Ciderhouse in Hadley revives a New England tradition

Last modified: Wednesday, November 07, 2012

HADLEY — It was about 10 years ago, in his grandmother’s garden in County Meath, Ireland, that Jonathan Carr of Hadley made an accidental discovery that would shape his career.

There were eight apple trees there, each with a specific culinary purpose, he knew. But his grandmother had long since died, so he and his father were left to figure out the trees themselves. Gradually, they determined which produced the best apples for pies, which were best for applesauce, which had the best eating apples and so on. But one tree still puzzled them.

So Carr decided to make vinegar with its produce. First, though, he made a batch of cider.

“The hard cider was so good I forgot about the vinegar,” Carr recalled with a laugh.

And so it was that his dream of starting a hard cider orchard was born.

It may have taken a decade, but finally this year Carr’s Ciderhouse on River Road here sold its first bottle of hard cider.

“It just grew organically,” Carr said. “It was a lot of planning and a lot of work.”

But already his beverage is being sold in 20 stores in western Massachusetts.

“Hard cider lovers are excited for a local option,” he said.

Carr’s operation is in fact a part of the revival of New England’s cider operations. Cider was a ubiquitous drink here throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries. There was no distinction then between non-alcoholic sweet cider and alcoholic hard cider, as there is today. It was all hard. Children drank it, as did their parents.

“John Adams drank a couple of tankards every morning,” said Duane Greene, director of the University of Massachusetts’ Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown. “It was one of the things that was drunk throughout New England.”

Nonetheless, the cider was not viewed as an alcoholic beverage, Greene said. Much of the region’s drinking water supply was plagued by sanitation problems at the time. Cider’s relatively low alcohol content killed bacteria, making it a safe drink and one that stored well.

With the turn of the 20th century, however, there came a drastic change in the region’s drinking taste. More European immigrants arrived, bringing with them a preference for beer and wine, Greene said. Around the same time, the Temperance movement emerged.

“Prohibition ruined everything as far as cider is concerned,” he said. New England’s apple growers changed accordingly, forsaking cider varieties like Esopus Spitzenberg and Golden Russets and planting more Macintosh and Cortland apples, which made for better eating. Today, however, a growing number of orchards in western Massachusetts are making hard cider again. West County Cider in Colrain is perhaps the region’s most established operation, having begun its commercial cider business in 1984. Bear Swamp Orchard in Ashfield and Headwater Cider in Hawley are among the other local producers.

“It’s booming in Washington state, in New York state,” Greene said. As for hard cider’s prospects in Massachusetts, he said, “I think we will see more and more of it.”

Nationally, hard cider makes up a sliver of the alcoholic beverage market. But it is a rapidly growing niche.

SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market research firm, reported that hard cider sales for the year were up 50 percent — or by $71.5 million — over 2011 through the year’s first nine months, according to the Associated Press.

Locally, the growth in the hard cider market can be seen through the expansion in Franklin County Cider Days.

The annual festival, which begins Nov. 2 in Greenfield, is in its 18th year.

“It was very small,” to start with, said Judith Maloney, the co-founder of West County Cider, who helped start the festival.

This year it will be a two-day event featuring music, workshops and ciders from eight producers from as far away Michigan and Virginia, in addition to a host of New England growers.

A new business is born

Carr, 39, was born in Ireland but raised in Rye, N.Y. The trips to visit his grandmother proved formative.

“I’ve always loved apples,” Carr said, noting that some of his earliest memories are of picking apples at her home.

After earning a degree in agriculture from Rutgers University, he headed west for an apprenticeship in the farm and garden program at the University of Santa Cruz in California.

It was there that he met Nicole Blum, an elementary school teacher and California native. She quickly caught the agriculture bug.

“I always wanted to work on a farm,” she said. The idea of working the land and creating a tangible product was appealing to her, she said.

The couple moved to Ireland, where they grew vegetables for market and restaurants. It was during that time that Carr made the hard cider discovery.

They arrived here in 2001 when Carr enrolled at UMass Amherst as a graduate student in the fruit studies program.

In 2002, they built their farm, consisting of a home, a barn and a greenhouse. The couple made an attempt at vegetable farming, but found little success, though they still grow vegetables for their own consumption and they raise pigs.

Blum and Carr bought the 38-acre orchard, a short distance from their River Road home, in 2002. Carr began making cider at home “in ever-increasing batch size,” perfecting the technique until he was ready to launch the business. Last year, he quit his job as an estate gardener for a property owner in Leverett to focus on the business full-time.

The orchard is on a hillside lining Mount Warner, a site that affords sweeping views of the Connecticut River Valley and Lake Warner at its base. The orchard, which dates back to the time of the Civil War, had fallen into a state of neglect at the time Blum and Carr bought the property.

In the time since, though, the couple has planted some 2,000 new trees. In addition to Kingston Black, Goldrush and Liberty varieties, Blum and Carr have planted much of the orchard with Golden Russets, the old-time cider apple.

Carr calls them a “quadruple threat,” as they are good for hard and sweet cider, pies and storing.

“They are my absolute favorite,” he said.

Cider apples have a higher sugar content than the average culinary apple. They are also picked later in the season, usually around the start of November.

But this season has been bad for apple growers, Carr said. A warm spell in March followed by a cold snap hurt the crop. That means Carr will be buying apples this year, an unappealing prospect due to the short supply and their increased cost, he said.

Most years he hopes to grow most, if not all, of his apples at his orchard.

Encouraged by others

Carr restored an old barn at the base of the orchard to accommodate the pressing operation. The press, which is made of oak and dates back to the early 1900s, is the staple of the operation. The apples are sent through a grinder with the resulting mush dumped onto a thin filter cloth. These cloths are called “cheeses” and once six are assembled they are pressed against a large top plate which squeezes the juice into a large storage container. The remaining apple solids are dumped behind the barn and fed to the couple’s pigs.

The cider is then trucked the short distance down the road to Blum and Carr’s River Road farm. There, the cider is stored outside in large containers so it freezes.

The reason is twofold. Freezing the cider enables Carr to control the fermentation process, he said. Under warm temperatures the cider will begin to ferment very quickly, potentially before he is ready to begin the fermentation process. The optimal temperature for fermenting is 50 degrees, so even if the thermometer rises above freezing it does not present much of a problem. In those instances the cider will ferment very slowly, he said. If it gets so hot that the cider starts to defrost then it is time to move inside and begin fermenting.

Freezing the cider also enables Carr to consolidate the juice’s sugars for the apple pommeau the cider house also produces. The sugar level in the juice of a Golden Russet, for instance, is between 15 and 18 percent. After being frozen, the sugar level of the Golden Russet will reach 20 percent, Carr said.

Thus, when Carr is ready to begin fermenting, he brings the cider into the bottling facility in his barn, thaws it and then draws it off into a series of containers used for fermentation. The process usually takes two to three months.

The cider house currently sells two types of cider commercially, a “dry” cider with a 6.5 percent alcohol content and an apple pommeau, which, with its sweet, dense flavor and 18.5 percent alcohol, tastes much like a dessert wine. Both are meant to be completed by food and are particularly good with cheese, Carr said. “I don’t know of anyone producing a pommeau in the country,” he said.

The success of other local cider makers like West County has encouraged him.

“I hope to build on that,” he said, “to inspire people to make hard cider their drink of choice, to educate about how delicious cider is with food, and to honor the apple by making the best cider I possibly can. I feel like things are finally just getting started — it’s incredibly exciting and truly the realization of a long-held dream, but at the same time there is still so much to learn and achieve.”


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