Area producers are resurrecting an ancient craft

Wednesday October 10, 2012

Like the Pilgrims, hard cider came over on the Mayflower, but only re cently has it been gaining new styles, flavors and fans in a market dominated since Prohibi tion by sweet, unfermented apple drinks.

Always popular in France and Spain, even in some parts of Germany, hard cider began a comeback in the United States after home brewing was legalized here in 1978. First, home cider makers, then small commercial cider houses began to resurrect the ancient craft.

Now, even major beer makers are producing it. Anheuser-Busch has a cider out, Michelob Ultra Light Cider. And Boston Beer Co., makers of Samuel Adams, last spring introduced three varieties of Angry Orchard cider -- Crisp, which is a little sweeter, Apple Ginger, and Traditional Dry, a mellow, slightly tangy drink in the style of an English draught cider.

Today, with sales of $71.5 million reported for the year ending Aug. 5, more than a 50 percent increase over the same period a year before, great ciders are becoming easy to find.

At Furnace Brook Winery in Richmond, owner John Vittori began making and selling Johnny Mash American hard cider in 1997, a decade after buying 200-acre Hilltop Orchards with his sister, Wendy Vittori.

He made what had been a casual hobby into a thriving part of his business.

"I was inspired by a trip to England," Vittori said. "It started as a hobby for me -- producing farmhouse cider. I didn't take it very seriously until I took this trip.

"What impressed me was the quantity of cider in the supermarkets right there with the beer, and as much cider as beer. Here, at that time, if you could find it, hard cider was just one dusty bottle on the back shelves. I thought to myself, ‘What a good business project to add to our orchard.' "

Vittori came home and did some research into ciders in America as well as Europe. In addition to its Pilgrim provenance, he found out a lot of other things about it.

"There was a barrel of hard cider in every basement in Boston," he began. "One of our presidents was famous for drinking cider. John Adams was known to drink a tankard of cider every day. That's about a liter.

"President [William Henry] Harrison [elected in 1841] would give away cider at his speeches and rallies." he went on. "Robert Frost wrote a poem ["A Glass of Cider"] about cider. Ernest Heming way was well known for his love of cider."

"I did a lot of research," Vittore said. "Cider was No. 1 until people starting going out west, away from where the apples grow. Beer began taking over. It only needed barley and hops and water. You could make that in a lot more places."

Vittori said he wanted to make an American cider when he created Johnny Mash.

"It intrigued me. I always heard stories of how people's fathers and grandfathers made cider in the United States. At the time I got into it, it was just starting to come back into the market in a commercial way.

"The cider market has grown significantly in the last few years," he said. "Our focus remains on making these hand-crafted batches of cider and distributing them locally. Getting bigger is a different sort of business.

"We started, initially, with our Johnny Mash, distributing throughout the Northeast," he said. "I found myself a traveling salesman in Manhattan. I was away. I wasn't here. After five years of this I said, ‘Wait a minute. We're gonna make a new business plan.' I wanted to make Furnace Brook and Hilltop a destination.

"Now, we sell mostly out of the winery," he explained. "Being in many locations works out for some people. You can be successful with one, as well.

Vittori uses McIntosh and Northern Spy to make Johnny Mash and ages it in American oak barrels.

"I wanted to create ciders on New England varieties," he said.

Vittori also makes a Nor mandy-style cider, his French Cidre, which he ferments in the French style, on the apple skins, just as red wine is fermented on the skins of the grapes.

"Then it stays in French oak," he explained. "We import the oak barrels from the Nevers Forest."

Cidre is a light, drier sparkling hard cider, "like a white wine," Vittori said.

He rolled out Apple Ice Wine, a sparkling, sweet, concentrated dessert wine, in June 2011.

He described the complex process he uses to make ice wine. Cider is frozen, partially thawed and screened a number of times to condense the syrup before it is fermented, filtered and bottled.

"We are looking to triple the sweetness of the cider so it turns into a sweet apple nectar," he said, lovingly. "It's so smooth and sweet and yummy. I drink it as an aperitif. I just enjoy it on its own."

In Colrain

Terry and Judith Maloney began their 31 2 acre West Country Cider in 1984 in Colrain in nearby Franklin County.

Current cider makers credit them with fostering today's hard cider activity. They developed about 10 American and European style ciders from dry to fruity and sweet. Their selection would change each year based on which of their apples did best.

Terry Maloney died two and half years ago, but his wife and his son, Field, are carrying on the business.

West County Cider is probably the oldest contemporary commercial local cider house. Their ciders are considered very fine.

Brought from North Hadley

This summer a new area small cider house brought its ciders to the Lenox farmers market every Friday.

In 2001, Jonathan Carr and his wife, Nicole Blum, bought farmland in North Hadley on the side of Mount Warner.

In 2007 they planted a selection of 1,500 American and English hard cider apple trees. This year, they are selling their first "line of hand-made, barrel-aged, small-batch hard cider," Carr said.

After growing specialty foods for restaurants on his family's farm in Ireland, Carr, who grew up in New York state, went to the University of Massachusetts graduate school at Amherst to study plant science.

"I had this idea that I could become a cider man and orchardist. I could take something I grew myself and make it even better," he said.

The three ciders his cider house produces on a refurbished century-old Mount Gilead cider press are quite beautifully presented.

He is beginning to place them in wine shops around Berkshire County.

His father, Peter Carr, a re tired international development economist, sells Carr's ciders at the Lenox and the Northampton farmers markets.

In the next few weeks, Carr and Blum and Carr's father if he is around -- and all the other cider makers -- will begin this year's pressing and cider-making processes, which continue until it is too cold to continue.

The pressed apple juices will then cold-ferment, to become hard cider.


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