GRAPES & GRAINS
CIDERS GONE WILD
The Feral Cider Society has introduced an untamed appreciationfor the apples of New England.
If you should be lucky enough to find yourself cruising the back roads of New England on a crisp fall day, here’s what you’ll see: orange and yellow leaves skittering across the road, columns of wood smoke rising from chimneys and, lining the roadsides in all directions, wild apple trees. The trees are there year-round, of course, but most people don’t realize they’re apples until the fall, when red, yellow, green and even purple orbs line their branches and pile up on the roadsides. TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
If you should be adventurous enough to pluck one of those orbs off the tree and take a bite, here’s what you’ll taste: off-thecharts acidity, fierce bitters, brandied sugars and mysterious fragrances all rolled into one overwhelming package.
“Sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic essay Wild Apples. “More racy and wild American flavors do they possess.”
Today, few of us get the opportunity to sample those racy American flavors that beguiled Thoreau. The apples in our supermarkets have all been bred for sweetness and durability, so they lost their edge long ago. But now a surprising movement is afoot to rediscover America’s wild apples and reintroduce them to consumers — not as fresh fruit but as hard cider, the new darling of American tap rooms.
Hard cider was the founding ferment for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of colonial America. The apple isn’t native to the New World, but the earliest settlers all carried apple seeds with them, and the first thing most of them did was plant an orchard. Apple trees are vigorous and productive, and they were the primary source of both fresh fruit and fermentable sugars on every colonial homestead. They are also incredibly adaptable; every seed carries a unique genetic combination from its two parents. By Thoreau’s time, more than 7,000 varieties of apples existed in America, with an amazing diversity of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors.
Most of those varieties disappeared as orchardists increasingly concentrated on Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and a handful of other commercial varieties, but not all. Apples are incredibly longlived — 200-year-old trees are not uncommon — so there are still long-forgotten varieties hanging on in the farms and fields of rural America. More importantly, apples love going
HARD CIDER WAS THE FOUNDING FERMENT FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON, THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE REST OF COLONIAL AMERICA.
native. The wild seedlings that have sprung up from three centuries of chucking cores out of wagons, bicycles and cars now line the dirt roads of old colonial hotspots such as the New England hills and the Eastern Seaboard, each sporting an apple the world has never tried. HANDPICKED PREFERENCES
This is where the Feral Cider Society comes in: a group of neighborhood guys who began making hard cider from apples collected from the roadsides of Vermont a dozen years ago. We loved the historical connections to our town’s earliest settlers, as well as the simplicity of the process: Just press the juice into 5-gallon buckets in the fall, stick the buckets in your cellar and let the wild yeast in the air turn it into hard cider by spring. But we quickly learned that the McIntoshes and Cortlands of Vermont orchards made boring hard cider. Just as table grapes make lousy wine, apples chosen for fresh eating don’t have the outlandish flavor compounds that make for good drinking.
Where to find the chardonnays and cabernets of the apple world? The answer was hanging beside the roadsides and farmhouses all around us, just waiting to be plucked. Most of those wild trees had gnarly fruit that even a porcupine would have turned down, but a healthy minority had apples with racy flavors that Thoreau would have loved. And when we made cider with them, we were pretty sure we had re-created the hooch that made America great: a delicious, crisp drink with the alcohol of beer, the color of white wine and the tannic bite of red wine.
And we were not alone. Today, dozens of hobbyists and professionals are crafting ciders from wild and feral fruit in New England, New York and the Appalachians, and those ciders are turning up in restaurants, wine shops, farmer’s markets and cider festivals throughout those regions. If the only hard cider you’ve tasted so far is one of the large commercial ciders, which tend to be mild and semisweet, you may be in for a shock. You may also be in for a new obsession. Wild cider is an acquired taste, but once you get it, you’ll be a convert. It captures the essence of the autumn woods, a sensation as stirring to us today as to our ancestors who would open a barrel, inhale deeply and marvel at their great good fortune in this new land.