One Rutgers researcher is hoping to help put the state back on the hard cider map.
Megan Muehlbauer
Rutgers University researcher Megan Muehlbauer.
| Credit: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

America’s ongoing cider renaissance is steeped in history—driven by small-batch producers working with (sometimes even reviving) traditional cider apple varieties and utilizing classic cidermaking methods to produce complex concoctions reminiscent of the hard cider of pre-Prohibition yesteryear. But just because the cider industry is embracing the past, doesn’t mean history is repeating itself entirely.

Take New Jersey, for instance. At the turn of the 20th century, the state was America’s leading cider producer, accounting for 23 percent of U.S. output in 1899, according to New Jersey Monthly. As of January 2018, however, the state was home to just four cider producers: Only 14 other states have fewer.

Megan Muehlbauer, who works at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, believes the state can do better. She’s looking for ways to improve cider production within New Jersey and provide producers with the tools they need to succeed. Those efforts include testing the viability of specific cider apple varieties—including the Harrison apple, which was once a staple of New Jersey cider making—in the state’s current climate, as well as demonstrating ways that growers can see these fruit flourish quickly to make sure these ventures are financially viable too.

“The hard cider industry has been very successful in states like New York, Vermont, and Oregon, and I think we can model our own ‘local’ successful industry after them,” Muehlbauer told me. “As an extension agent, it is important for me to help longtime growers in my state find new and creative ways to propel their farms into the future, but also to help guide new growers to develop successful farm operations.”

She says eventually, she’d like to see enough producers in the state to warrant an entire cider makers association, which she believes would be proof that New Jersey has become “a cider making destination” in its own right. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. “If I can narrow it down to five varieties that have great yields and can handle disease pressure really well, I will feel like I have made a contribution to the industry and can help it move forward,” she explained

Muehlbauer says her interest in apple research began as an undergraduate. “I have always been fascinated by how many varieties of apples have been breed, grown, and propagated. Concurrently, I am fond of hard cider, and began to do some research on hard cider apples only to find out that the varieties used for ‘traditional’ ciders are completely different from those used in some of the more mainstream sweet ciders,” she stated, explaining a common misunderstanding about how different ciders are produced. “After that, I was hooked; I wanted to help teach growers in New Jersey how to develop profitable ‘traditional’ hard cider orchards.”

Maybe if you find yourself drinking an awesome New Jersey cider at the turn of the 22nd century, you’ll have Megan to thank.