Cider is up for debate. It didn’t used to be and it certainly shouldn’t be, but it is. After visiting Warwick Valley Winery in upstate New York, the makers of the acclaimed Doc’s Draft hard cider, the story of this historic and once incredibly popular beverage began to unfurl.
If you are like most Americans, when you think of cider you picture that sweet, unfiltered apple juice that hits store shelves in the early autumn. Unfortunately, thanks to Prohibition and some strange legislative tinkering, that notion isn’t quite correct.
Cider, since its inception, has meant the product derived from the fermentation of apple juice, or “hard cider” - the first alcoholic beverage to reach our shores, brought over by English settlers. At the time, and well into the 19th and early 20th centuries, cider started as a necessity when water supplies were suspect during the colonial era. It evolved into the drink of choice during meals and at the bar.
The question is, what happened?
Basically, prohibition happened. Cider never recovered from that doomed decade-long social experiment. Other industries including local breweries and distilleries also never recovered, paving the way for the mass-produced beer conglomerates that still take up most of the store shelves. The era of Prohibition was also the time of some concerted semantic tinkering, which is why in many states, the law still stands that “cider” simply refers to unfiltered apple juice.
But now cider is back on the upswing, even though, according to Jeremy Kidde, co-founder of Doc’s Draft, it was not without its problems. He recalls that no bar owner or distributer even gave them the time of day back in 2000. They only wanted to know: is your product as cheap or cheaper than the cider we stock now? It didn’t matter that Doc’s Draft was handmade and locally produced, until, of course, it did. Thanks to things like the Slow Food movement, artisanal and locally produced products are prized for their freshness and high quality compared to factory or mass processed goods. This bodes well for many small farmers and manufacturers like local cideries.
Enter Doc’s Draft today, stage right. When speaking to Jeremy and his partner Jason, they had nothing but high hopes for the future, not only for their company or even for cider, but also for the continued success of the Black Dirt region of New York and local agriculture in general.
Doc’s Draft produces several fine examples of cider, another aspect of their success. From their original cider, 100% local apples with a honey-like aroma and a deliciously tart finish, to their pear (my favorite), raspberry, pumpkin and black currant, these guys really know what they’re doing.
I had the privilege of getting a guided tour in Doc’s Draft’s production facility, located only a couple miles from their original headquarters. They are currently the biggest cider producer in New York State, distributing about 100,000 gallons a year. To put that into perspective, the largest American cider producer, Woodchuck, produces over 2 million gallons annually. This allows Doc’s to retain its handcrafted, small-scale quality while still distributing to over 20 states.
The first step of production is the apples, lots of apples, almost 9000 pounds for a single 1000-gallon tank. The original orchards used to be able to supply all of them, but as the business grew, they’ve had to look elsewhere for suppliers. It is worth noting here, however, that their suppliers are all local NY orchards from the surrounding region. These apples are then put through a cider press that looks like it’s from the 1800’s. It’s actually not that old, from the mid 1970’s, but its certainly wooden and gnarly looking.
The apples are sorted, then ground up and dropped into a series of layers separated by wooden dividers, and a cloth resembling cheesecloth is draped in between them (these layers of apple mush are aptly named cheese). A motorized press then descends and squeezes out every last drop of liquid, which is then quickly pumped to a series of gigantic fermentation vessels.
These tanks, stark and monolithic, reside in two long rows of six or seven. Fermentation is achieved with champagne yeast, which gives Doc’s Draft a crisp and refined palate reminiscent of a light and fruity white wine. After fermentation is complete, the cider is still pretty thick and chunky. To combat this, the tanks are cooled close to freezing to allow all the particles to settle. After this, a quick pass through a very serious filtration system and into bottles.
All in all, it takes about a month to go from ripe apple to bottled cider. The transformations that occur during that time are both ancient as well as refreshingly modern. Cider is not meant to be complicated. Rather, it embodies a sense of elegance in its simplicity, a quality that more and more people are coming to enjoy.
Of course, like most alcoholic beverages, there is a popular and earnest cider homebrewing movement. Looking back to our agrarian roots, homemade cider is no longer strictly a farmhouse product. In fact, with just a few simple ingredients and some time, anyone can have a crisp and complex cider to enjoy on a brisk, sun-swept autumn afternoon. Without relying too heavily on flowery metaphor, I think we can proclaim this debate over. Cider is here. And technically, it always has been.