to see 100—so there’s a chance, and that gives me comfort. Sometimes old becomes new, and sometimes it just sticks around, waiting out change to find a place in cultural favor once again.
How To Choose A Cider
American heritage cider is becoming more present in the marketplace, satisfying beer and wine lovers with a range of flavors and presentations. How to choose a cider to wet your palate? Eleanor Léger of Eden Specialty Ciders offers the following tips.
Five Questions To Ask About A Cider
What are the varieties used to make it?
Where and how were the apples grown?
When were they harvested?
How long from harvest to pressing, and from pressing to packaging?
If it is fizzy or sweet, how did it get that way?