Nearly 25 years ago I moved out East for school and fondly recall my introduction to the ubiquity of fresh apple cider and its harvest festival offspring, the cider doughnut. What I didn’t know then is that fresh cider is merely the “soft drink” remnant of an historic hard cider culture that took root in America during early colonial times and held sway up through the close of the 19th century. In its unrefrigerated heyday, fermented cider was as pervasive as its fresh counterpart is now — you could find it on every breakfast table and at every local tavern. Though Prohibition brought the beverage to near extinction, today a cider resurrection is underway in New York’s Hudson Valley.
The reemergence of hard cider has aligned itself nicely with the local, culinary, craft, and maker movements of the last decade, and the Hudson Valley – once known as the state’s “Apple Belt” – provides the ideal landscape. Not only is the region alive with creatives looking to engage with the land, but the valley’s soil, climate, and topography are so optimal for apple production that it feels as though the fruit and the countryside were made for each other.
In recent years a wave of enterprising producers have joined the clutch of cider visionaries like Elizabeth Ryan (Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider) and Dan Wilson (Slyboro Ciderhouse) to revive cider culture up and down the Hudson River. Sparked in large part by the efforts of my colleague at Glynwood, Sara Grady, their numbers have grown from a small handful to dozens of distinct operations. What began under her guidance as a learning exchange between Hudson Valley producers and their counterparts in Le Perche, the renowned cider region of France, grew into an annual celebration of cider, and ultimately the establishment of an independent New York state trade association.
Cider maker Tim Dressel of Kettleborough Cider House witnessed this cider awakening from the inside. Growing up on a fourth generation wholesale apple farm in Ulster County he was poised to start his craft cider business when the French exchange was proposed. “I was very lucky with the timing, to ride this out from the beginning. A lot happened in those first couple of years and it’s exciting to see the explosion of interest – more cideries seem to be popping up every week.” Tim sources all his apples directly from his family’s farm; in addition to common eating apple varieties, he is growing twenty European cider apple varieties as well. The sweet apples that find their way into fresh cider tend not to yield optimal results when it comes to the hard, more refined stuff. These days many Hudson Valley producers are experimenting with more tannic and sharp cider varieties such as Brown Snout, Chisel Jersey, and Porter’s Perfection.
Josh Morgenthau of Fishkill Farms is a newer entrant to the groundswell, but he’s no stranger to apples. He runs his family’s 100-year old historic, diversified farm and orchard, where they’re pushing the boundaries of how fruit is grown with a combination of low-spray, eco-certified acres and certified organic ones. Given their environmentally sustainable practices, Fishkill’s apples are often blemished, “ugly fruit” that isn’t perfect for direct sales, so hard cider made sense to effectively utilize their crop. “It’s really exciting to see the growing interest in quality cider, much like the American wine movement twenty to thirty years ago. Locally and across the country there is a community of cider makers developing new styles, not tied to European traditions. But we have a real boundary to overcome, to familiarize people with farm-based, orchard-based ciders that are very expressive of place and the cidermaker’s skill.”
Education has been essential to expanding the local movement, reshaping industry and public perceptions around the taste and suitability of cider, and building the market for sophisticated alternatives. The “craft cider lobby” has had to fight the powerful narrative that cider is a seasonal beverage, only suited to autumnal imbibing by a crackling fire. Cider quality has also required some definition. While larger, national brands of hard cider have been available for decades, they associated the drink more closely with cheap beer than cider’s true visceral cousin, wine. And very much like fine wine, hard cider can achieve a high level of complexity based on its surrounding terroir, fermentation process, and the custom blend of apples used in its production. Think less wine cooler, more Champagne.
Increased public appetite for interesting craft cider has lead to expanded demand for cider-specific apples, which is strengthening the financial picture for orchards, farmers, and cidermakers alike – precisely what Sara envisioned early on. The comparison has been thrown around for years, but those in the Hudson Valley industry anticipate the region could become as well known for cider as Napa and Willamette Valleys are for wine.
For now, a lazy day-trip around the region yields ample evidence of the valley’s branch-to-bottle resurgence, with cideries and tasting rooms dotting the map. When I sidle up at my neighborhood bar, it is increasingly easy to find regional cider choices on offer year round. Restaurants are beginning to recognize the special affinity local cider and foods have for one another, every bit as compelling as the classic connection between plate and vine. Fortunately, in the Hudson Valley, cider roots run deep.