Heirloom apples create the flavor of the cider at Windfall Orchard
This is the fourth in a series profiling the effect of the hard cider boom on Addison County apple orchards.
CORNWALL — Award-winning hard cider maker Brad Koehler calls himself an “accidental orchardist.”
Koehler and his wife (noted chef, food writer and UVM professor Amy Trubek) were looking for a place near Middlebury, after Koehler landed a job some 14 years ago managing residential dining services at Middlebury College. The couple had been teaching at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier and in that role had been actively promoting the local foods movement and trying to connect chefs with farmers.
“We both felt that it was important if we were going to be active participants in this discussion and in this movement that we had to be active participants both as chefs and as food producers,” said Koehler. “You gotta get your hands dirty.”
The couple’s search for a home landed them in Cornwall — on land that just happened to include an abandoned three-acre orchard.
“It was completely overgrown,” said Koehler.
But Koehler’s windfall wasn’t just any three acres. Windfall Orchard (as it’s still called) had once been the passion and pride of local physician Ted Collier. Collier’s long-time orchard manager Art Blaise (both are now deceased), helped Koehler understand the hidden gems in his tangle of trees.
“Becoming as good of an apple grower as I was a chef, that’s something that I’d like to do. But Art Blaise probably forgot more than I’ll ever learn,” said Koehler.
One of the most important skills Blaise taught Koehler was how to graft. And grafting has become central to Koehler’s business as an orchardist and cider maker.
Most of the three acres Koehler purchased along with his home were Macintosh trees. But at a mere three acres, Koehler knew he couldn’t even begin to produce enough Macs to make a profit. He also knew he was interested in a far different flavor profile and wanted to raise heirloom varieties of apples. So he decided to get the most value out of his mature trees by grafting new varieties onto them.
Now these former Macintosh trees are producing a range of European cider varieties, heirloom eating apples and an exciting range of wild apples found in Addison County as part of Shacksbury Cider’s Lost Apple Project.
“These are the apples that our ancestors would have eaten,” said Koehler.
Flavor is everything to Koehler, whose success in creating one of the country’s top-rated ice ciders and top-rated farmhouse-style cider is based on his hand-crafted, small-production approach to cider.
For the cider bottled under the Windfall Orchard name, Koehler blends around 30 varieties of apples to create the signature flavor profile. He then ferments the mixture using only the wild yeasts that are naturally occurring in the wood of the press or on the skins of the fruits themselves. Unlike large-batch ciders, such as those produced at Citizen or Woodchuck, Koehler doesn’t manipulate the flavor post-fermentation but rather creates his flavor profile through the apples he selects and blends beforehand.
Four classes of apples are traditionally used to make hard cider, Koehler explains: sharp, bittersharp, bittersweet and sweet. Each class has a different range of acidity and tannin levels. For hard ciders, tannins are especially important.
“Tannin is what makes you want to spit the apple out,” Koehler said. “Tannin is bitter. Tannin is what makes you feel like you’ve eaten a cotton ball, like your mouth just totally dries out.”
But beyond these foundational components, Koehler is interested in an even more elusive range of flavors found in heirloom eating varieties such as Winter Banana, Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenburg, Westfield Seek No Further, Blue Pearmain, and others.
“The range of flavors are like what grapes can exhibit in wine. Some are very aromatic. Some are spicy. Some are herbal,” Koehler said. “I have one particular apple called a White Winter Pearmain that is perfumey; it has almost a jasmine-like flavor to it. I have the Windfall Golden, which is a wild chance that we named here; it tastes more like a pear than it tastes like an apple. The Winter Banana starts tasting like a banana after it sits in storage. These are flavor profiles that you can’t find in supermarket apples.”
How much Windfall’s mix relies on traditional European cider varieties, how much on heirloom eating apples and how much on wild apples found in Addison County is proprietary. But Koehler says that as an orchardist and as a cider maker, he believes the most promising are those apples gleaned from Addison County hedgerows as part of Shacksbury Cider’s ongoing Lost Apple Project.
“These are wild trees that have survived here. And these are varieties that were produced here,” he said. “That cross pollination that created that seed that created that tree that created that fruit, which is all chance, all happened here.”
With the exception of Dabinet, a French variety, many of the European traditional hard cider varieties don’t seem to grow vigorously enough in Vermont’s harsh climate, Koehler is finding from his ongoing trialing of new varieties.
Windfall cider is in an upper-niche market, sold and enjoyed more like wine than beer. A bottle of the farmhouse cider retails locally for $11.99; a large bottle of the ice cider retails for $26.99.
While Koehler is proud of his product and proud of the ways his hand-crafted, small-production approach focuses on achieving flavor pre-fermentation and uses only wild yeasts, he also emphasized that the fact there are a range of ciders made in Vermont benefits all cider makers.
“It’s all great,” he said. “We all have this focus of making cider a viable industry and (also) getting Vermont — and the Champlain Valley most specifically — to be recognized as the Napa Valley of cider or to be recognized as a specific geographic location where the best ciders in the country are produced.
“And it takes all of us to make that happen, to put us on the map.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].