Juice for cider
'Round the Cider Barrel
Considerations for Operating
a Commercial, Non-HACCP Cider Mill in Vermont
Vermont Sunday Magazine
Published September 23, 2007
Cider's turn toward elegance
In the American colonial period, the universal
drink, even for children, was apple cider. That's cider as in hard cider,
mildly alcoholic, with just a touch of sweetness. President John Adams is
said to have had a tankard every day for breakfast.
Hard cider had pretty much disappeared from the American table by the 20th
century, the victim of safer water supplies as well as huge increases first
in beer and then in wine. Now hard cider is coming back, and just as New
England was the focus of early apple growing in this country, it is the
epicenter of the cider renaissance.
A clear leader in this development is Farnum Hill of Lebanon, N.H., operated
by Steve Wood and his wife, Louisa. Wood has transformed his traditional New
England orchard of mostly McIntosh into a fascinating hybrid of antique
eating and cooking apples and an array of cider apples from England and
France that few in this country have ever encountered � Ashmead's Kernel,
Stoke Red, Foxwhelp, Kingston Black and dozens of others. Some of his
varieties, such as Golden Russet, Esopus Spitzenberg and Ashmead's Kernel,
are good for both eating and cider.
For Wood, the operative word is good: He is aiming at the high end of the
market, hoping to inspire the growth of demand for fine cider that would
parallel the modern wine market, in which large numbers of producers make
excellent wines that differ from one another only slightly, with aficionados
debating the nuances of bouquet, taste, color and finish. And paying high
prices into the bargain.
At this point, the hard cider market barely qualifies as embryonic, but Wood
seems to be meeting the quality challenge. His Farnum Hill ciders have
received rave reviews from various food and general publications, including
the Wine Enthusiast, Saveur and The Atlantic. Vincent Gasnier, a prominent
British sommelier and wine writer, says that he agreed with the company's
claim that it produces the best ciders in the United States. "I would even
say these ciders are comparable to the best from France," he wrote.
Writing in The New York Times, food writer Amanda Hesser surveyed the hard
cider revival in the United States and concluded: "Farnum Hill Ciders stand
alone. If you swirl a glass of the sparkling semidry, a waft of citrus
blossoms and pear travels up your nose. It is dry and crisp, with a gentle
warming quality, like Scotch. � His extra dry has the same kind of vibrancy,
with an aroma of cherries and melon that seem to leap from the glass. It is
dry and distinct with a pleasant sharpness reminiscent of bitter oranges.
Both would be terrific with a meal."
Despite these encomiums, Farnum Hill and other quality cider makers face
difficult barriers in penetrating a market dominated by wine and beer.
Farnum Hill has succeeded in getting its ciders onto the menu in some
high-end restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern in New York City. But you can't
find Farnum Hill ciders at the Burlington City Market, or the Hunger
Mountain Coop in Montpelier, although buyers at both say they consider hard
cider an interesting product.
You can buy them at the Hanover Coop's outlets in Hanover and Lebanon, N.H.,
which also carries Woodchuck, a commercial variety made in Middlebury, and a
hard cider imported from Ireland. Dave Phillips, a beverage buyer at the
Hanover Coop, says Farnum Hill represents the high-quality line at his
stores. He said he personally likes Farnum Hill's farmhouse and summer
ciders, as well as the Kingston Black varietal, but that the extra dry is a
little too dry for his palette.
Farnum Hill is more than competitive at the Hanover and Lebanon sites of the
Hanover Coop. In 2006, Farnum Hill sold just over 1,700 bottles of its
cider, compared to just under 1,000 six packs of Woodchuck, the main low-end
cider sold. "It's like drinking Bud Lite versus something like Samuel
Smith's Oatmeal Stout," Phillips said. "I've had many customers come in and
say Farnum Hill is the closest thing I've had here to an English cider,"
The production of fine cider is so new that it is difficult to get figures
on its importance in the overall beverage market. A Cornell University study
estimated that cider production didn't begin to recover in the United States
until the early 1990s, but that it has grown rapidly since then. In 1990,
total production amounted to 115,000 cases. By 1995, the total was 1.6
million cases, and by 1997 the number reached 2.7 million cases. The
industry target is 75 million cases by 2015.
Much of this is less expensive cider, usually sold in six packs and made
from apple juice concentrate, similar to bulk wines made from generic grape
juice. A major distributor of six-pack cider is Green Mountain Beverage,
which is based in Middlebury. Green Mountain comprises the former Green
Mountain Cidery and the American Cider Co. Both were acquired in the late
1990s by Bulmers, a huge British producer and then sold in 2003 to the
Vermont group. Green Mountain Beverage (its actual corporate name)
distributes several styles of cider, including Woodchuck, Cider Jack,
Strongbow (imported from Britain) and Woodpecker, made in Middlebury from a
Bulmer's recipe. The firm actually accounts for about half the U.S cider
Boston Beer, the maker of Sam Adams, is also now making cider called
HardCore, and it has experimented with high-end production. In 1999, for
example, it made a limited edition, special batch made from 100 bushels of
eight varieties of classic cider apples. The apples are supplied by Farnum
The ability of boutique cider makers in Northern New England to build a
market for their products bears considerable significance for the overall
apple industry in the region. For the industry has been under siege for a
decade, with costs rising rapidly and prices stagnant, especially for
McIntosh, the main mass-market eating apple grown here. Some growers, like
Scott farm in Dummerston, and the Steve Wood operation, have been able to
get much higher prices for unusual varieties. At Scott Farm, Zeke Goodband,
the orchard manager, grows some 70 varieties of apples in a 6,000-tree
orchard and gets almost twice as much per pound for his exotic varieties as
other growers receive for more traditional mass-market apples, such as
The exotic varieties originally fell out of mass-market favor for many
reasons. Some simply didn't look very good. Some were brown, or greenish
brown when consumers wanted only bright red. Some tasted bland or even
terrible when eaten out of hand, but were much better when cooked in pies,
or made into sauce. Others were good mainly for cider. Varieties that were
good all around sometimes didn't keep well, or bruised too easily, or had
too small a selling window � good for a week or two, then they fade. That's
too short a time for them to be transported and sold.
What Wood and other growers of the old time varieties have found is that
some consumers, although by no means a new mass market, will pay for the
virtues of these old varieties. The potential problem, of course, is that
many producers can begin to grow them and flood the market, driving down the
prices. The virtue of a high-quality cider market is that consumers will pay
good prices for the small differences in flavors based on the blending of
ciders from different varieties. It all comes down to the skills and tastes
of the producer.
Steve Wood, a tall, powerfully built man of 52, got into the apple cider
business as a response to market conditions, mediated by serendipity. He
grew up in Lebanon, where his father was a family doctor with a penchant for
hard work and accumulating land. In the early 1960s, when Doctor Wood had
paid off his medical school bills, he began buying land around Farnum Hill;
one of the major pieces included an orchard and a sprawling old farm house
on Poverty Lane, which runs up Farnum Hill from Route Four. The site looks
west to the valley of the Connecticut and the Green Mountains beyond.
As a kid, Steve worked on the farm for his father, who he describes as a
slave driver. He mowed, pruned trees, baled hay for mulch, worked on
machinery, but he had no intention of getting involved in the farming
operation. Both before and after graduating from Harvard, Steve went west,
working in hard mining, partly to test himself physically, and partly
because his father had done the same thing to finance medical school.
By the 1970s, however, the farm began encountering more and more financial
difficulties, in part because of Doctor Wood's appetite for land and his
reluctance to develop it. The long and the short of it was that in 1979,
Steve decided to take a year to see if he could get the orchard back on its
feet. That involved selling some of the land and managing the orchard. In
1984, he and his wife Louisa bought the orchard property outright.
Known as Poverty Lane Orchards, the business was a traditional New England
apple operation. They had about 80 plus acres of trees, medium size for an
orchard in the region, and they grew and sold mostly McIntosh apples, along
with some Cortlands and Golden Delicious, marketing them through a broker.
In the 1980s, however, Wood's orchard � along with every other orchard in
New England � began running into serious trouble. The problem was that the
market was softening: People were eating fewer apples, and the prices were
dropping, while costs were steadily rising. For example, new equipment was
needed to pack apples mechanically. Orchard owners felt they had to build
controlled-atmosphere storage facilities, so they could hold fall-picked
apples for sale in the spring. Supermarkets, meanwhile, were imposing new
requirements on growers. The apples had to be absolutely blemish-free; they
had to be waxed, and they had to be as big as possible because they were
sold by the pound, whereas most consumers purchase a specific number of
And in the early 1970s, a truly nasty challenge in the form of the first
Granny Smith apple showed up from the southern hemisphere. "That should have
waked up the whole industry to the fact that we were going to receive
freshly picked fruit in the spring and it doesn't matter how good a storage
operator you are, you can't produce an apple out of CA storage that is in as
good condition as an apple that was picked two weeks ago," he says.
What most New England orchard operators did was to keep investing in the
machinery and infrastructure they assumed was necessary to stay in business.
Wood didn't invest in any of it.
"I just chickened out," he says. "I couldn't imagine spending that huge
portion of my equity on those machines, so I just didn't do it."
He continued to grow and sell high-quality fruit, and contracting for
packing and other services that he couldn't do himself, but by the mid
1990s, Steve and Louisa realized that they just couldn't make enough money.
"I think it was probably five years ago I sent my last trailer-load of fruit
off to a packer," he says, "and the return was such a joke that I thought,
'let's never do that again.'"
So they began to shift their focus, which is where the serendipity came in.
A decade earlier, Wood and his wife had begun visiting friends and family in
Wales, flying to London and driving through southwest England to reach their
destination. Southwest England is the home of the British cider industry,
and Steve would occasionally pull over to look at what seemed to him very
Eventually he began gathering scion wood � twigs clipped from the cider
apple trees � and he grafted them onto the old standards in his orchard. In
fact, he had two stands of these old standards down the hill from the house;
they call those stands "Below the Barn, One and Two." At the same time, he
became interested in and began grafting uncommon American apples. Hundreds
of these old varieties had been imported to the United States in the 19th
century from England, France, Central Europe and Russia; most had failed the
test of the modern market place, and had retreated to the fringe of the
apple business, surviving in old, abandoned orchards or in museum plantings.
Wood grafted dozens of these also, often exchanging scion wood with his
friend, Zeke Goodband, who was doing the same thing, first in southern New
Hampshire, and now at Scott Farm in southern Vermont. In addition, he made
contact in Britain with many cider apple growers and producers and he
learned much by talking to them.
"I got the notion that this would be an interesting sideline," he says. "I
could conduct a horticultural experiment to see which of these cider apples
would grow to a high standard in our growing conditions. Herefordshire and
Somerset, the cider districts of England, don't have our extreme cold, and
they have longer growing seasons." At the time, he considered neither the
cider apple project nor the growing of antique, or uncommon varieties, as
any kind of grand business scheme.
"I was treating this as a commercial experiment, but to be honest, it was as
much gardening as anything � I was just fooling around with apple trees."
Nevertheless, the flowering of the experiment converged with Wood's growing
realization that the traditional business model of the New England apple
orchard no longer worked. So the original business has morphed into his
Poverty Lane Orchards, which sells antique varieties, such as Esopus
Spitzenberg, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Golden Russet and dozens of others,
directly to retail outlets both in the region, and in high-end stores in New
York and several other major cities. The Woods market their ciders under the
name Farnum Hill Ciders, and they have been working hard to get the ciders
into the marketplace.
The first part of the cider challenge has been met. Wood has determined
which varieties, especially which of his English cider varieties, will do
well in Northern New England. He can grow them now reliably, and he has a
more than sufficient supply to serve the very small existing market. In
fact, he almost certainly has far more of these varieties than anyone else.
Many of his friends and colleagues are also growing cider apples, but Wood
appears to be the only one who has them in any real volume.
This year, for example, Wood has 4,000 cider apple trees coming into
production at a site he calls the Black Hill in Plainfield, N.H., a short
drive from Farnum Hill. He has thousands more at three different sites on
Farnum Hill itself that are in full production. These are in addition to the
uncommon eating varieties that he produces. In fact, Wood has more cider
apples than he needs, in the hopes that the market for fine ciders will
Growing the cider apples, however, is just the first step, and for a
lifelong apple expert like Wood, the easiest. Producing outstanding cider
from those apples is another challenge entirely.
The nerve center of the Farnum Hill operation is a cluster of three
high-ceilinged rooms in the basement of an old barn, just off Poverty Lane.
Two of the rooms house a couple of dozen storage containers � very tall
steel tanks, some squat plastic ones, and an array of classical, old-oak
55-gallon barrels laid horizontally on racks, the contents and year chalked
on their ends.
The third room contains some storage facilities, but is devoted primarily to
the mechanical ganglia of a fermentation business, including an ancient
French device to measure alcohol content. A small lab opens off this room,
where Steve and his crew take samples to help determine how to blend the
When Steve shows a visitor through the place, he'll draw off a couple of
small glasses from this tank and the other, swirling them, looking at the
color, and then musing in an impromptu tasting about the characteristics
each might bring to a final blend for the market. How much sweetness, or
bitterness does it have? Can you feel the astringency, the drying sensation,
of the tannins? How acidic is it? What kind of mouth feel does it have, and
what about the finish, the lingering taste notes after it has been
There are four different classifications of apples, based on different
combinations of acid and tannin, and the whole enterprise rests on the
ability of Steve and Louisa and the other tasters to blend them into an
appealing product. It isn't easy.
"I throw away a lot of cider," Steve says. "One of the biggest mistakes
people make when they get into this is to make more cider than they can
afford to throw away. It's an intensely competitive market. � People don't
come back and try something a second time if they didn't like it the first.
I mess around a lot."
At Farnum Hill, the blending of individual ciders is a highly rigorous
process. Steve convenes a four-person panel, that includes himself and
Louisa and two others. One of the tasters is often one of the Farnum
employees, Nicole Leibon, who has what Steve considers a very sensitive and
reliable palette. The remaining tasters could include one of the Wood's two
sons, Brian Goodwin, a member of the staff; Brenda Bailey, who manages the
administrative side of the business, and Fitzgerald Campbell, a transplanted
Jamaican who now lives in Lebanon and does the day-to-day management of the
apple-growing side of the business.
Steve and Louisa have taken professional tasting courses in Europe, but they
and their employees have developed a process of their own that works well.
"The idea is to empty your mind," Steve says, "and simply react to the
smells and tastes you experience � a peach, leather, dust, the neighbor's
dog � we have one we call FYM, for farm yard manure." The Farnum panel
tastes the sample, swirls it around, spits it out. Then they discuss their
impressions of the various flavors they've sensed, the degree of acid and
tannins they perceive, and they speculate about how consumers will react to
it. On the basis of this sensory data base, Steve blends and bottles the
At various times, Farnum Hill has had various blended ciders on the market.
In July and August, the emphasis was on a summer cider they released in May.
The others they regularly make include a Farmhouse cider, semi-dry sparkling
and still ciders and extra dry sparkling and still ciders. On the evidence
of the written criticism in the foodie press, they've done very well.
The pressure of the market place, however, hangs over the process, and it
shows up particularly on the issue of whether Farnum Hill ought to send to
market varietal ciders, those made from the juice of a single type of apple.
In the past, Steve has bottled and sold a cider from the juice of Kingston
Black apples, a particular favorite in Britain and one thought to have
enough balance to stand on its own. It brings the highest price of any of
his ciders, anywhere from $14 a bottle locally to as much as $30 in New
But Steve is scared to death of it. Many people love it, but some don't. The
cider is a lovely amber color, and it is smooth and almost rich, but some
drinkers sense a slightly musty odor. In the trade they call it
butterscotch, but in fact, it very faintly evokes the barnyard. FYM. This
bouquet is counted a virtue in Normandy in northern France, the spiritual
home of cider. But not necessarily in a country with little to no
acquaintance with hard cider.
"Even though we have been able to sell it, and sell it quite profitably, at
high prices, it's a terrible introduction to cider," he says. "The worst
reviews we have had are from people who go into a New York shop and pick up
a bottle of Kingston Black, and don't pick up any of our other ciders. I
mean, Kingston Black is just too freaking weird."
And in any case, Wood believes that cider ought to be blended to get the
best result. "You get a wider and more pleasing range of flavors and aromas,
a more balanced mouth feel, a cleaner, more structured finish than any
single variety is likely to give," he says. So when it came time to blend
the currently-on-the-market summer cider, he had to decide whether to add in
a truly wonderful varietal, Ribston Pippin. Everybody who tried it loved it
and urged Steve to release it as a varietal cider. But he tested it with the
other components of the prospective summer cider, and it made a real,
"So, phttp, in it went � there it goes. It's not Ribston Pippin anymore," he
says mournfully. "The goal is to make the regular cider as good as we can
Farnum Hill currently sells about 2,000 cases of cider a year, well below
its capacity. Wood has far more cider apples than he needs, partly because
doesn't want to run out of raw material if the market develops rapidly. But
he has no target volumes for the operation.
"I know that for this to work we need to sell considerably more cider than
we are selling right now," he says. "I don't know whether the right number
is 8,000 or 20,000. I'm pretty sure it isn't 50."
The marketing end of the business is handled by Louisa Spencer, Steve's
wife. It is a hard challenge, and Louisa is looking forward to turning it
over to a professional marketing person who will come to work for Farnum
Hill this fall. The essential problem, Louisa says, is that most people know
nothing about hard cider; in fact, most don't know that it exists. Even the
basic name is a problem.
Everywhere else in the world the word "cider" means fermented juice of
apples. In the United States, by contrast, cider is considered to be the
unfermented, or sweet juice of apples. Fermented apple juice has been known
as "hard cider." American (hard) cider makers are trying to persuade people
to call their products just plain "cider," but they have a long way to go.
So, Louisa spends much of her time traveling around, talking to retailers
and state liquor-control buyers about cider, its long history, the
differences between fine and commercial ciders, describing how they are
made, and so forth. She often starts with a power point presentation that
lays out these issues. This is all before she even gets to actually sell her
A second major hurdle is that the sale of any alcoholic beverage is hedged
about by a huge web of federal and state regulations. In many states, for
example, including Vermont, a producer can't simply approach a retailer to
sell his cider, rather he must work through a distributor. The distributor's
major lines are likely to be beer and wine, and if he doesn't pay much
attention to cider, there isn't much you can do about it.
And even if you get a retailer to market your cider, the lack of a big
customer base is a tremendous drag on sales. "We can get into a fancy wine
shop in New York," Steve Wood says, "and they taste the cider and they love
it; but they don't have any place to put it. Where do you put it? � They
don't have a cider section. So it winds up on the dusty back shelf with the
fruit wines, where nobody ever goes � with the Slivovitz."
The Woods' response to this is to do whatever they can to encourage
competition, to inspire friends in the apple business to make high-quality
ciders in hopes that the resulting market would take off, resembling the
"The wine market is the only agricultural market that not only doesn't
punish small differences between similar things, but actually pays for
them," Steve says. "Nobody expects a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a
Merlot-Cabernet Franc combination grown in Bordeaux to smell and taste like
one grown in Western Australia, to smell or taste like one in Willamette
Valley, or in Washington, or the Napa Valley, or Long Island.
"What's implicit in this is that if we can develop a market not only can it
tolerate a lot of competition, it would welcome it. What I would like to see
is a lot more good cider being made from good fruit because at the moment
our biggest marketing challenge is the absence of a category of fine cider
in the market."
In pursuit of this idea, Wood has urged Evan Darrow at Green Mountain
Orchards in Putney to try making cider. Green Mountain is the biggest apple
grower in Vermont, and has the capacity to become a major producer. Evan has
tried a few batches, but has not pursued it. Wood also hopes that Zeke
Goodband at Scott Farm in Dummerston will get into the hard-cider business.
Goodband grows an impressive array of excellent cider apples, but Scott Farm
currently has no plans to open a cider operation.
There are some other commercial cider makers in the region who make small
volumes of hard cider, but the ciders that come closest to the Farnum Hill
products have been made by what one might describe as very strong amateurs.
One of those is Terry Bradshaw, the chief apple technician at the University
of Vermont Horticultural Farm. He has planted a small selection of French
and British cider apple trees at the Hort Farm in South Burlington, and a
small cider orchard at his home in Calais. He makes very nice cider for
himself and his friends, but has no plans to produce cider for the market.
Another is Jason MacArthur, a 31-year-old Marlboro, Vt., carpenter, who
makes cider with a friend, Forrest Holzapfel, whose day job is Marlboro town
lister. MacArthur became interested in wine during a visit to France as a
teenager, and when he came back he thought: "Maybe cider is a local
Their approach has been to mix European cider apples with the best American
antique varieties. "It wasn't a scientific thing," MacArthur says.
At the outset they bought most of their apples from Scott Farm, but four
years ago Jason planted a 50-tree cider orchard on a side-hill pasture on
his grandfather's farm. He got a good crop last year, and this fall will be
in full production. The new orchard fulfills Steve Wood's precept that fine
cider requires a blend of the best apple varieties. MacArthur has planted
the best � Kingston Black, Golden Russet, Ribston Pippen, Esopus Spitzenberg,
His ciders are considered very good but might benefit some from more aging.
The amateurs generally age their ciders for six months or so, whereas Farnum
Hill will often age for a year, or two. MacArthur and Forrest are making 50
to 60 gallons of cider a season in a dozen or so five-gallon carboys, and
like Wood, they throw a lot out.
Have they thought about producing cider for the market?
"I don't know," MacArthur says. "I'd love to; it's a great way to make a
living, but to get the space you need and the right fruit and the pressing
equipment � to put it all together � is a pretty big investment."
There are no hard figures for establishing commercial cidery, but it could
run from tens of thousands of dollars to well up into six figures, depending
on what one starts with. What's needed is an orchard, a barn with some
concrete floors, equipment, plenty of it.
So what is the devotee of fine cider to do? You may stumble upon something
from Farnum Hill, but you cannot find it reliably. If you know somebody like
Terry Bradshaw or Jason MacArthur, they might give you a bottle, but they
can't sell it under the law, and they don't have much. You can pick up what
purports to be fine cider from small producers, and some of it is and some
of it isn't.
And even the best producers have to suppress their adventuresome instincts
in deference to a skittish embryonic market.
One day in July, Steve Wood pointed out a trio of barrels lying against a
wall in one of his storage rooms. Two-year-old Ashmead's Kernel. He found a
piece of rubber tubing, clambered up onto the rack and siphoned off two
glasses. It was terrific, every bit as good as the Kingston Black, but
without the barnyard bouquet that offends some consumers.
Is he going to bottle it? Probably not, he says. "It's so risky to release
varietals," he says. "I'll probably just dump it into a blend."
After some, well, wheedling, he agreed to siphon off and sell a couple of
bottles to his visitor. Would the visitor share?
Don't even ask.
Hamilton E. Davis is a Burlington freelance writer.
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