Monday, July 25, 2022

Cornell and NYCA Hard Cider Summer Tour

I love to see apple orchards, but I’ve mostly gotten to visit them in the Fall. That’s amazing; I have no complaints, but I was so excited to get an invitation recently that would allow me to see an epic orchard in high summer. This past Friday, I got to go on the Cornell and New York Cider Association (NYCA) Hard Cider Summer Tour which includes a really special orchard and a sapling nursery among other fun educational and delicious stops. Here’s how the full day went!

Star Cider in Canandaigua, NY

Visit Star Cider online here:

We started our day with a thorough tour of Star Cider with cider maker and co-owner, Cortni Stahl to learn about Star Cider’s story, how they make cider, and the unique considerations that continue to shape this cidery. Cortni showed us their fermentation space, tasting room and even shared pictures of the Airstream trailer that she and her cidery co-owner/husband moved into in order get their cidery dream off the ground.

One of the most interesting facts we learned at Star Cider was the range of fermentation times for their cider. The shortest time apple to glass is about 3 weeks which blew my mind. The  longest takes more than a year because of barrel aging. 

The other element of their production and sales that stood out is that in the tasting room, Star Cider is tapping and selling directly out of 5 bright tanks. That saves them tons of time and labor for all the steps usually required for kegging, bottling, or canning. These core ciders are the ones that the tasting room tries to have available all of the time, while many other ciders rotate in and out. Cortni spoke with us about how much she’s learned that their consistent fans want to try new flavors of cider. 

We finished our visit with a cider taste. I tried the Appley Ever After, a cider Cortni describes as being champagne inspired. It was very pleading, so I bought a bottle to bring home for myself later. 


Our next stop was my most anticipated of the day: the USDA Germplasm Collection!

Learn about the Apple Collection here:

Yes, that sounds like a mouthful, and the word germplasms might not immediately sound like an orchard. But this was a very special orchard tour.

Our host was Ben Gutierrez; he told us about the mission of the USDA’s apple germplasm collection. It’s very much a living preservation of apple genetic diversity. It’s also a wonderful collection of apple trees that can be used in other scientific studies. One of our coordinators, Dr. Greg Peck also spoke to us at this stop about his lab’s work. His lab uses the Germplasm to analyze and compare apples and apple trees for their different qualities in ways that directly affect the cider industry.

USDA germplasm in Geneva has approximately 52 apple species, 1800 cultivars, and 7k different trees. This blows my mind. I won’t be able to get all of the specific details shared correct, but lots of what we talked about was Malus Domestica and its various wild ancestors like Malus Sieversii and Malus Sylvestris.

Now, some researchers are studying the possibilities of rewilding apple trees: using the reintroduction of wild genetics in crosses to improve apple hardiness and disease resistance. I think my favorite phrase used was that apples have only undergone a “Soft domestication.”

Fireblight came up a few times as an important threat to domestic apple varieties. Other projects study acidity or tannins in the apple genome as well as fruit color, and disease resistance.

The Orchard has an open house on September 19, so that’s already in my calendar! This place was amazing. Just walking from tree to tree and seeing how different the plants are from one another inspires awe.

Lunch was a sumptuous taco buffet and Churro cookies provided by Lake Drum Brewing! We enjoyed our tacos outdoors on a shaded pavilion. The sweet potatoes al pastor filling was simply amazing. What a perfect choice! Thank you, Chef Luis and Lake Drum Brewing! I wish I had paused long enough to take pictures of the spread before simply inhaling it. At this point, some folks brought out ciders they’d brought to share informally. There were some treats, but it was too hot and too much driving and touring ahead for me to feel particularly investigative.

Cornell Agritech Craft Beverage Lab

You can visit Cornell’s Craft Beverage Institute online here:

Folks at the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute divided us into three groups and took us through the Craft Beverage Analysis Lab, the Vinification & Brewing Lab and the Fruit & Vegetable Processing Pilot Plant. Each was very different, but all were fascinating. Anna Katharine Mansfield showed us the beverage analysis lab and talked us through what tests they do and for what sorts of businesses; there are tons! At the Vinification and Brewing Lab, we saw what small scale experiments can be done to learn about different yeasts, single varietal ciders, and all sorts of beverage experiments that don’t make sense to do on a commercial scale. We also saw apple presses in the fruit processing pilot plant. Everything was so shiningly clean with lots of Cornell Red!

Red Jacket Orchard: Juice Processing and Fruit Tree Nursery

Learn about the juice, the farmstore, and the orchards online:

Again we had to split up here after getting some history of Red Jacket from second generation famer Joe Nicholson. It was a fascinating story; his father moved the family from poultry farming on Long Island to a finger lakes fruit stand. Now the operation is substantially larger and more varied. On the nursery side, we heard from Matt Murphy and more from Joe who spoke with more passion for pears and apricots than perhaps anyone I’ve ever heard. I’ll quote, “We are indebted to apricots, substantially.” Red Jacket is planting 20 acres of apples a year in the high density orchard style. He honestly made me want to turn my neighborhood green space into a fruit orchard. It’s a dangerous dream.

Third generation Red Jacket man Brian Nicholson toured us through the juice facility; and discussed their distribution history, production processes and took many questions from our curious crowd. The ingenuity and scale of the place was mind-boggling! 

Finale: Cider Pub Crawl with Lake Drum Brewing and Star Cidery

Visit Lake Drum Brewing online here to learn about their ciders:

We started at Lake Drum Brewing where we could taste some ciders and discuss what we learned. I already know I’m fond of a few Lake Drum Ciders, so it was a happy reunion. It was fun to see the grad students, orchardists, and cider makers mingling and getting to know one another casually after our big educational day of touring. 

I honestly didn’t even head to the Star Cidery for a second because I had a concert to catch in Trumansburg. What an amazing day!

Thanks so much to the New York Cider Association and Cornell’s Cider Program for making it happen! 

New York Cider Association:

Cornell Hard Cider Resources: