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Hard Cider Made Easy

  • Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders loads apples into the press at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples are pressed into cider, then made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders loads apples into the press at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples are pressed into cider, then made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raphael Lousada helps wiith a pressing at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. His parents make hard cider from the apples grown in their orchard. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Raphael Lousada helps wiith a pressing at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. His parents make hard cider from the apples grown in their orchard. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders picks up a load of apples from the orchard at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples were headed for the press to make cider, that would then be made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders picks up a load of apples from the orchard at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples were headed for the press to make cider, that would then be made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sweet apple cider drips from a cloth press at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Sweet apple cider drips from a cloth press at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Varieties of hard cider from Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt. 2013 on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Varieties of hard cider from Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt. 2013 on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders loads apples into the press at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples are pressed into cider, then made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Raphael Lousada helps wiith a pressing at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. His parents make hard cider from the apples grown in their orchard. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Sebastian Lousada of Flag Hill Ciders picks up a load of apples from the orchard at the farm in Vershire, Vt. on Nov. 6, 2013. The apples were headed for the press to make cider, that would then be made into hard cider. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Sweet apple cider drips from a cloth press at Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt., on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Varieties of hard cider from Flag Hill Ciders in Vershire, Vt. 2013 on Nov. 6, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

You know that hard cider is being taken seriously when the New York Times, as it did last week, devoted considerable space to a taste test of American hard ciders produced in New England, New York, Virginia and the West Coast.

It’s not the first time that the Times, Saveur, Slate and Esquire, the Bible of manly men who would presumably steer clear of a drink that was overly sweet and bubbly, have spilled ink on hard cider. But the spate of publicity in the past five years indicates that the interest in, and resurgence of, quality hard cider, like the demand for craft beers, is in no danger of abating.

“Hard cider is very popular right now. Suddenly all these people are producing,” said Sebastian Lousada, the cider maker at Flag Hill Farm in Vershire, which he runs with his wife Sabra Ewing.

Flag Hill, licensed in 1996, is a smaller operation, producing between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of organic hard cider annually, as well as apple and pear brandy, that is distributed largely in Vermont. Lousada and Ewing live off the grid atop an open, 1,700-foot hill that looks east toward Mount Moosilauke; three cows nibble on grass and residue apple mash, or pomace, that’s left after pressing.

Lousada is accustomed to doing much of the work manually, with the help of his son Raphael, rather than relying on farm labor. On a brisk November day, with the wind blowing at a good clip, Lousada is in the thick of pressing cider from a mixture of wild apples, cider apples and eating and cooking apples from their orchards. Such varieties as Rhode Island Greening, Northwest Greening, Jonathan, Gold Rush and Yarlington Mill go into the mix. There’s some urgency because the see-sawing temperatures, from the teens at night to the 40s during the day, mean that time is running out on cider pressing.

His son Raphael drives a tractor with a bin of apples up to a fruit crusher hopper, which chops the apples into a pink gooey mass. A hose delivers the pomace to a large steel pan. Lousada then takes the pomace and folds it into cider cloths, which will strain the juice. The cloths are placed within wooden press racks, which look a little like picture frames, and stacked atop each other. A mechanical press then squeezes the juice, which runs out of the cloths in a kind of waterfall, and the juice is funneled through a screen to a vat below. From the vat the juice goes into the fermentation tanks, where it will age for months.

In an era of highly automated manufacturing, making and perfecting hard cider is still a relatively laborious, careful process. The key to hard cider, said Lousada, is not to make one that’s too sugary. He prefers a cider with “a strong, complex taste, so there’s a beginning, a middle and an end” — a cider that can stand up to a meal.

Lousada, who grew up in England, was used to the cleaner, flintier hard ciders of England and France, and has brought that aesthetic to his own ciders. The alcohol content in his cider hovers just under seven percent, Lousada said. (The typical alcoholic content in beer ranges between 4 and 6 percent, while wine has a wider range, from 8 percent to 14 percent or higher. The alcohol content differs, of course, from variety to variety, in both beer and wine.)

Hard cider was drunk routinely in the U.S. from the 17th through the 19th centuries, but after the influx of German immigrant beermakers in the mid-to-late 19th century, and then the hammer blow of Prohibition, the hard cider industry nearly vanished. In its place came apple juice and pasteurized sweet cider, which are to hard cider as Boone’s Farm Country Wine is to a Grand Cru Burgundy.

But the pendulum has swung decisively in the other direction, said Steve Wood, the owner of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, which produces a range of hard ciders that routinely end up on Best Of lists. “It has a lot to do with the marketing efforts of the big boys,” Wood said, pointing to brewers Coors, Sam Adams and Anheuser-Busch, among others. “That’s doing a lot to fuel its rise.”

There’s more to it than just marketing, of course. Wood and his wife Louisa Spencer have been in the apple and hard cider business at Poverty Lane Orchards since the 1980s. A Lebanon native, he started working at the orchard during the summer as a kid in the 1960s, when it was under different ownership. Other careers beckoned, but Wood kept coming back to the orchard.

“I love growing things and I’ve always been infatuated with trees,” he said. “I think I could very easily live in the city but you can’t watch the sun walk from one end of the horizon to the other.”

Wood bought the property in 1984, and began to expand. It rapidly dawned on him, though, that the commercial orchard industry was changing rapidly in ways that he didn’t like and probably couldn’t adapt to — an emphasis on larger, blander varieties; waxing apples; new packing technologies. The newer model wasn’t suitable for Poverty Lane Orchards.

“We decided that if we were going to do something it had to have high, inherent value. We needed to have something that had a real prospect of returning money to the land,” Wood said.

After researching hard cider, and talking to apple growers and hard cider makers in the U.S. and Europe, he decided to focus on the narrow niche of American hard cider. He began to experiment with grafting such older, rarer varieties of French, English and American apples as Medaille d’Or, Nonpareil, Foxwell, Michelin, Esopus Spitzenberg, Wickson and Golden Russet. Now there are between 15,000 and 17,000 trees on 70 acres of land: both apples for picking and cider, and some pears for perry, the pear equivalent of hard cider.

Farnum Hill makes around 15,000 gallons of hard ciders annually, in semi-dry and dry, sparkling and still varieties, said Nicole LeGrand Leibon, the cider maker at Farnum Hill. The surge of interest in hard cider can be attributed to a number of factors, Leibon said, citing the rise of the locavore movement and the growth of niche farming. And there’s the indefinable human factor: Hard cider now attracts buzz, and where there’s buzz, there’s a trend. And where there’s a trend there are people looking to get in on it. Although hard cider is less than one percent of the size of the beer market, according to a recent Boston Globe article, the Boston Beer Company product (better known as the Sam Adams brand) most in demand this year has been its Angry Orchard hard cider, introduced last year.

Leibon isn’t surprised by the stampede toward hard cider. “I think part of it is the search for the next, big thing. People are looking for an alternative to beer and wine. Plus, it’s so American. People grew up with their grandfather making it down in the cellar,” she said.

“People are very keen on things that are locally made that are fresh and authentic,” said Jaime Schier, the quality control manager for Harpoon, the Massachusetts brewery that has a plant in Windsor.

Harpoon entered the hard cider market in 2006 for the “same reason that we decided to enter into the brewery industry in 1986,” Schier said in a phone interview from Boston. “The founders traveled to England and the Normandy region of France. They noticed that the cider culture well established and rich, and none of that was the case here in the U.S. ... We thought we had a unique thing to bring into the market.”

Unlike the cider makers at Flag Hill and Farnum Hill, Harpoon uses only standard New England culinary apples for their product: Macintosh, Courtland, Macouns. “It’s what’s grown here in New England and we wanted to make an authentically local and fresh product,” Schier said. The brewery makes three varieties of hard cider.

Schier was in college when he first tasted an English hard cider. To say he was surprised would be understatement. “Experiencing that was on a par with the first time I experienced a Guinness,” he said. “The crispness, the refreshingness of it, the lightness of it. You can have three ciders and not feel bloated, or knocked down. I like the flavors, the aromas and it’s a completely social, welcoming drink.”

Althugh hard cider is a year-round drink, in this country at least, the cider makers said, the tendency is to associate it with autumn, an image they’re trying to shake. “Grapes are picked in the fall but we don’t think of wine as a fall drink,” Leibon said. “We’re trying to separate cider from fall.”

Harpoon sells most of its hard ciders in the fall, Schier said. “There’s no real reason for it, but people are thinking apples.”

The key to marketing hard cider is to educate both the sales force and the public that it has a place in the home along with beer and wine, Wood said. For his part, Schier thinks the market will continue to double or perhaps even triple. “I expect to see a 1,000 cider makers in the U.S. within 10 years,” Schier said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.