How These Vermonters Are Foraging Their Way Toward a Hard Cider Revolution
Perry and Louisa live on a ten-acre plot of land not far outside of Middlebury, Vermont. He teaches math at a high school; she’s a professor at the nearby university. Their property features idyllic views overlooking Otter Creek, a feature they prize far more than the collection of untamed apple trees that grow under their noses. Not that these trees don’t add to the beauty, but outside the occasional good season where a couple of trees produce fruit the couple deems edible, most of them simply fertilize the ground or feed the local wildlife. So when each walks over to Colin Davis, one of the men behind the Shoreham-based cidery Shacksbury, and his small group of cohorts who are about to haul away dozens of bushels of their fruit, both Perry and Louisa are happy to see that this year all those apples won’t be going to waste.
Davis was simply driving down the road when he noticed the wild growing trees. During harvest season he always keeps an eye out for unused fruit for Shacksbury’s Lost and Found Craft Cider, which he makes from foraged apples. After a polite knock on the door, these two strangers gave Davis permission to pick from their property; in return, they’re offered a case or so of the cider they will have helped make, albeit in a somewhat passive way. As Perry chats with the Shacksbury guys—today, just a three-man foraging operation—he explains the kind of cider his wife is into: the farmhouse style, not too sweet. Michael Lee, the lauded cheesemaker behind Twig Farm who could best be described as Shacksbury’s secret weapon, helping Davis hone in on which fruit will work best for his project, listens quietly from the edge of a truck bed full of apples. A knowing smile crosses his face: “It won’t be too sweet.”
Shacksbury, the brand Davis launched with cofounder David Dolginow in 2013, began foraging for apples early on. They dubbed their first vintage the 1840; subsequent foraged ciders, including last year’s harvest, are now known as Lost and Found. It’s fermented from a balanced mix of heirloom cider apples and what Shacksbury calls “lost apples”—that is, the fruit they forage in Vermont.
“There is this incredible resource and diversity in the region’s wild or forgotten fruit,” says Davis. Some of these trees were planted by early settlers in Vermont centuries ago. Others sprung up naturally as seedlings. “We have thousands of unique varieties of apples hiding in Vermont. And some of them will make really great cider.”
As Davis walks me around today’s foraging site, the origin of these trees seems relatively unimportant; instead, he’s on the lookout for apples that fit their ideal cider profile.
I’m encouraged to grab apples from the ground or off a tree and take a bite: Some of these apples are red, some green; some with a crisp flesh, others mealy; some delicious, and some so bitter I almost have to spit them out. Davis points me toward the three factors that make an apple most fit for cider: acid, tannins and sugars—sugars that don’t necessarily make the apple taste sweet, but instead assure that it will be fermentable. Despite getting a schooling, I had trouble picking up on what exactly made one cider apple better than another. But Davis, with the help of Lee, has it down to a science, foraging the hell out of one tree while bushels' worth of unworthy apples from another were left for deer food.
While, getting free produce through foraging certainly isn’t bad for the bottom line, Shacksbury has much bigger plans. For found apples with particularly appealing cider attributes, Shacksbury hopes to graft and propagate these unique varieties into their own small commercial orchard. Foraged harvests can vary wildly each season, but trees in a managed orchard will bear fruit more consistently year after year.
Later that day, Davis takes me to Windfall Orchard in Cornwall, Vermont, owned by Brad Koehler, an acclaimed local cider maker and apple enthusiast in his own right. Despite being only 3-acres big, Windfall has about 200 trees producing over 80 different traditional and heirloom apple varieties. The diversity is awe-inspiring in its abundance and its colorful beauty. Davis leads me toward the back of the orchard to a tree where they’ve grafted a cutting from one of Shacksbury’s finds. “This one has notes of coconut,” Davis tells me. And sure enough, as I bite into it, I’m hit with a slight but distinct taste of piña colada and I immediately begin to wonder what the resulting cider would taste like—something to look forward to years down the road.
The 2014 vintage of the Lost and Found is wonderful: golden and translucent in its unfiltered, naturally fermented glory; lightly effervescent with those small bubbles unleashing a massive, slightly funky, green apple nose. The taste is delicious: a dryness on the palate gives way to a puckering sour that resolves into a complex finish of apples, bitterness and lingering minerality. Compared to Shacksbury’s Classic cider, the Lost and Found has a bit more of everything—a bit more funk, a bit more acidity. It’s very much in line with what’s happening in America’s new cider movement, which is to say it’s very much in line with traditional, naturally fermented ciders, the kinds you find in France or Spain but that for years lurked in the background of an American cider landscape dominated by far less complex beverages like Angry Orchard and Woodchuck.
Of course, the 2015 Lost and Found will taste slightly different. The foraged varieties won’t be the same; the blending proportions will be different. But the overall profile should be similar; and the promise this cider carries with it remains unchanged.
Perry and Louisa were happy to see their fruit get put to use, and certainly, that’s part of the benefits of foraging. Even more intriguing, however, is the possibility that one of those apple varieties, left growing on their property without much consideration, could become the next great cider varietal. IIt’s as if you had the next Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing wild in your backyard and you didn’t even know it. Shacksbury believes there’s an innumerable number of amazing “lost” apple varieties out there that can be used to make apple ciders the world can get excited about. The next one to be “found” could even be in your own backyard.