Today, I want to talk about a highlight of the recent Finger Lakes Cider Week. Of course, I love the tastings and the pairings and hearing folks thinking seriously about cider, often for the first time. But, this was something altogether different and very special.
I was invited to join a group, drawn from both home orchardists and cider lovers, to tour Cummins Nursery and talk about apple choice and apple growing for cider. And the orchard happens to share a site with my favorite local U-Pick spot, Indian Creek Farm. Thanks very much to Autumn for the invitation.
This was the official description:
Twilight Walk, Talk and Picnic Dinner with Autumn Stoscheck of Eve’s Cidery and Steve Cummins at Indian Creek Farm
With the American cider revival well under way and hundreds of new ciders finding their way to market each year, folks are making cider with whatever apples they can get their hands on. But is it good cider? In this interactive tour/talk tasting we’ll take a look at what makes a good cider variety and why.
4:00pm -5:00pm – We’ll tour Cummins Nursery and learn why you should plan 3 years ahead of planting your cider orchard and just what goes into propagating apple trees. We’ll also take a look at various planting systems and tree sizes from modern slender spindle to 100 year old full size trees and discuss their implications for cider quality.
5:00pm – 6:00pm – We’ll sit down to discuss cider apple characteristics and how they translate into cider while tasting cider varieties like Kingston Black and Ellis Bitter and cider made from these apples. Where does a cider get it’s structure, finish and balance? Which cider varieties best represent Finger Lakes terroir?
6:00pm – 7:00pm – Dinner and drinks! Picnic dinner by the Piggery plus a glass of Eve’s cider, family style in the orchard. Farmer/Chef Heather Sandford will give a brief introduction to her famous Finger Lakes charcuterie and why it pairs so well with local cider. Make sure you RSVP – This event is $15 per person and includes dinner and drinks.I know Autumn and ciders from Eve's Cidery well (https://www.evescidery.com). My respect for the cider and Autumn's knowledge were a huge draw for me. I've been hearing about Cummins nursery (http://www.cumminsnursery.com)since moving to Ithaca more than three years ago. But enough foreword, let me share a bit about the event itself.
This picture is some of the group leaving the young section of the nursery. Steve let us know that right now there's a three year wait to even get many varieties of cider apple trees. Their orchard has been growing these varieties for more than 16 years ago, but back then they couldn't sell them. This reminds me of my own thought that so many cidermakers right now just long for a time machine, so they can go back 7, 10, 15 or more years ago to plant European cider varietals, heritage apples, and interesting crabs.
As we moved through the orchard, I could hear folks crunching on apples and stepping on a few drops as well. But drops don't necessarily mean the same thing to a cider maker. Autumn took the lead on this topic, sharing what she's found effective for her cidery. She emphasized that there is not only one way to go but many. She wants apples with the most possible fermentable sugars, so she wants really ripe apples. Apples picked too early have more starch and less sugar, so when they are ripe enough to drop onto the ground, that's when they have the most sugar. With a little preparation on the ground, they can be cushioned safely. In cider, we have no need for a firm or crisp texture for an apple; bruising is okay. Its all getting milled and pressed.
As I was listening, I also observed the crowd. We had a wide variety of backgrounds repsresented, from folks who never drink cider and only know orcharding to folks like me who have never tended an apple tree or fermented a cider. There were also some hospitality industry folks, serious cider people, wine-oriented individuals, and attendees just eager to learn and enjoy the picnic.
One of the elements that helped a lot of audience members understand the translation from fresh apple to finished cider were the plentiful comparisons to Finger Lakes wine region. Lots of drinkers still don't expect the power of fermentation to change flavors in cider. This was a major takeaway message and one worth keeping close. Cider isn't apple juice with a kick. Cider is as different from fresh fruit juice as wine. And that's a beautiful beautiful thing.
Which leads us into the discussion and tasting of different apple types. For cider, there's not any benefit for maximizing yield for quantity; grow for quality. And we were tasting for specific qualities of: tannin, acid, sugar, and aroma. These are the raw ingredients that can be most directly traced from juice to cider.
I would need video and several apples to accurately express this chapter of the experience. Lots of apples that make great cider, so not make for tasty raw treats. But its worth it to taste a few spitters to get an idea of what just tannin, just sugar, or just acid tastes like in an apple. Its also fun to see other folks make crazy faces when they taste bittersharps and bittersweets. This section also really brought home the importance not only of having good fruit, but creating good blends both at the press and again after primary fermentation.
Then we got to tasting ciders by Eve's Cidery and picnicing. She shared with us several ciders and described her whole portfolio of ciders in a striking way. These are six different ciders for six different uses. I love it. I've always approached cider not in a quest to find my one true favorite, but I love sharing ciders with people and with moments.
And for me, this was one of those evenings. The October light was lovely. Steve and Autumn shared their knowledge and also their honest and well-founded opinions. I felt surrounded by people who really care about apples and cider. The picnic was great (I was impressed that The Piggery can put together a lovely spread even for vegetarians). And I got to enjoy Autumn's Gold from a Magnum. But more seriously speaking, I appreciated getting to taste the Eve's Cidery lineup with simple fare and time to focus on the flavors and textures brought by very special apples.
And stay tuned for Cider Monday in Ithaca! We'll have cider makers sampling and selling all kinds of awesome Finger Lakes Cider in locations all over downtown Ithaca on Monday 11/28/2016.