On a balmy Wednesday morning in August, Joe Buckel, Sutcliffe Vineyard’s vintner, and Sam Perry, local orchard wizard, are bottling up their first combined batch of hard cider pressed from the fruit of apple orchards scattered around Montezuma County. Some apples come from Joe’s own backyard trees. Pulling cider from an oak barrel into glass bottles through small clear tubing, the guys work quietly and precisely with co-workers Jesus and David, occasionally cracking jokes while carefully watching cider levels in each vessel. The sound of country music plays in the background. They are doing a secondary fermentation process. Four sets of hands touch each cider bottle from barrel to locking the cap in this step of the process, never mind the growing, picking, crushing and first round of fermentation.
Perry, who has researched cider tree collections across the country, has 700 newly-grafted apple trees sitting in pots waiting to go into the ground this fall. Cider orchards take 5 to 7 years before they produce any actual fruits. Then there is the harvest, crushing, fermenting, and bottling, which can take an additional year or more. Both Perry and Buckel are clearly in it for the long haul. If there were an Olympic race in patience, they would tie for the gold medal.
The art of cider making has been around since homesteaders first carted their wagons over the mountains headed west in search of new territories. Orchards were one of the first things planted and were generally from seed. Planting from seed meant most of the apples were “spitters,” meaning they tasted terrible when eaten fresh, but rocked as hard cider. And hard cider was an easy way to put up the apple harvest. Wild fermentations could easily be created with the apples on hand and a little sugar or honey. The result was a drink safer than water and certainly more fun to consume. Mid-winter, when things were looking bitter and bleak, homesteaders could roll out a barrel of hard cider and life turned merry and bright in quick order.
Unfortunately, Prohibition put a stop to homesteaders’ merry cider making. According to Natasha Geiling’s article in Smithsonian Magazine (November 2014), “During Prohibition, apple trees that produced sour, bitter apples used for cider were often chopped down by FBI agents.” This practice wiped out most American cider orchards and the industry never really recovered. Until now.
According to Jeff Schwartz, owner of Big B’s Hard Ciders out of Paonia, Colorado, the first gathering of the US Association of Cider Makers in 2010 hosted a mere 40 people. By 2016, there were well over 1000 in attendance – a quantum leap in the cider industry and a clear indication of where things are headed.
Dusty Teal of Teal Cider in Dolores, Colorado, has a strong sense that Montezuma County “could be home to the next Napa Valley [of hard cider].” All the vintners that are rising to the surface will readily tell you that the world has not seen cider like what is and will be coming out of Montezuma County and Roaring Fork Valley barrels. There is a special convergence of old, rare apple varieties, a climate that is pre-destined to grow great apples, and award-winning cider makers. Pair that ensemble with a growing foodie culture that appreciates local cider artists and orchardists creating veritable Rembrandts in a bottle and one starts to look at those roadside apple trees in a whole new light. Is that the next Picasso of cider trees? Certainly Sam Perry with his 700 trees gathered from across the nation starts to look like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.
In terms of taste, there’s many a palate that would turn up its nose at the thought of hard cider. Most consumers have only tried sugary mass-produced versions. In truth, a realm of locally-crafted possibilities awaits interested palates from dry to sweet along with a plethora of flavor profiles. It is as varied and diverse as the vintners, orchardists, apple trees and terroir (environmental conditions) that create it.
So what are the ingredients to a successful cider? According to Mancos vintner Daniel MacNeill, it’s about being “personally connected to the whole process.” He says, “Only 30% of cider makers nationally grow their own fruit.” Clearly the Southwest is an exception to that statistic. Most local vintners are co-creating with orchardists, and in some cases are orchardists themselves. That personal relationship results in a passion and intimacy that becomes one of the main ingredients in the cider. MacNeill works with Mancos Valley orchardist Sara Miller to create ciders from her rare and diverse heritage orchard. MacNeill’s Cider House will open in Durango in the late winter/early spring of 2017.
Beyond the vital connection to local apple orchards and orchardists, Big B’s owner Jeff Schwartz attributes part of his hard cider success to a focus on creating “American Farmstead Hard Cider” flavor profiles. Instead of trying to mimic English or Spanish styles of hard cider, Schwartz creates hard ciders that are unique to America and the Southwest. That means combining regional apple varieties that are available seasonally with other ingredients such as sour pie cherries, hops, pears or apricots, among other options. The soil and climate of the region influence the flavors, and the fermentation and aging processes continue developing unique profiles.
Walk into Big B’s Cider House tasting room and you’ll see a lineup of more than a dozen medals the family has received since they began seriously producing hard ciders 6 years ago with Head Cider Maker Shawn Larson. Over that time, they’ve developed more than eight flavor profiles from a crisp, dry Grizzly Brand Hard Cider aged in used bourbon barrels to their Cherry Daze Cider that is beautifully tart with a soft reveal of cherry tones.
If there is a dark underbelly to the art of cider, it is in the multitude of details that can turn a potentially exquisite drink into a bottle of vinegar or a mess of discombobulated flavors. From orchard crop failures, ingredient choices and types of yeasts added at the start to bottling techniques, length of fermentation, oxygen seepage, exploding bottles and temperature variations, anything can go wrong at any time. Ask the vintners about these issues and they’ll say that it’s part of the game you play when you sign up to make hard cider. Failure is just another notch on your apple tree of experience; an opportunity to empty the bottles and try again.
Martha Teal, vintner for Teal Cider, readily admits that her first batch of cider was unpalatable. But that’s just part of the learning curve. The Teals, along with friend and co-vintner Jared Scott, have been blending hard ciders since 2012 from their orchard stock of heritage tree antiquity varieties that date back as far as the 1700s. Their bottles of High, Rim Rider, and Rockslide Ciders won the prestigious Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition bronze medals. And they haven’t even opened for business yet.
There’s something spectacularly unique and extraordinary in the burgeoning regional hard cider movement. Beyond the exceptional orchards and terroir that cider makers can pull from and the techniques they use to get from orchard to bottle, a supportive camaraderie among vintners and orchardists about the craft from start to finish is present. Fellow cider makers help each other with storage needs, bottling days, loaning yeast mixtures, and perhaps most importantly, discussing the highs and lows of their cider making experiences. Something in that kind of unified action speaks to the quality of the cider.
These are people who care about the craft. They want to make a great cider. MacNeill says, “I just make everything with love. That’s what’s going on.” You get the feeling that each individual cider speaks tones to its vintners, orchardists and the orchards themselves. Their moods, dreams and aspirations are bottled up for you to taste and ponder. And that kind of liquid alchemy is priceless.