Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Great Vermont Cider Tour: Day 3! (Plus a bonus stop in New York)

After bidding a fond au revoir to Barney and Dee at Sunrise Orchards, my trusty cider assistant and I headed to downtown Middlebury where we met up with David of Shacksbury Cider.  He took us to Windfall Orchards, where we all hung out for a good while with orchardist Brad and with Misty the dog.

Shacksbury is the brainchild of David (originally from Kansas City) and his business partner Colin, both Middlebury College graduates.  They were fascinated by the tannic quality of English ciders, and so with unique transatlantic partnerships (most notably with Once Upon a Tree), they're now making cider in Vermont using a blend of American and English apples—even some Spanish ones too.  Since the start of 2015, they've gotten distribution beyond state lines and a earned thumbs up from Alice Feiring of the New York Times.  I served some of their Classic at my birthday party this year, since it's available on tap at Ithaca's own Cellar d'Or.  Keep an eye out for a review here.

Brad then showed us around his small but impressive and well-connected 3-acre orchard.  Windfall provides rare varietals to many cideries in Vermont, but their most public partnerships are with Shacksbury and Eden.  Brad and his wife (noted food author Amy Trubek) started working the orchard in 2002, but it's hardly new: their oldest tree is from 1918. That's the tree below. Glorious.

Windfall presses their apples three times per year, measuring careful blends of at least twelve varieties.  Shacksbury's batches are then given slow natural fermentation in uninsulated tanks, and afterwards are bottle conditioned. As David, Brad, and I discussed all this, I was casually handed a scrumptious Chenango Strawberry and St. Laurence apple to eat.

From there, the drive to Woodchuck Cider's home base was only five minutes, but in many respects it felt like a world away.  If you're reading this blog, you know who Woodchuck is.  

You need tanks like these to make eight million gallons of cider per year. You might also note, my adorable cider assistant. 

Woodchuck employs 150 Vermonters, and the cidery sources a huge amount of its apples from in-state (including from Sunrise Orchards, where we stayed last night), but as Caitlin their communications manager told me, their production demands exceed what Vermont can supply, and so they partner with growers in New York and the Yakima Valley too.  They value their local roots: I found their tasting room filling already at 11:30am, and this Saturday, August 20, they're hosting their annual Ciderstock concert, with Sublime.

Woodchuck is the flagship mark of the Vermont Hard Cider Company (which is owned by Pabst, and which also runs Wyder's), and offers both their classic drinks and a host of more recent mass-market experiments like Gumption and the Out On a Limb series.  I'm fond of some of their more straightforward ciders like the Local Nectar (of which I snagged a Michigan-edition sixpack), but I was also happily surprised by their June & Juice (review coming in a month or two.)

Their current facility opened in 2014, and it is enormous, clean, and designed for ecological efficiency.  

They can fill 600 bottles a minute here, and Woodchuck's R&D folks designed and built their own flavor extraction tank for specialty infusions like mint and chocolate.  As with other cideries, Woodchuck also barrel-ages a number of their ciders (like their Private Reserve Cherry).  

We picked up a growler of their 25th Anniversary Cider (like I said, I enjoy the classics), and then finally started the long drive home to Ithaca.  But there was one surprise stop waiting for us.

Glancing at the map, I realized that the Slyboro Ciderhouse was right on the way home, and so I called Dan from the road and set up a quick visit. He was amazingly kind to just let me drop in. Thanks, Dan!

Based in Granville, NY, Slyboro is part of the Hicks family farm and orchard, which has been operating as a public U-pick farm since 1905.  Nineteen-Oh-Five!  You can still visit the whole, beautiful complex, where they've been adding two acres per year of English and French varietals of bittersweet and bittersharp apples.

Dan's family came here in 1974, and the Slyboro cider brand was launched in 2005, which in the cider world makes them veterans.  Dan has made a number of ciders over the years (check out my reviews of his older varieties linked to the right), but these days he's settled on five in-house favorites, which total 12,000 gallons per year, mostly available in New York state.  

The Kingston Black is one of the best single-varietals and one of the best still ciders I've had, period.  Its notes are almost steak-like.  The Hidden Star is their flagship dry blend, with hints of malt.  La Sainte-Terre is a surprising and bold cider mixing complex bitterness with a 1/6 dose of sweet, rich ice cider.  Their Black Currant is a top-seller, and its fruit-forward notes make it easy to see why.  And their Ice Cider has compelling favors of peach and a good mouthfeel that finishes cleaner than many ice ciders.  I'll definitely go deeper in reviews later!

During a tour through the production room, Dan revealed that he and his team learned cidermaking by first creating single-varietal ciders of every apple they grew.  That way, the flavors were more easily understood.  "We learned quickly it was a blending art, needing one note of this and two of that to develop something that will stand on its own."  Knowing that Dan's background is in fine painting, it's easy to imagine how blending flavors might work like mixing colors. 

And from there, the long but lovely drive home.

So after all these exciting travels, tasty ciders, and thoughtful, kind people, two things occur to me.  First, the cider world is pretty small.  Folks know each other, and help each other out.  They offer apples, pressing, juice, bottling, internships, budwood, and advice to each other, and it really reinforces what I love about the larger cider family.  Second, everyone's experience is just a little different, depending on what they're doing and how.  An orchardist and an apple-dreaming mystic both approach business differently from one another, and an entrepreneur blends apple juices differently than a chemist.  I feel so lucky that these perspectives come together in creating so many different ciders, and to be afforded these visits and windows into these people's lives.  Thanks again to everyone for letting me visit!

In case you missed it here's Day 1:

and Day 2:

And thank you for reading!