One of the first people to bring back hard cider production in 20th century Maine was Tom Hoey of Brooksville. Hoey began home-produc-ing cider in 1983 and commercial production in 1991. Under his Sow’s Ear Winery label, Hoey not only crafts hard cider, but wines from a variety of local berries, including blueberries, choke cherries, cranberries and grapes. His massive hand-powered press evokes the days when orchards were common in the region.
Hoey has refined techniques like the French méthode champenoise for making exquisite, carbon-ated off-dry hard cider. The dégorgement—removing sediment from the bottle—is still done by hand. He describes his sparkling cider as having a “crisp, tart, natural style” that comes from the wild yeast picked up in the fermentation; no sugars or sulfites are added. The 60-gallon oak barrels aging in the huge split stone cellar of Hoey’s 1870 house connect his present-day offering with almost-lost traditions.
And that is at the heart of the cider quest: combining old knowledge with new discoveries, or as the case may be, rediscoveries. Noah Fralich started Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester using local apples, as well as traditional English, French and American varieties, to make a range of hard cider styles. He tends to use the traditional varieties for bitterness or tannins that contribute complexity and depth to the cider produced by more acidic, local apple varieties.
Fralich says, “For me, planting older, rarer, more cider-specific varieties is an opportunity to explore the past and reestablish an old American tradition.” It also provides an opportunity to work with local ingredients that he understands intimately. “My approach to cidermaking is simplicity of ingredients,” Fralich says. “The higher the quality of the fruit and wider breadth of varieties, the less one has to compensate with additives.” While there’s always room for experimentation, Fralich adds that his main focus is on the apples, that he thinks of his cider as an agricultural product as much as a beverage.
Bunker backs that up by saying that because good fermented cider has just one ingredient, the onus is on its maker to choose wisely. “It’s like the difference between an orchestra and solo guitar player,” Bunker says, comparing cider to beer’s multiple ingredients. “With the orchestra you can blend it all together and hope that your violin doesn’t sound too bad, but when you’re on stage by yourself, that’s all there is. If your only ingredient is apples, then the apples you use become really, really important.”
Getting what Fralich calls “interesting” apples into the mix is the challenge for enterprising cider-makers as they work with what’s locally available while waiting for their own young trees to mature and produce. Fralich started in 2011 by clearing forest on his family’s property and planting cider apples by the hundreds. In 2013 he built and inau-gurated a new ciderhouse, and started selling and distributing his cider throughout the state.
“We’re only just beginning to explore cider in this country,” says David Buchanan of Portersfield Cider, which he refers to as a farm-based conservation center. “There’s a big gap between commercial production using only dessert apples and the flavors we find in small quantities from old and abandoned trees.” Buchanan’s orchard in Pownal is comprised of hundreds of heirloom apples painstakingly collected, researched, and propagated over years, planted alongside a wide variety of elderberries, aronia, and other fruits.
“This is a lifelong commitment,” says Buchanan, the author of Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, a book about how we can reconnect to the tastes of the places we live. “It can take over ten years to evaluate and bring back into production a single promising variety, and there are always wrong turns along the way.”
Buchanan tries out apples from all over that might give his cider a new twist. To see how things grow under his farm’s conditions, he’ll trial varieties with different rootstocks placed in areas of deeper soil or more moisture. He is attuned to the need to simultaneously experiment with heritage fruits and give them new life and relevance. “There’s usually little to no available information about American heirloom cider apples,” Buchanan says. “I’ve spent seven years building a collection and learning about the trees, but cider season only comes around once a year. Instant gratification this is not.” But soon, there will be the gratification that comes with sharing and conversing over the beverage: Buchanan plans to open Portersfield Cider’s new tasting facility out of a post-and-beam barn within the year.
“Some people are upset about the Angry Orchards and Woodchucks,” says Bunker, citing two of the biggest brands in commercial cider. “But I don’t believe there would have ever been a craft beer revival if it weren’t for Budweiser and Coors and the other big beer makers. They drove an interest in beer in the U.S. Sooner or later it was going to happen, someone was going to finally say: you know what, I’m going to do something a little bit different, a little more complex.” Bunker acknowledges there has been a contiguous cider movement, small pockets of people (his mentors among them) keeping traditions, knowledge, and trees alive, but those makers just weren’t recognized by a broad public. Cider dropped out of consumer consciousness for most of the 20th century. Craft beer modeled a path for its return.
Today, awareness seems to be pushing toward a tipping point: as hard cider takes up more space on shelves, as more tap handles from the likes of Angry Orchard and Woodchuck appear in pubs, the more consumers are likely to seek out ciders of all kinds.
In 2014 alone, Angry Orchard, the king of commercial hard cider, sold 14.5 million cases. (Angry Orchard is owned by Boston Beer Co., the makers of Samuel Adams.) While Maineʼs artisanal cider houses make a small-batch product that hews to traditional standards of craft and taste, they are also experi-encing dramatic growth. Across the state, cider is showing up on shelves and menus where a year ago it would not have had a place. And small producers are opening tasting rooms, inviting people in not just to taste cider, but to partake in the tradition of social drinking while learning more about local farming.
“I really like the idea that there are, in particular, a bunch of younger people making a living with trees, producing a fruit, and growing a product,” Bunker says. “I want to see people staying on their own pieces of property and making a living there; to see a revival of agriculture in Maine.” He points out that the revival won’t be based on apples alone, but that again, as they have been before, “apples are simply one example of what can happen in some parallel way in other areas of agriculture.”
And Bunker loves that these new cider makers are out scouring the landscape for the next great cider apple. “The genetics are here,” he says, “you’ve just got to go out and find them.” Wild seedlings continue to spread throughout Maine, ripe with the potential to add the qualities someone is looking for in their cider. “The cider maker now becomes like that farmer of 200-250 years ago,” Bunker says, “who is out in the landscape looking for new varieties. In a way, we’ve come full circle.”
Hard cider is no longer an underground movement. It’s come out of the cellar and into a spotlight that lights up vibrant rural traditions, agricultural diversity, and new opportunities for farmers to connect with the land—and consumers.
And that means it’s time to drink up.