In these parts, local cider can be a bit of an obsession

It’s fall. The temperature is dropping, flannels are becoming the requisite attire and many are developing a craving for a quintessential fall treat: apple cider. Of the many ways to enjoy cider — hot with a cinnamon stick, cold and fresh from the press — adults may crave their cider hard.
Hard cider — the juice of the apple that has been fermented to create alcohol — has been gaining traction with Vermonters for almost 30 years — ever since the Green Mountain State reintroduced the drink, which had completely vanished from American shelves for almost half a century, to the country.
First, a little history. Vermont’s love affair with cider dates back to the colonial era, when Ethan Allen was known for the “stonewall” — equal parts rum and cider — which is said to have provided some liquid courage when the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775. By 1800, almost every farm in the state had an orchard, and by the early part of the 20th Century, the Boston Globe reported that the country’s largest apple orchard was located in Vermont. And nationwide, hard cider was everywhere during the early years of this nation — it was cheap, plentiful, and sometimes safer to drink than water, especially as cities developed. John Adams was even known to drink a tankard of the stuff with breakfast each morning to calm his stomach.
But that all changed when European immigrants brought over beer recipes, which were cheaper to make and yielded fast results. In 1920, when Prohibition became a reality, apples regained their reputation as the forbidden fruit, and those most dedicated to temperance burned their orchards to the ground. The apples that remained were grafted and mass produced for fresh eating, and the best cider apples either disappeared from the landscape or were forgotten. Hard cider was erased from the market for 60 years — until it was reinvented in a garage in Vermont.
Flash forward to 1991. A winemaker named Greg Failing was sitting in his two-car garage in Proctorsville, experimenting with apples. He shopped his creations, which he’d poured into wine bottles, around to distributors, but no one would take them. One such naysayer advised Failing to put the cider in 12-ounce beer bottles. When he did, the drink began to sell. Failing named his company “Woodchuck.”
“That was a turning moment for hard cider,” said Ben Calvi, the general manager and cider maker at Woodchuck’s parent company, Vermont Hard Cider, now based in Middlebury. “Ten years later, in 2001, Woodchuck was the first hard cider company to sell a million cases of cider and be nationally distributed.”
Now, Vermont has 17 established cideries that range from nationwide distributors, like Woodchuck, to local craft operations, like Citizen and Stowe Cider, to hyper-local and orchard-based operations like Shacksbury and Champlain Orchards, to the wine-like libation made at Eden Specialty Ciders. The category is expanding and growing, and at the same time, cider makers are bringing the craft back to its roots.
Most of today’s mass-produced hard ciders are made with common grocery store apples: Golden Delicious, Gala, Granny Smith and the likes. While those sweet ciders are popular, a different kind of cider, made with an emphasis on the apple and all its varieties and complexities. This often results in a drier, more complex taste that is on the rise — especially in Vermont. So first, Vermont reincarnated hard cider and claimed a spot on the national market. Now, Vermont is undergoing its second cider revolution: understanding the apple enough to make cider really good.
“Twenty years ago, the only kinds of cider Woodchuck made were the sweet ciders that are alternatives to beer,” Calvi said. “Still, 70 percent of ciders in the United States are like that, whether it’s Angry Orchard or Woodchuck or Smith and Forage or Strongbow. But 30 percent is not a small proportion, and that’s everything else. So you have drier ciders that are really bringing out the characteristics of the apple, with balanced acidity and sugar and tannin levels, so they’re more complex. If you tasted our Addison, or our 25th Anniversary cider, it’s very different from the Amber.”
It’s not surprising that many of the cideries have started in the Champlain Valley. With its farming tradition and relatively mild climate, groves of apples for eating have grown up here, so locals are already familiar with how to grow and harvest this popular fruit.
One of these apple growers turned cider makers is Champlain Orchards, which is located not far from the lake in Shoreham.
Company founder Bill Suhr explained that in 2008 Champlain Orchards began to experiment with Honeycrisp ice cider.
“We have continued to expand our offerings annually as our cidery has grown,” he said. “We now have a dedicated cidery staff on farm which carefully creates our ciders.”
What separates Champlain Orchards is its 40 acres dedicated to cider production, which includes more than 30 varieties of cider-specific apples, from Dabinet to Brown Snout to Kingston Black, Suhr said.
The soil in this part of the orchard is a mix of Vergennes clay and Farmington loam soil, which lends a certain terroir to the ciders.
“That’s the difference — we’re locally grown, not just produced,” Suhr said. “These are true Addison County apples. People who take home our ciders are supporting a 250-acre, land-trusted farm that will be here for years to come.
And then there’s Shacksbury: a growing, four-year-old cidery started on a farm in Shoreham and now based out of the Kennedy Brothers building in Vergennes. Founders Colin Davis and David Dolginow spend much of the fall foraging for “lost” apples, or apples growing on trees that evolved after Vermont’s colonial-age cider boom. (We know — flannel-clad cider makers traipsing through the woods in search of ancient apple trees — the only way it could get more “Vermont” is if they were drinking maple syrup along the way.)
The charming mission comes with another motive: to educate consumers about the fruit’s rich history.
Back in the colonial era, apple trees were planted with seeds (instead of the cloning and grafting that mark today’s commercial practices). But apple seeds do not reproduce the exact same fruit as the tree from which they came. The seeds of a McIntosh apple will not yield more McIntosh apples — they’ll produce something entirely different. When Europeans first brought apple seeds on their maiden voyages to North America, they planted millions of trees, and no two were alike. Farmers came to understand the diversity of apples. They knew which varieties to use for sauce, for pie, for cider.
Eventually, they identified the best baking apples and the best apples for fresh eating, and they cloned these species, reproducing them until the rest of the apples fell away and were forgotten. The result? Seven varieties now dominate the grocery store apple market, and many Americans would hesitate to try anything else.
“It’s a lost way of thinking about apples,” Davis says. “The cider that’s most interesting to us is expressive of the fruit.” Shacksbury has now made many ciders from these heirloom varieties, collecting crates of apples to make small, five-gallon ferments that they send to their cider club members. This drink is also available at Shacksbury’s new tasting room at 11 Main St., Vergennes — north side of the building. The tasting room, which is already accepting visitors Thursday through Saturday, will host a grand opening on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2-8 p.m., where there will be music and food, in addition to cider.
And Vermont is the perfect place to conduct such project. While orchards were once prolific throughout New England, Vermont’s continuous rural landscape has created space for trees to continue to reproduce, creating new, different varieties. Davis says the team samples apples from about 2,000 trees each fall.
“I think anyone who hikes around Vermont has noticed that there’s wild apple trees everywhere,” he says. And for those who want to discover apples themselves, he adds: “I would encourage people, if they walk by an apple tree in October or November, to try one.”
This story was first published in VT Ski + Ride Magazine.

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