Cider entrepreneurs hunt for lost apples

CORNWALL — Colin Davis and David Dolginow are on a mission to find apples. One would think that would not be a tough task in Addison County, a hub of apple production in the Green Mountain State.
But the two friends and business associates are not looking for just any apples. They are looking for once-abundant varieties that pretty much vanished from the landscape 80 years ago, fruit they want to reintroduce as the foundation for a new hard cider brand they hope to launch in the near future.
They are calling this search the “Lost Apple Project.”
Davis and Dolginow, both Middlebury College graduates, met a couple of years ago while playing pick-up sports in the Middlebury area. Around a year ago they started talking about the common business interests that they hope will soon bear fruit. Dolginow at the time was a business development associate at Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall. Dolginow and Sunrise co-owner Barney Hodges invited Davis — a former executive at Middlebury-based GoodPoint Recycling — to help the orchard look at ways to diversify its product line.
Davis agreed.
“Some of my friends have gotten into the food business in Vermont,” Davis said. “It just seems like an exciting, vibrant community.”
Working around apples, the pair began to imagine the associated hard cider possibilities — but with special twist. They were drawn to the more traditional ciders made from apple varieties that were largely abandoned pre-Prohibition and have since been replaced by more conventional fruit that is eaten from the tree or used in baking.
Dolginow and Davis explained that the nation’s early settlers grew apples specifically with hard cider in mind, as opposed to for fresh consumption. The Homestead Act actually required of all people buying land that they plant at least 40 fruit trees, Dolginow noted. The homesteaders would turn their harvest into their own hard cider.
“Johnny Appleseed was planting bitter cider-apple trees; astringent, tannic, acidic, sour and aromatic,” Dolginow said. “They aren’t sweet, crunchy and juicy.”
“They’re great for cider, bad for eating,” Davis added.
A sip of that old-school cider will often impart some initial bitterness, followed by interesting flavor notes, according to Davis. Those notes can be smoky, herbaceous, spicy and/or tobacco-like, to mention a few.
But people’s consumption habits began to gravitate toward beer during the 1890s, Dolginow said.
“There was an influx of German immigrants who brought a prolific beer tradition,” Dolginow said. “You plant grain and you can get a harvest in a year, whereas with apples, you plant a tree and back then you had to wait 10-15 years. The turnaround (for beer) was much faster.”
Increasing urbanization during the early 20th century led to more cider tree casualties.
“Coming out of Prohibition, there had been this decade-long delay where it was much easier to plant grain for beer than plant trees and wait another decade (for cider),” Dolginow said. “Beer took off commercially and cider was mostly extinct, except on certain small, local levels.”
While hard cider apples lost their bite in the U.S., they remained (and still are) de rigueur in Europe. And that’s where Davis and Dolginow have gone in recent months to taste traditional ciders and receive expertise on how to bring that flavor back to the re-energized U.S. hard cider market through their budding company, Shacksbury Cider. They’re calling their quest the “Lost Apple Project.” Through it, they are scouring the Champlain Valley for “forgotten trees” that once bore traditional cider apples. As those trees are identified and assuming their fruit passes the taste test, the two business partners want to proliferate the stock with new plantings by grafting to bud wood and other horticultural technology.
Michael Lee of Twig Farm in West Cornwall is helping out with the Lost Apple Project. He has been fermenting wild apples for almost a decade and his knowledge of wild trees in the area, as well how to ferment and blend the fruit, has been extremely valuable, according to Davis.
“We are fortunate enough to have some good leads here in Addison County,” Davis said of the forgotten trees, located largely in undisturbed places. “We have identified 40 different varieties.”
Ultimately, Shacksbury will harvest those traditional apples for its own brand of old-world hard apple cider. The company is currently working with Sunrise and Windfall orchards in Cornwall for tree planting space. It is consulting with orchards in England, Spain and other parts of New England as it makes it plans going forward, plans that at some point will include cider making infrastructure.
Shacksbury on Nov. 9 capped a wildly successful “Kickstarter” campaign to procure investments for the Lost Apple Project. The campaign attracted 203 investors who pledged a combined total of $14,223. Pledges will go toward rootstock and nursery fees for the 500 trees they will plant; one tree will be planted for every $20, according to Davis.
In the meantime, Shacksbury has teamed up with the world’s best cider producers to help bring traditional cider to the U.S., according to the company’s Website.
“Leading our UK production is the duo of Simon and Hannah Day, named BBC’s Drink Producers of the Year in 2012,” the site indicates. “In partnership with the Days, we are ecstatic to announce that our flagship cider is (almost) here. Unlike anything on the market, our full-bodied, golden cider combines strong fruit and cidery flavor with notes of smoke, spice, leather and a hint of bacon.”
Davis and Dolginow will keep updating the Shacksbury website to keep folks apprised of progress and the eventual release of the company’s first offering, dubbed “1840.” Tentative plans call for a release party at WhistlePig Farm in Shoreham next June.
The business partners hope to make their own dent in a hard cider market that continues to thirst for more varieties and product. Middlebury is, of course, already home to one of the world’s largest and most popular producers, Vermont Hard Cider Co.
“What’s great is there’s a huge developing market out there and a lot of people want different styles of cider and want to drink different things at different times and in different ways, so we were really inspired by the success of Vermont Hard Cider and feel strongly that all boats rise together,” Dolginow said. “As the category grows, everyone will win.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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