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Koehler turns pocket orchard into award-winning ice cider

Cocktail-culture is back. But you already know that.
We’ve seen craft cideries, breweries, wineries, distilleries and specialty cocktail bars pop up and grow all around our county and state in the last five to 10 years. But have you ever wondered why these specialty libations have become so popular?
Brad Koehler, owner of Windfall Orchard, has a few theories.
Koehler’s in the craft alcohol biz. He uses the fruit he grows in Cornwall to make high-quality hard cider, ice wine and perry (similar to hard cider, but made from pears).
“The drinking culture of the 1950s hasn’t been around for a while, but now it’s back — in a good way,” he said. “One thing I’ve discovered about being in the alcohol industry is that there are two main clients: millennials and their parents. They’re interested in better quality, and they’ll pay for it.”
And it’s gluten free.
Ah, yes. Don’t forget the gluten-free option.
“Gluten-free has become a driver for the cider market,” said Koehler, who, by the way, said he’d die if he couldn’t eat bread. Here, here. “Our customers are beer drinkers who go gluten free — they’re more apt to go to cider than wine, they’re our beer refugees. Hard cider also gives them something to drink at the bar with their friends. The popularity of cider has grown so that it’s just like having a beer when your hanging.”
APPLES JUST WAITING to be harvested at WIndfall Orchard. Independent photo/Trent Campbell.
Koehler fell into this business at just the right time. He and his wife (Amy Trubek) bought the three-acre property in 2002. There was a good amount of work to rehab the small but unique orchard full of many unusual varieties planted by Dr. Ted Collier in collaboration with local orchardist, and friend, Art Blaise. Koehler followed suit and has continued the tradition by grafting new varieties, especially apples suitable for cider. By 2005 the orchard was up and running; and made a solid hobby. But that hobby became Koehler’s full-time gig in 2009 when he released his first ice cider. Just in time to reach millennials as they came of drinking age, and their parents.
But it’s not just about the booze. It’s about the craft product, said Koehler. “These people care about the quality,” he said.
Koehler is no stranger to quality. Before committing to the farm life of an orchard, he was a chef. And not just any chef. “I did fine dining,” he said. “Fancy, fancy places.”
“I started in restaurants at age 14,” added the Chicago-area native who got his culinary degree from the New England Culinary Institute in the late ’80s. He then took his skills all around the country — Florida, Nantucket, Dallas, you name it — before returning to NECI as a teacher.
After 13 years teaching and managing at NECI and an eight-year career in Residential Dining services at Middlebury College, Koehler gave it all up and became a farmer.
“As if being a chef wasn’t hard enough, I decided to be a farmer,” Koehler, now 54, joked. “Well,” he clarified, “I’m a perennial tree fruit farmer. I’m really a cop-out compared to my real farmer friends who milk cows and have big tractors.”
It still counts.
Koehler has his hands full taking care of his land and crops. He and eight part-time employees (mainly college students) harvest the fruit from the end of July through the first week in November. Then it’s about pruning and sales. January is when he takes a breath and resets for the coming spring. Aside from apples and pears used for the hard cider, ice wine and perry, Koehler’s orchard also grows cherries, blueberries, plums, raspberries, gooseberries, currants and quince — they even have a couple of fig trees. He sells the fresh fruit (along with the beverages) at the Burlington and Middlebury farmers markets, and his farm stand in Cornwall throughout the season. He’s also a master-forager, and, if you’re lucky, he’ll have mushrooms, fiddleheads or ramps.
“I do have a general horticulture degree from the Southern Illinois University, but I’m really an accidental orchardist,” Koehler insisted. “I learned everything on the fly.”
And he keeps learning. Most recently, Koehler added a tasting room to his property in the lower level of their old white farmhouse. There you can sample the Farmhouse Hard Cider, Windfall Orchard Ice Cider, Farmhouse Perry or their unpasteurized sweet cider (alcohol free). The tasting room is open to the public Sunday-Thursday, 1-4 p.m., now through Columbus Day. When you pull in, follow the signs around the right side of the house (admire Koehler’s gorgeous gardens) and duck into the clean, new tasting room.
Also new to the property this summer, is the wood-fired oven. Koehler has gone ahead and set up a full outdoor kitchen, where he hopes to offer community dinners on Sundays (stay tuned for details). “There’s a wood-fired grill, a smoker and the wood-fired oven,” he said. Guess he couldn’t stay away from the kitchen… “I love to cook,” he agreed. “And who’s kitchen has this view!”
Editor’s Note: Windfall Orchard’s products can be purchased at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op or at the farm. For more info visit windfallorchardvt.com.

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