GRAPES & GRAINS

CIDERS GONE WILD

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Rowan Ja­cob­sen

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.

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