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Tim Dressel, a fourth-generation farmer in New Paltz, started Kettleborough Brut Cider last year even though Dressel Farms lost 80 percent of its apple crop because extreme weather.

Hard-core hopes

Cider catches on with Ulster’s apple growers

By Eileen King Kamrass

Photos by Philip Kamrass

ON THE HUNT FOR APPLE TREES TO USE FOR HIS BURGEONING HARD-CIDER BUSINESS, ALBERT WILKLOW
found something unexpected on a nearby farm: a variety he calls Esopus Tart. “I didn’t even know there were any around,” he said.

The farmer took a bottle of hard cider in exchange for two trees.

Hard cider, which is simply known as “cider” in the industry, is fermented cider, or apple juice. At one time, it was a popular drink in America, but Prohibition induced an almost centurylong malaise. Now, with help from farming organizations and local farming entrepreneurs, it is regaining its place as an everyday alcoholic beverage.

Wilklow, 30, and Devin Britton, 29, started Bad Seed Cider about two years ago, using apples from Wilklow Orchards, a Highland farm that has been in the family since 1855. Tim Dressel, 28, a fourth-generation farmer in New Paltz, started Kettleborough Cider last year. Both farm-based startups seem to have struck pay dirt.

The two are part of about 15 established Hudson Valley cideries that are creating a buzz. “It’s a very exciting, effervescent time because things are really happening,” said Elizabeth Ryan, owner of Breezy Hill Cider, a Dutchess County-based farm and cidery. If her fundraising efforts prevail, she is also set to purchase Stone Ridge Orchards this fall.

 

The benefits of cider

The beverage fits current consumer-demand buzzwords such as “gluten-free” and “local.” Because the fruit does not need to look perfect, farmers can use fewer pesticides. And events such as Cider Week (Oct. 18-27), which is in its third year, educate the public about the diversity and quaffability of cider.

The product itself is as varied as the beverage drinkers that these farmers hope to tap into. Cider can be fermented with wine or beer yeasts. Some are bottle conditioned, while others use forced carbonation. In a further effort to appeal to craft-beer drinkers, some makers add hops. And, of course, the type of apple makes a difference, too. Just as regions and varieties create different wines, the same can be said for cider apples. Hard ciders can be sweet, or complex and dry like white wine.

Additionally, many producers say, the local ciders are different from the watered-down, made-from-concentrate brands that are nationally distributed. The Hudson Valley products are artisanal, Ryan says: “They’re truly homemade products, like a loaf of bread.”

Albert Wilklow and Devin Britton started Bad Seed Cider about two years ago, using apples from Wilklow Orchards in Highland.

Rescuing our farms

Best of all, the beverage can save local farms. In the past few years, erratic weather has hurt local crops. Perfect apples – those that are big and blemish-free – go to supermarkets, the most lucrative outside retail venues. Imperfect apples are usually made into sweet cider at a loss for the farmers. The alcoholic variety, however, is profitable.

“Having a beverage can really help make that next generation financially viable on the farm,” said Julie Suarez, director of public policy for the New York State Farm Bureau. “Consumers are willing to spend a ridiculous amount of money for an alcoholic beverage, while they will complain any time a farmer raises prices slightly at a farm stand for a bushel of apples.”

Even lawmakers recognize cider’s potential. State legislation passed in June gives greater recognition and licensing options to cideries that use state-grown apples. By the end of the year, federal regulation of alcohol content and taxation rates will be more favorable if the CIDER Act passes.

The region’s first big cider boost came from the Glynwood Center, an organization in Cold Spring that promotes farming. In November 2011, it facilitated an exchange between Hudson Valley cideries and established producers in France. Since then, local makers have created the Hudson Valley Cider Alliance and are planning a Hudson Valley Cider Route to generate tourism and sales.

While small in production, these Ulster startups seem poised for growth. The county, which ranked second in the state for total acres of apple orchards and 12th in the nation in the 2007 Agriculture Census, could become one of the world’s top hard-cider producers.

So the hopes of farms may be contained in the flesh of the Brown Snout, Medaille d’Or, Pink Lady, Winesap, Dabinett, and the local Esopus Spitzenburg (which was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, according to lore). Wilklow and Dressel have planted some of these, and other, European and American varieties – many of which are too tart to eat – to vary their future cider production.

 

A Bad Seed grows

Despite his company’s name, Albert Wilklow is far from being the bad seed. After witnessing his family’s success selling apples in the New York City greenmarkets, the younger Wilklow and Britton have used the same venue to sell Bad Seed cider.

The two, who have been friends since high school and crafted their first batches of cider in an apartment they shared, planned their entrance into the cider market. Both maintain their day jobs, then make the cider on nights and weekends. Currently, they use Wilklow Orchard facilities for their production, which includes everything from sterilizing bottles, fermenting and aging seven varieties of cider, as well as filling, capping and bottle conditioning.

So far, it’s been far from glamorous. “You really are 90 percent dishwasher,” said Wilklow.

But the dishwashing is a small part of their business strategy: They reinvest profits into the company. This approach, in addition to testing product with friends, selling it to a wide audience at the greenmarkets, and listening to customer feedback have helped Bad Seed grow. “We can’t keep up with it,” Britton said.

But they have, and plan to do even more. As part of Bad Seed’s expansion into new markets, the two purchased a new bottling and labeling machine that cost as much as a “couple of nice trucks.” Its arrival by the end of the year should help the two distribute their product north to Albany, through the Hudson Valley, ending up in the five boroughs, and Long Island. This summer, they started selling four varieties of Bad Seed at Half Time Beverage in Poughkeepsie. They are also planning to sell kegs, and even wooden casks, to bars.

And the company, which started out in a 425-square-foot production room, is ready for another phase. The two are preparing to build a facility next year at Wilklow Orchards. While it’s still in the planning stages, it could be as large as 8,500 square feet, with a windowed view into the production room. In one trip, visitors can see the orchards, meet the farmers and watch workers create the cider.

“People want to see where it’s all coming from,” Britton said. “We want to be able to give really in-depth tours.”

With its rapid growth, Bad Seed has outgrown some of its equipment. Britton and Wilklow recently sold about a dozen 150-gallon tanks to other local cideries. Two of them went to Tim Dressel. “We told him we were going to get rid of some, and he jumped on them,” Britton said.

 

Creating a cidery

Dressel took the tanks to his farm, which the family has owned since the 1950s.

In the fall of 2012, Tim’s first product, Kettleborough Brut Cider, debuted on site, and in local stores and restaurants. All 200 cases (2,400 bottles) sold out in three months. That same year, Dressel Farms lost 80 percent of its apple crop because of extreme fluctuation in temperature during the spring.

“We’re thrilled hard cider is picking up,” Dressel said.

He started making cider after graduating from Cornell about six years ago, and, despite some early setbacks with his first experimental batches (“They were terrible; they were awful,” he remembers, “It was cloudy and it smelled like skunk.”), he persevered until he found a formula that worked.

Dressel knew a cidery could be successful from his college-day visits to Bellwether Hard Cider, near Ithaca, and from the fact that other Hudson Valley cideries purchase Dressel Farms cider to create their products. Common sense also played a part. “Being raised on a farm, you’re pretty much sensitive to anything that has to do with apples,” he said. “We think it’s a pretty natural thing – symbiotic.”

This year, he will ferment at least 150 cases of a new type, Kettleborough Dry Cider, on his family farm. Last year he shipped his cider to a local winery for fermentation. He will still use Warwick Valley Winery, makers of Doc’s Draft hard ciders in Warwick, for carbonating and bottling.

The other part of production is, literally, growing: in a 1-acre parcel of the farm, Dressel planted about 250 cider-specific trees. In addition, he has about 50 currant bushes that he may use to produce cassis and flavor cider. Other plans include raising bees to pollinate the trees and make honey for one cider variety.

Like the others, Dressel retains his day job on the farm, but would like cider making to be full time. As a means to do that, he plans to infiltrate the New York City market in about five years by marketing Kettleborough as “apple champagne.”

 

Big plans in Stone Ridge

Elizabeth Ryan’s Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider is made in Staatsburg, but she is in the process of purchasing Stone Ridge Orchard and will be producing more from apples grown there. “It’s a very exciting, effervescent time because things are really happening,” says Ryan, who could be considered the grande dame of Hudson Valley hard cider.Ryan also has big plans for the farm in Stone Ridge. In addition to the cidery in Staatsburg, she crafts do-it-yourself kits sold through Williams-Sonoma. There is a Hudson Valley Hard Cider Making Kit, and she is in talks to develop more with the retail giant. Her current best-seller is the mead-making kit, whose popularity has soared with the show “Game of Thrones.” She plans to move this production to the Ulster location.

“We hope to make Stone Ridge Orchard the center of our operations,” Ryan said. She also plans to include a cidery, distillery, tasting room and plant 10 acres of European cider apples trees.

Ryan, whose Breezy Hill brand is her second attempt at the cider business, could be considered the grande dame of Hudson Valley hard cider. Google “elizabeth ryan cider” and the first link takes you to her late 1990s appearance on one of Martha Stewart’s shows.

Ryan’s first company, which started in 1996, found a public that didn’t know what hard cider was, or that it even contained alcohol. Hudson Valley Draft Cider folded in 2002 after her partners lost Windows on the World from the attacks on 9/11.

But with Breezy Hill, business has been good; last year it produced 10,000 cases of cider sold in area farmers markets and restaurants. While she has lost crop to erratic weather the last several years, she is optimistic about this year.

Ryan prefers traditional methods of production. She focuses on “American re-creation” of the European style, cider created with naturally occurring fermentation.

Much of her inspiration comes from the quality of local apples and her European travel. She creates types that are similar to the rustic English scrumpy, as well as French varieties that are comparable to champagne. “I’m trying to provide ciders all along that spectrum,” Ryan notes.

This “spectrum” seems to be a good idea.

Britton noted that the Bad Seed customers in the city consistently asked for their “sweet” variety. In response, they created their Semi-Dry Cider.

 

Hard cider is a regular at the Stockade Tavern in Kingston. “We harken back to old things, and cider fits right in,” says co-owner Paul Maloney.New customers for businesses

Jordan Balsamo, co-owner of the Partition Street Wine Shop in Saugerties, held two cider tastings last year. “Dry is cool, but people like sweet,” he said.

Balsamo promotes hard cider, which sells as well as any regional wine. “I put it front and center because I know people will like it,” he said.

With his shop’s proximity to the Catskill ski areas and the Thruway, a number of European and Canadian tourists purchase both and dry and sweet ciders. “It brings in another set of customers,” he said.

Hard cider is a regular at the Stockade Tavern in Kingston. “We harken back to old things, and cider fits right in,” said co-owner Paul Maloney.

He’s gone from selling one or two wine-sized bottles a month to about a case. The biggest obstacle was convincing customers that it wasn’t a sweet drink; after that, many were hooked. “I think it’s just an education thing,” he said. “It’s taken a while to build, but now it’s really caught on.”

Both Balsamo and Maloney sell brands from the Finger Lakes region and New Hampshire, and both eagerly await the arrival of local brands. “Why should I get it from New Hampshire when I can get it from down the road?” Maloney said.

This may help the farmers who indeed live, well, down the Thruway.

“Every time people take a sip of local cider, they are saving orchards,” Ryan noted.

Dressel echoes this idea. “If we could take some imperfect apples and make hard cider, we might save some farms,” he said.

Wilklow, a sixth-generation farmer, hopes that it is still there for his 2-year-old son, Hank. “He’s number seven, hopefully,” he said.

CIDER LEGISLATION

By early next year, the New York State Liquor Authority should offer a license that allows the same freedoms enjoyed by craft beer and wine producers. For cider makers the new licensing is a welcome boost. Cider producers and the New York State Farm Bureau have been working to create a state liquor license that allows cider tastings and sales on-site – on the farms where they grow the apples then make the hard cider – for about 15 years.

Furthermore, it gives cider its own classification that is distinct from wine or beer, while continuing to allow its sale in beer, wine and grocery stores.

At the federal level, Sen. Chuck Schumer’s CIDER (Cider, Investment & Development through Excise Tax Reduction) Act is designed to boost sales. If approved, it will make these crafted beverages more affordable for consumers and profitable for the makers by easing an illogical and excessive excise tax on cider.

Under current tax law, some ciders are taxed as high as wine if their alcohol by volume (ABV) is greater than 6.9 percent (most cider naturally ferments above that level). Or, if the carbonation is high, it is taxed as heavily as champagne. CIDER would raise the percentage to 8.5 ABV for cider and keep it taxed at the same rate as beer, regardless of the carbonation level. Any beverage above 8.5 percent would be taxed at the higher wine rate. This act could be approved by the end of the year.

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