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Liquid Gold

Cornellians are at the forefront of New York’s hard cider renaissance.

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Black Diamond Cider owner Ian Merwin, PhD ’90, pours samples.

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When Cornell Cooperative Extension associate Chris Gerling ’99, MS ’06, opened up online enrollment for a May 2016 course on making hard cider, its twenty-five spots were filled within eight minutes. The class, offered at the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station several times a year for the past decade, is hardly for dilettantes: geared toward people aiming to get into the business, it costs about $1,300 and runs for five days. Nonetheless, he says, “we could’ve scheduled two more, just from all the people on the waiting list.”

Craft cider is having an “it” moment. Between 2011 and 2016, according to the market research firm IBISWorld, annual sales of hard cider nationwide increased an average of 27.3 percent annually—transforming it from a relatively obscure libation to a $300 million-a-year business. And although the industry overall is seeing a slowdown after that massive bump in popularity, the Empire State’s small, local producers are thriving. “The big thing that’s happening in cider right now is . . . everything. Everything is happening in cider,” says Ithaca-area cidery co-owner Melissa Madden ’04, who attended the first-ever meeting of the newly formed New York State Cider Association late last February. “It’s such a new, exploding industry, and everyone is looking to find their place.” Says horticulture professor Greg Peck, PhD ’08: “New York has more individual operations producing cider than any other state. There are about seventy right now—but the number increases almost daily.”

A number of those craft cideries are run by Cornellians, and the University is playing a major role in the rise of the state’s hard cider fortunes—from educating growers and cider makers via Cooperative Extension to doing research on apple cultivation and cider production. “If you look objectively at the big picture—where apples are grown, where the customer base is, where the interest in food is—the Finger Lakes should be the Napa Valley of cider,” observes Ian Merwin, PhD ’90, professor emeritus of horticulture. “We’ve got 70 to 80 million consumers within a few hundred miles. New York is the city in North America for food and alcoholic beverages. Cornell has the best apple program in the country and has for 100 years. Really, this should be the place. All the ingredients are here.”

Merwin should know. Not only is he an expert in fruit production who taught on the Hill for twenty-three years before his retirement in 2013, he has been studying and growing cider apples since the mid-Nineties—back when, he says, “everyone thought they were a ridiculous thing to be interested in.” He and his wife run Black Diamond Farm, a sixty-four-acre orchard in nearby Trumansburg—their heirloom apple booth is a mainstay at the Ithaca Farmers Market—and he produces his own line of hard ciders, primarily available at local stores and restaurants. “I’m not interested in making more than 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a year,” he notes. “I only want to make what we can do with our own fruit in our own style. We’re making high-quality ciders in limited amounts.”

That type of sentiment is common among small cider makers, who see their craft as akin to that of winemakers—and distinct from most large producers. One basic but key point of differentiation, Merwin says, is that mass market ciders are generally sold in six-packs, while craft ciders come in wine bottles. “If you’re selling your cider in twelve-ounce bottles, you’re competing with beer,” he says. “It’ll be on the shelf with beer, and people expect that they’re going to pay a beer price for it—but cider is much more expensive to make than beer.” More importantly, Merwin notes, many mass market ciders aren’t actually made from fresh apples. “They’re made from apple juice concentrate, which is a global commodity; much of it comes from China and Eastern Europe,” says Merwin, whose orchard has been a source of cuttings (known as “bud wood”) that have been used to propagate hundreds of thousands of trees nationwide. “It’s inexpensive and of inconsistent quality.” Madden compares it to “making wine out of grape juice that you got in the freezer section.”

Small craft cideries, by contrast, tend to see their libation as seasonal and artisanal, sourced from fresh, locally grown fruit—often a complex mix of little-known heirloom varieties from France and the U.K., where hard cider has thrived for centuries. “We’re making a fine product, from our farms—and that’s true of everybody in here,” says Madden, gesturing around the cozy, rustic interior of the Finger Lakes Cider House, a cooperative tasting room located on the farm that she and her husband run in Interlaken, half an hour northwest of Ithaca. “Cider is an ancient craft, and it’s a highly artistic way of expressing fruit and alcohol. A fine cider allows you to highlight the flavors of a place. We think the Finger Lakes is special, and we’re pleased to offer it in a bottle that someone can take home with them.”

The Cider House tastes and sells five brands, including Black Diamond and Madden’s Good Life, which is crafted by her husband and brother-in-law. Like another popular Ithaca-area cidery— Bellwether, co-owned by Bill Barton, MS ’77—the Cider House is on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, which generates a fair amount of its traffic. “Some people will come in here and ask really basic questions like, ‘Is cider made from apples?’ or ‘Does it have alcohol?’ ” Madden says. “But for a lot of people who are randomly on the wine trail, that’s their starting point.” Madden often works in the tasting room, where she sees her role as part educator; in August, the Cider House hosted a staff training event, open to the public on a limited basis, on “how to taste the orchard” in numerous New York State craft ciders. “We’re giving people an understanding that cider doesn’t have to be really sweet, and it doesn’t need to be cheap. It’s not; it’s like wine,” she says. “A lot of people who come in—especially men with their wives—say, ‘I don’t like cider; it’s so disgustingly sweet.’ And I tell them, ‘Great, you are gonna be so happy. You do like cider, you just don’t know it.’ ”

A Vintage Drink

Hard cider has deep roots in America. In Colonial days, Merwin notes, every farm had an orchard, and cider consumption was ubiquitous. “It was men, women, and children; they drank it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he says. “It was low-alcohol at a time when there were few safe drinking sources for travelers.” With urbanization, though, the economics of beer won out—grain was cheaper than apples, easier to store, and available year-round—and Prohibition eventually dealt the hard cider industry a near-mortal blow. But in recent years, some stars aligned: unlike beer, cider is gluten free; its craft varieties appeal to locavores; it pairs well with food; it contains healthful antioxidants; and its modest alcohol levels (typically around 7 percent) make it a safer bet if you’re driving. Says Gerling: “People have started to pay a lot more attention to what they’re eating and drinking. They’re asking, ‘What’s in this? Where did it come from?’ Cider checks a lot of the boxes.”

Craft cider starts, unsurprisingly, with apples—but usually not the kind you get at the grocery store. Those familiar eating varieties, known as culinary or dessert apples, lack the required sharpness and complexity. “Generally speaking, apples that taste sweet and pleasant are not good for hard cider, because once you ferment the sugar out, there’s really nothing left as far as flavor,” says Eric Shatt, manager of Cornell Orchards and co-owner of Redbyrd Orchard Cider, another of the Cider House’s brands. “But with tannins and acidity in the fruit, once the sugar is fermented out you’re left with some character and flavor.”

So cider makers favor varieties that are sometimes nicknamed “spitters”—those that contain four to five times as much tannin as eating apples and are so bitter or astringent, the average person would take a bite and spit it out. At Good Life Farm, Madden and her husband grow “fifty-plus varieties—probably more than half of which people have never heard of.” They sport such evocative names as Ashmead’s Kernel, Stoke Red, Kingston Black, Brown Snout, and Wickson Crab. Although the couple is adding some 300 trees a year, their own orchard can’t yet fully supply Good Life’s burgeoning cidery, which grew from 550 gallons of production in its first year (2013) to 7,000 in its third. So it sources apples from other local growers—including Cornell Orchards, on whose land Merwin first planted cider-specific varieties in the early Aughts. “We have the store here on campus, and 90 percent of what we grow is fresh table fruit,” notes Shatt, who has a particular passion for propagating interesting varieties from long-abandoned and overgrown Upstate orchards. “A very small amount of what we grow is sought after by hard cider producers—and we could certainly sell 100 times more if we had it.” Among the major growers of cider varieties in New York, Merwin notes, is one of his former students: Mark Nicholson ’94, who runs Red Jacket Orchards—an operation on nearby Seneca Lake that Merwin calls “a key source of antique American apples”—with his twin brother, fellow CALS alum Brian Nicholson ’94.

In 2013, the state legislature passed the Farm Cidery Law, which streamlined paperwork and created a new class of licensing for small operations making cider exclusively from New York apples. This summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo—calling the state “the epicenter of a burgeoning craft beverage industry”—announced that a tax credit for beer producers had been expanded to include cider (as well as wine and spirits). The state is also home to an outpost of the nation’s top-selling brand, Angry Orchard, which opened a small-batch cidery, tasting room, and research facility in the Hudson Valley in 2015. “Upstate New York is economically depressed, and one of the few growth sectors is alcoholic beverages; it’s something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on,” says Merwin. “In America, per capita consumption of fresh fruit has been pretty unchanged for the last fifty years; we can’t really get people to eat more apples. That was what got me interested in heirloom varieties and cider, because we need value-added, alternative things to do with apples, and cider is an obvious one.”

Since 2011, Peck notes, hard cider production in the U.S. has grown a whopping 850 percent—but given the time required to establish an orchard, fruit production has lagged behind. As a land-grant institution, part of Cornell’s role is to help New York growers figure out what to plant and how best to nurture it, via research and Extension outreach activities. “Orchards of cider apples are being planted in New York—we certainly are seeing an uptick,” Peck says. “I and others at Cornell are trying to gather data on that, but we don’t have those numbers yet. There is a challenge in the sense that when you have an industry that’s growing so fast, commercial apple growers have to make a decision: am I going to plant Honeycrisp or Gala, or a European cider apple? They have to have some security that the market is going to be long-lasting, because an orchard is a twenty- to twenty-five-year investment.”

From Lab to Libation

An expert in tree fruit production and a member of Cooperative Extension’s recently formed Hard Cider Program Work Team, Peck is aiming to devise optimal methods for growing high-quality cider apples. He’s evaluating such factors as ideal amounts of sunlight and water; working on ways to ensure consistent crop yields from year to year; and developing methods that optimize levels of polyphenols, the chemical compounds (also found in wine, tea, and coffee) that give hard cider a complex flavor and robust mouthfeel. “New York has a fantastic climate for growing apples,” he says, noting that it’s second only to Washington in annual production, but arguably first in quality. “The warm sunny days and cool nights in the fall really help drive flavor.”

Apple breeder Susan Brown, another member of the Work Team, has long had an interest in cider varieties. The horticulture professor and director of the Geneva Ag Station is doing research that addresses a number of common challenges, including susceptibility to a bacterial disease called fire blight and a tendency for fruit to fall off the tree before harvest; she’s also working to improve fruit size, since smaller apples yield less juice. She’s in the process of writing a patent for a new variety—as yet unnamed—that isn’t cider-specific but offers promise for the industry. “We’re in a wonderful place to grow apples, and Cornell has a cadre of excellent researchers who are enthusiastic about cider,” Brown says, adding that a cider company recently moved into Cornell’s Agriculture and Food Technology Park in Geneva. “When our work group held a meeting for people who are interested in cider, it was standing room only.”

Olga Padilla-Zakour, PhD ’91, chair of Cornell’s food science department, is studying ways to make flavorful hard cider using culinary apples widely grown in New York, like Empire, Jonagold, Ida Red, and Macintosh. She’s currently working to develop an apple-based additive, similar to what’s long been used in the wine industry, to increase tannin levels during cider production. “We know our New York varieties have good acidity and good sugar balance to produce the alcohol level that we want,” she says. “But we’re lacking in the tannins, the phenolic concentration. So we’re looking at ways to increase those compounds by different means.”

And starting this spring, Cornell’s Enology and Viticulture program is offering its first dedicated undergraduate coursework in cider making. Peck and a colleague will co-teach a one-credit lecture class in cider production and a 1.5-credit cider production lab. Additionally, Peck will offer a three-credit course in ecological orchard management. “Cider has a long tradition in the U.S., and in Europe all the way back to Roman times,” Peck observes. “Successful products have a good story to tell—and I think cider has a great story.” 

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