Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The United Hard-Cider States of America

Yes, its true, America makes cider and I have one of the best jobs in the world. I'm heading State-cide (ho ho!) on a trip to have a good look a whats happening up in the north east region of the US.
Back in June, the morning after my wedding, the very trustworthy and American sounding treasurer of the formidable Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association USA, mister Mike Beck, got in touch to invite my sore-headed self and iPhone-drowning author Pete Brown on a whirlwind 8 day trip to document the cider scene in the area at the top of the States between New England and the Great Lakes. It felt like the most unexpected of wedding gifts, something I wouldn't have dared hope for and was about the only thing that could actually make that day better. That and some pain killers.

We'll be kicking off our trip the day after my 36th birthday in September and whilst the final details are being sorted, its shaping up something like this so far.. 

Stage 1: A roadtrip around the beautiful New England area to get the low down on cidermaking there. We start by visiting Steve Wood of Farnham Hill Cider (NH) and then head out to meet a few more likely types including Eden Ice Cider (VT), Slyboro Ciderhouse (NY), West County Cider (MA), and Green Mountain/Woodchuck Cider (VT.)

Stage 2: We're then flying over to Detroit to meet up with Mike Beck and attend the Great Lakes Cider Festival at Uncle Johns Cider Mill in Michigan. (I know nothing about Michigan other than it gets very cold up there in winter, there is wildlife that can eat you and its full of interesting settler type history.) The following day we head right up to the very northern part of Michigan for a very special cider dinner hosted by Tandem Ciders. Then south to Muskegon on the western part of the Lower Peninsula to tour Vandermill Cider with the whole trip culminating in a ferry trip over a massive lake to visit  AEppelTreow cider in Wisconsin (another state I also know less than nothing about) to finally arrive back to earth with a slump as we crawl vaguely towards Chicago to find an airport home.

The more of this cider travel we do, the more often we meet people that assume their own culture is the only that makes cider, or the original one anyway (with the notable exception of Americans so far.) I first noticed it a few years ago when I was chatting with a French barman in Brittany and he was genuinely surprised to hear that we make cider here in UK. After some convincing he simply shrugged nonchalantly muttering something about everyone wanting to be French 'zeezse days' which made me laugh out loud in his face. In a Monty Python moment, being typically French, he became the stereotype we British seem to grow up with that all Frenchman have a very French Franco-centric outlook on rest of the world (Is it pride? Being British, its hard to tell -we're crap at it) I then realised I am as guilty at being Anglo-centric about the things I assume to be British, as I'm sure many cultures are. Its good to be reminded that the assumptions we hold onto (even without realizing it) can be wrong and nothing points that out quicker than traveling. Even those amongst us that realise other cultures make decent cider, are convinced that they can't possibly make it as well as us. When I told a friend 'I'm off to the States to have a look at their cider scene' his (standard UK) response was "America? What the **** do they know about cider..?" to which I replied as honestly as I could "I dunno, but there are an awful lot of them doing it and I think they've been making it for ages, so I intend to find out. I'll let you know." 

If there is one thing I've come to realise before I've even checked in online, it's this: I dare anyone, here in UK or anywhere else, to say that they don't take cider seriously in the States, they really do. They may not have the ancient heritage of other cultures or billions of the familiar cider apples or a large cider drinking market (yet), but they have passion and that counts for more than the rest put together. Indeed, those (our) traditions can can be limiting and not having them can make progress more forthcoming. Have you seen their cider map, its somewhat convincing... that's alot of cidermakers and the fact they have kindly offered to fly us over, put us up, feed us and show us around indicates a high level of commitment and seriousness to me! Much of the original cidermaking traditions and skills the US had, which came over with settlers, may have been lost during the prohibition era, not something we've ever had to experience thankfully. I envisage similar things to what happened in US craft beer movement and look what the Americans did for that... these are exciting times my friends.

The trip will give us both a chance to collect good material which I hope to share here upon my return. Shooting from the hip as you travel is something I'm used to doing to a certain extent, but this is a massive trip with a huge amount of personal interest for me. We have been invited to the 2011 Great Lakes Cider & Perry Festival right in the middle of it and I hope my trigger finger can handle it. My liver might be a little more swollen by the time I arrive home but I should hopefully have enough recuperation time before another visit to Brittany, meeting and photographing some of their cideries, 10 days or so later.

I have also been asked to represent the Bath & West Show Orchards & Cider committee as an ambassador to encourage some entries for the 2012 show from these US producers. The international section of the B&W show raises an interesting predicament. We had something like a whopping 3 entries this year (2 from Spain and one from France) which makes the judging somewhat less stimulating. As a section, it would have a wider benefit everyone involved in cidermaking as more entries would allow artisan producers from overseas to push the boundaries of what we think cider is and can be here in UK. It would be great to see other styles from another countries enter the scene, spread their word and maybe win some an awards. Competition is the life blood of success and has been so at the Royal Bath and West Show since 1777. For the simple act of sending over a 750ml bottle of cider (for a measly $32) the winners receive a certificate boasting of their success at one of the oldest and most respected cider competitions in the world. As well as it looking great hanging in the cider shed, it'll really raise awareness here in UK and Europe that the US cider scene has not only arrived, but is thriving.

The main aim of the trip is for us to gain a greater understanding of what cider means in USA. I anticipate its a culture that'll be familiar and new at the same time. It'll give me the chance to collect lots of photography, the very best of which I hope to share with you all upon my return. It'll give both of us a chance to report back to Europe (Hörst du mir zu? ¿Estás escuchando? Etes-vous écouter? Hmmmmm?) on whats happening there and our common future. I really think we're going to see US Hard Cider here in UK over the coming years (they call it hard - we call it cider.)

I caught up with Steve Wood briefly when he was over here at the end of March visiting Julian Temperley from Burrow Hill cider (some snaps below.)


  1. Just came back in The Netherlands, after a visit to the cider farm of Julian Temperley this Monday (his is to see on your pictures underneath your USA Hard Cider Story). Amazing again to meet Julian. We tasted the cider apples and expect the best for this year's crop. Anyway, he mentioned American Cider and his wish to trade with the USA. Though regulations make it almost impossible, he said. Trading with Holland is then easy (with us, the Ciderwinkel) acoording to him. This time I also bought 5 boxes of Cider Brandy and Pomona from him, that I'm going to sell in Holland. Trying to sell. As far as I know I'm the first in this country that sells UK cider brandy (next to some importers of calvados). Is there also cider brandy in the USA?

  2. Enjoy your visit here, you're almost at the best time of year to visit New England (autumn). Cider has been exploding here in the past several years. New England apple production in general kind of died down a lot in the past 50-100 years since they can grow more faster out in CA and west. We generally lost what cider orchards we had back during prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. lots of northeastern orchards in general were turned over to housing development or other uses. As a personal hobby (like myself) it's always been not too uncommon in the more rural-ish areas, but now we are seeing lots of small commercial operations (and even now "big" ones like Poverty Lane/Farnum Hill). As you know the vast majority of our mature orchards are a few sweet table/desert apples like Macintosh etc but between interest in hard cider and interest in new varieties of eatin' apples we are rediscovering the true huge universe of apples, both heritage American and UK varieties and new varieties as well.

    - RH in N.H.

  3. That is great to hear you are getting in a trip to see the some of the cider scene we have in America (and Pete Brown seems like a great travel companion for something like that). The ongoing development of the cider culture here in America is certainly an interesting thing. The times here overall in the food & drink arena are ripe for growth, both with the craft beer surge and with the local food/drink movement of the last few years. I live not too far from Farnum Hill and enjoy their ciders often. Especially enjoyable are the Doorhouse series that they recently began bottling. These more adventurous releases, for lack of better phrasing, can be a bit challenging sometimes to the typical American idea of what hard cider is but the complexity can be tremendous. They have been selling growlers of the doorhouse releases out of the barn for a while before they began bottling so I have tried a few different ones. They even had a perry for a while. Time spent traveling in Europe and living in the UK in 2010 while taking a brewing course exposed me to some of the traditional ciders and having Farnum Hill nearby is a wonderful benefit. I work as a brewer but enjoy my share of cider.

    Also want to add that I enjoy your photography. I dabble in it a bit with photographing beer and have especially gotten some nice photos from my half dozen trips to Belgium over the last 10 years. Your photos of the Welsh cider festival made me reflect on how my photographs at beer festivals I have been to in the UK & Europe tend to come out better than ones I have gone to here in th US and think about why that would be.
    Bit of a long comment but... good luck with trip & hope you get some great material.

  4. Okay, I'll try not to comment on every post, as I go back through your blog, but don't people make cider everywhere? In South America, I've had chicha (usually homemade) and cidra (bottled and sold) in Argentina and Chile. I have never traveled through Europe or Asia, but to me, cider seems almost integral to anyplace that apples grow well.

  5. George: I am indeed very lucky!

    Raul: Glad to hear you've been to visit Julian, Burrow Hill is about 15mins drive from where i live so next time you are over please let me know, I'll meet you there and say hi. Yes there is cider brandy in USA, I tried some and its very smooth.

    Reed: I find American cider history fascinating... its like a whole new chapter in a book that I didn't know existed! Whilst in New York state, I got given a copy of a Johnny Appleseed book which Ii plan to read next week whilst in Brittany. Prohibition and temperance seem to have alot to answer for, I think it changed the American palette bigtime. More on this another day though.

    Mike: Pete Brown is the perfect travel companion for a trip like this. He's much more experience than I am at trips like this and I learn alot from him. Farnham Hills Dooryard series are really good, I know Pete took a few bottles home with him (I managed to drink mine somehow...) Beer and cider share a special relationship here in UK, cider culture is much more akin to beer culture here unlike in other places where it seems to have more in common with wine culture. Glad you like the vibe of the festival photography, all I ever want to do with my photos is let people who didn't see what I saw feel like they did, because its often a nice feeling! Thanks for commenting.

    Christine: Please do comment on every post if you want to, it's really nice that you want to and I welcome your feedback and opinion!
    I think you're right, I have a theory that apple growing areas will always have a version of cider wherever they are in the world. I know Japan makes some sublime apple wine, and I'm sure other parts of Asia, where apples grow well must have some kind of cider culture. I want to root it out!