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Adventures of Cider Man

Steve Wood admits that the tiny apples he grows are "revolting." But when he ferments and bottles them, they make a drink as sophisticated as Champagne.

Steve Wood doesn't mince words. Why did he 'doze out acres of excellent New England Macs and replace them with 7,000 trees that give him nasty, bitter little apples even a pig would spit out?

"It was simple," he says. "We realized that once we finally had all our trees producing Macs and Cortlands for six dollars a box, we'd have to sell off lots for housing developments to pay the bills." The revenue from those apples barely covered the cost of growing them.

So now he has the largest plantation of cider apples in North America.

As the proprietor of Farnum Hill Ciders, Wood is one of a handful of specialty cider makers determined to restore respect to America's oldest and, arguably, most refreshing alcoholic beverage. He and his wife, Louisa Spencer, have bet their New Hampshire family farm on the prospect. And it's a dicey wager. Americans today consume fewer than 10 million cases of fermented cider annually, most of it cloyingly sweet, mass-produced and sold on tap or in six-packs. That's fine if you like it, Wood will tell you, but it's rather like comparing Blue Nun with a Bâtard-Montrachet. He wants his Farnum Hill cider to be as fine as the Champagne-quality ciders that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once served to visiting diplomats.

Not that cider was the first thing that came to mind almost 20 years ago when he and his wife decided to buy the family orchard where he had spent his boyhood summers working for his father, a local general practitioner who sold apples on the side. Before going back to apple growing, Wood had collaborated on television documentaries, worked on a hard-rock mining crew in Colorado and picked up a degree in history from Harvard. In 1983 he and Spencer were driving through England and Wales on a vacation. "I saw these tall, narrow hedgerows of apples, weird stuff I'd never seen before," he says. "I was fascinated."

They were cider apples, some brown, some bright red, most of them kind of blotchy looking, on trees whose trunks were hardly six inches in diameter. The couple started talking to the farmers, tasted their distinctive dry ciders and began learning the strange names of the English varieties (Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout, Chisel Jersey) and a few French ones (Médaille d'Or, Bramtot).

"These apples! They're incredible!" Wood says, throwing up his hands. If he's feeling puckish, he'll snap one off the tree--smallish, creamy yellow or rosy and rough--offer it to you, watch your face contort and laugh diabolically. "Right, they're revolting! Their only excuse for existence is to go into cider."

Bitter like a green persimmon. Sweet as a bite of honeycomb. Pithy but still hard. And just the sort of hard little apple you need to make a rich, sharp, sophisticated cider.

In France and England, thousands of acres are devoted strictly to cider apples, as they once were here. (Most European cider varieties come from seedlings first planted in the Middle Ages.) The orchards from Pennsylvania to Missouri that the nineteenth-century midwestern folk hero John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, spent his life developing were almost all for cider--the reason being that such cheap seedling trees produce small, bitter apples high in both sugar and tannin and thus ideal for cider.

Until around 1830, nearly every American farm kept a small cider orchard to provide winter beverages for young and old alike. Parents diluted the cider for their children, or else made a weaker version, but in any case, lacking refrigeration and distrusting their water sources, they found it the most reliable liquid available. The arrival of beer-drinking German immigrants and the burgeoning of temperance campaigns in the countryside gradually eroded the demand for cider; Prohibition, passed in 1917, all but killed it.

The cider resurgence of the past 15 years has been the work mostly of a few New Englanders. The two largest labels, Woodchuck and Cider Jack, while technically Vermont family operations, were founded by New York and Boston businessmen. (They are now subsidiaries of Bulmers, the world's largest producer, a British corporation that operates on several continents.) Right behind them is Hard Core, a drier, slightly fuller-bodied, more complex keg cider made in Cincinnati by the people who brew Samuel Adams beer. Wood and Spencer have no objection to these ciders. "Our market is not the same market," Wood explains. "You find their drinks down at the end of the beer shelf with the wine coolers."

Farnum Hill, meanwhile, is following a very different path. Wood and Spencer sell their ciders in 750 ml bottles with a demure, elegant label that couldn't be more unlike Woodchuck's cute little rodent or Cider Jack's apple on a bulging biceps. In most shops, Farnum Hill's large bottles won't even fit on the six-pack shelves. But only in the past year or two has the company begun actively courting wine shops. Most of its cider either sells right off the farm or goes to upscale country inns and restaurants. Nancy Henderson, of Sunset Hill House, a Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, resort hotel with a distinguished kitchen, offers it as an alternative to wine, especially with poultry and pork. David Campbell, who runs Ceres Street Wine Merchants, a boutique shop in nearby Portsmouth, says, "It's got a nice sparkle to it. They're on to something."

"People come up to our big tent in the fall," Spencer says. "They see the wine-tasting glasses, maybe they notice others taking a sip, and we say simply, 'Want a taste?' We never push them. A lot of people find it too dry and back away, but those who get the point, those who are interested in the complex flavors, are usually very impressed, and they buy it."

Most Farnum Hill ciders are dry and lightly tannic with complex undertones, not only of apple but also of raspberry, mango, oak and general autumn muskiness. That combination of flavors and aromas marks great ciders wherever they're produced--in Somerset, in Normandy or on the lower slopes of the Picos de Europa in Spain. It's what sets the small, quality cider labels apart from the six-pack ciders.

Yet Wood and Spencer are chary of falling too far into wine comparisons. "There's this new style of winemaking," Wood notes, "that's focused on making each wine recognizable as the work of the particular maker, his choice of such and such yeasts and oak. But I'm more interested in the effect of the land and the fruit than of the winemaker's hands. The point is that I grow apples. We're trying not to add any special 'technique.' My cleverness is finding the right fruit and the right land. We want the fruit and the land to sign the bottle."

Frank Browning is the author of Apples and, with Sharon Silva, of An Apple Harvest: Recipes and Orchard Lore.

Published November 2001
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