Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley carves its place in the new and fast-growing cider market

Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2014

Comparing apples to apples is just good practice. Do it for 20 years, and you’ve got yourself a tradition.

The 20th annual Franklin County CiderDays runs from Friday to Sunday and features classes, hangouts, talks and tastings throughout the Hilltowns. This year they’ve added a Friday-night kickoff reception at the Blue Heron restaurant in Sunderland that will focus on local hard cider.

That seasonal libation—so ubiquitous in early America, and so sidelined through much of the past century—has been on the rise again lately. So we quenched our thirst for a hard cider field trip and went knocking on the door of Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley.

The company has produced commercially for three years now. Jonathan Carr will be at that Blue Heron kickoff dinner, pouring cider alongside his wife and business partner Nicole Blum.

Between now and then, they’re busy giving a face-lift to their little two-acre campus along River Drive, building out the cider storage and processing building next to their house.

“We’re not planning on becoming a huge company, but we’ll definitely get bigger,” said Blum as she stood in the driveway alongside Carr, squinting in the bright morning sunlight. “There’s such a strong local food movement around the country now. Handcrafted products are really important to a lot of people, and I think more and more will be seeking out artisanal ciders.”

Carr and Blum have expanded their output to include cider syrup, cider vinegar, and a barrel-aged digestif fortified with homemade apple brandy. But their mainstay is hard cider, made from the apples on the roughly 3,000 trees in their 40-acre orchard on Mount Warner in North Hadley, two miles from their house.

Those young trees are just coming into bearing, says Carr. “This hasn’t been a super-duper year for us. It’s mainly because of the lack of pollinators up there on the mountain. A friend of ours keeps hives up there, and it’s great to have bees around the orchard. But the annual loss on beehives is pretty steep.”

Still, Carr’s Ciderhouse has grown this year, said Blum. She cited several supportive local retailers—among them Amherst Wines and Amherst Atkins Farms, the Whole Foods Market in Hadley, and Provisions and River Valley Market in Northampton. They have sold at farmers markets throughout the state, and Blum is about to embark on a multi-day sales push out toward Boston.

Since hard cider is categorized as a wine in Massachusetts, selling at farmers markets is legal. At the moment, that’s where nearly 80 percent of Carr’s Ciderhouse’s revenue is coming from.

“The hard cider scene is really in its infancy right now, and it’s happening on two very different levels,” Carr explained. “There are a handful of small local producers like us, Bear Swamp Orchard in Ashfield, Headwater Cider in Hawley, and West County Cider in Colrain—and everyone in that category makes a few thousand gallons of cider a year. Then you have Sam Adams, who’s making Angry Orchard, and Anheuser-Busch, who’s making Johnny Appleseed. You see those ciders in bars everywhere now. So there are the huge conglomerates, and then there are the pipsqueaks like us.”

Carr sees plenty of room in the middle for growth. But it won’t happen, he said, without some efforts on a large scale. “Other states have been more forward-thinking about the cider industry. New York and Vermont have good cider scenes. So do Oregon and Washington. You see state land-grant schools working with farmers on planting and subsidizing orchards. I’d love to see some similar state-level agricultural support for it here too.”

The main problem is that the best hard cider only comes from the right kinds of apples. “Sure, you can make good cider out of McIntosh apples, or whatever. That’s perfectly good cider. But if you want to compare it to wine, it would be like making wine out of Thompson seedless grapes, when what you really want to drink is a cabernet sauvignon.

“Apple growers are conservative, though, and they don’t want to plant varieties that will grow unpredictably. It would take a big up-front investment in what some growers see as difficult or obscure types of English and French apples. We’re doing our bit here at our place, but we can just afford to plant a few hundred trees a year. That’s why I think the state needs to help give this a little push. You can’t have an industry without these trees being planted. You’ve got to birth that, you know?”

Carr has a degree in agriculture from Rutgers University and a master’s in plant and soil science from UMass. He’s a huge wonk when it comes to apples. Most recently, he’s created the Cider Apple Project, which seeks to develop more disease-resistant apple trees.

“It doesn’t matter what cider fruit looks like,” he says. “Over in England, there are orchards that they don’t spray at all. These cider fruit trees are so tough that they don’t need it. Now, America has many more pests and diseases, especially east of the Rockies. So we need to breed some strong, extra-special trees. I’m working on that.”

He led the way over to a small plot of ground where he’s been doing some planting of seeds. Those seeds came from some special apples that he cross-bred from the Golden Russet and Goldrush varieties.

With a hearty variety like Goldrush in the mix, these hybrid trees may prove better able to withstand disease. But that will only work if they hold up under Carr’s evaluation, then survive the grafting onto new root stock, then yield fruit that tastes good, then perform well up in the orchard. “Those are all big questions. This is a long process.”

But this isn’t just an exercise or an academic study, he added. “Think of some classic apples like Golden Delicious or McIntosh. Those are apples that originated from one tree, and they’ve been cloned over and over again for, in some cases, hundreds of years. Evolution is frozen. They can’t adapt to new pests and diseases. That’s why we’ve got to keep evolution going and select for the hardiest trees.”

Blum chimed in. “This isn’t just about finding disease-resistant apples. It’s about making the best cider apples we possibly can. We could get more apples from other local orchards, but not a lot are growing the varieties that we want.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to be a fully integrated operation, but that’s what we’re going for,” says Carr.

Blum smiled. “Ever since I met him, he’s been obsessed with apples. It isn’t much of a shock that we ended up here.”

We have a better view of their house now. It’s where Carr and Blum have raised their two children: Ava, 15, and Harry, 10. The two kids lead busy lives, but they’re not above helping with the family enterprise. Ava puts in some time labeling bottles—a chore to help pay for her cell phone.

From this part of the property, you can see the area where the extension will be built onto what might be called the bottling barn. The evaporator, used for making the cider syrup, will go into this added space, as will the “cold room,” where the cider ferments in large quantities. From there, the cider runs into a tank, where roughly 140 gallons at a time is chilled and carbonated. After that, it gets run into the bottling room through a series of straw-like wands into long-neck glass bottles.

“This work is very seasonal,” Carr said. “We’re not constantly getting juice in. All of our varieties mature in October and November, which lets us do cold fermentation. I prefer it that way. If the weather gets too warm, then your fermentation will take off on you, and that’s detrimental. Cider has a delicate bouquet, and you have to handle it very carefully and take it slow. A vigorous fermentation will blow off a lot of potential flavor.”

“Kind of like sourdough bread,” said Blum. “If you use a commercial yeast, you can make a loaf of bread in an hour and a half. But sourdough takes longer, because of the amount in there that’s being fermented and transformed, all of those flavors and aromas. So slower is better.”

Carr’s Ciderhouse uses wild yeast, which isn’t common among American cider makers. “It can yield some funky cider if you’re not careful,” says Carr. “Have you had much French cider? Some of it’s amazing, but some of it tastes… what’s the word?”

“Farmyard-y,” said Blum.

“Yeah. Or, kind of like Band-Aids. They taste like how Band-Aids smell. But Americans don’t really like those funky flavors. Our cider is more clean.”

Still, wild fermentation takes time. “A long fermentation takes a couple of months at least. Then there’s a maturation period as well. Then we store it in bulk and we bottle it throughout the season. That’s why we’re still bottling. This is last year’s stock.”

Carr picked up a bottle of the apertif, fortified with brandy. “This stuff is really fun. It’s mixed with apple brandy. And we age it in those bourbon barrels out front, so it gets smooth and oaky. We got our distillers permit last year. Eventually I want to try making an apple brandy for sale by itself. But that’s further down the road.”

“The cider vinegar is another thing that we saw a need for,” Blum said. “You can buy bulk cider vinegar, but it’s real basic. We weren’t seeing any artisanal cider vinegar around, so we put our twist on it.”

The hope, clearly, is to always be attracting new buyers, whether they’re picking up bottles of Carr’s Ciderhouse from the grocery store or simply taking a sip of a new offering at farmers’ markets and at events like CiderDays.

So, any pointers for those newcomers to Carr’s?

“I’d recommend that people approach drinking our cider like they would drinking wine,” said Blum. “Cider doesn’t taste apple-y all the time, just like wines don’t usually taste grape-y. I hope people will approach it with that in mind.”

“They’re drier than what some people expect,” added Carr.

“And they pair very well with great food.”

“Yeah, cider and cheese is just fantastic. We’ve been eating some great cheese from Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown. Cider goes awesome with this washed-rind cheese they make called Tobasi.”

“And with crepes. And of course it goes really well with meat.”

“And, actually, Asian food and Indian food,” said Carr. “If you’re a vegetarian, try that.”

“I cook with it all the time, too,” said Blum. “It’s bright and light, like a white wine.”

“And cider and pork is pretty classic.”


They’d keep on this topic, but they have to get back to work. Business chugs along, even as the two cider junkies go through a constant process of fine-tuning.

“The cider market is really coming on strong over the past few years. It really feels like there’s a new cider maker every day,” Blum said. “We knew for a long time we wanted to do this. I’m just glad that we’ve had a few years now to figure out how it all works.”


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