Oct 12, 2016
Wood leads rebirth of New England hard cider

A block of hard cider trees offers the best view on Barney Hodges’ farm.

Facing west, looking down a slight slope, you can see the Adirondack Mountains in the distance. New York state is there, with its voluminous orchards, large-scale infrastructure and ready access to new varieties like SnapDragon and RubyFrost. It’s only 15 miles away, on the other side of Lake Champlain, but for Hodges it might as well be on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He can’t grow varieties restricted to New York because his farm, Sunrise Orchards, is in Cornwall, Vermont.barneyhodge_hardcider

Vermont is a beautiful state with a long tradition of growing apples, but it’s small and rural and the opportunities for an ambitious orchardist are limited. So when the hard cider industry knocked on Hodges’ door a few years ago, it’s no wonder he jumped at the chance.

“I’m embracing the hard cider world pretty heavily,” he said. “I don’t see many other opportunities for Vermont apple growers.”

A few miles away at Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, Bill Suhr has dived even further: He’s growing hard cider varieties and pressing and selling his own line of ciders. It was a significant investment, but to Suhr the benefits included security.

“We don’t carry crop insurance,” he said. “Our strategy is to take that money and invest it in alternatives, to spread our risk over multiple farms.”

Shoreham also is home to Shacksbury Cider, which sees farm- based ciders as a growth opportunity. Co-founder David Dolginow first noticed hard cider’s potential when he worked for Barney Hodges. Hodges wanted to focus on growing fruit, not making cider, so Dolginow and partner Colin Davis decided to start their own cider-making company, with Sunrise Orchards as their main supplier.

Their bet seems to have paid off. Only three years old, Shacksbury produced about 20,000 cases of hard cider last year, and its products will be in 22 states by the end of this year. Temporarily housed in a fruit storage building in Shoreham, the company will soon move to a more permanent facility about 20 miles north in Vergennes.

Hard cider’s growth isn’t limited to Vermont. Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, Maine, is exploring its own possibilities. The Ricker family opened a tasting room in Turner a couple of years ago, and has plans to open another one about an hour south in Portland. They want to expand further into other states as well, where there are more potential customers, said Harry Ricker, one of the principal owners.

It was Harry’s son Andy who convinced his father and uncles to grow, press and sell hard cider on a commercial scale, after playing around with homemade brew for a few years. To Andy, hard cider stood out more than any other growth opportunity.

“We were selling a lot of sweet cider to people making hard cider,” Andy said. “The market was exploding.”

Hard cider’s growth in New England mirrors its remarkable growth in the rest of the United States. According to Michigan State University Extension educator Nikki Rothwell, the U.S. industry grew at an annual average of 73 percent between 2008 and 2015.

That’s the kind of growth Steve Wood fantasized about in the 1980s, when he was “crawling around” trying to make and sell his own hard cider. But the end result hasn’t quite matched what he originally envisioned.

“I sort of hoped for this growth to happen, but I foolishly imagined it would have more to do with apples,” he said.

The godfather

Cider makers desperately need more hard cider apples.

If the New England hard cider industry – maybe the entire U.S. hard cider industry – has a progenitor, it’s probably Steve Wood. From his home base at Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Wood has been a font of budwood, advice, inspiration and opinions for aspiring hard cider growers and makers across the country.

“Steve is the reason we diversified into hard cider,” Suhr said. “He’s our granddaddy. He inspired the revival of New England hard cider – and potentially larger than just New England.”

Suhr, Hodges and the Rickers have all cut budwood at Poverty Lane – the origin of their own hard cider trees. Over the last few decades, growers from as far away as Colorado have made the pilgrimage to New Hampshire, seeking budwood and enlightenment, Wood said.

“We’ve been giving away wood for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know how much wood across the country originated here, but it must be a lot.”

Via nurseries, he guessed that his budwood had leapfrogged all over the United States – even to the Pacific Northwest.

Now 61, Wood never intended to be the “godfather” of New England hard cider; it just sort of happened.

“We don’t think of ourselves as authorities,” he said. “We’ve done what we can to encourage people to make good, orchard-based ciders in this country, and we’ve been totally free with our meager knowledge. That’s pretty much all there is to it.”

Wood started as a grower/packer/shipper of apples destined for supermarkets, but said that by the 1980s “economies of scale” and a lack of production efficiency in his area made that endeavor less and less profitable.

Wood’s friend and fellow New Hampshire apple grower Chuck Souther was in a similar position. Souther described it this way: “Trucks disappeared down the driveway, the checks came in the mail – how much better can that get? But when the checks get smaller and smaller, it’s time to do something else.”

By happenstance, Wood had gotten to know English cider growers and makers in the early ’80s. Curious, he wanted to find out if he could grow European cider varieties in New Hampshire, so he imported wood from the United Kingdom and grafted it onto his trees. His grafting trials encompassed “several hundred” varieties, he said.

By the time the apple market shifted, Wood already had a decade’s worth of experience growing cider varieties. And he had glimpsed the sales potential of hard cider, which could follow the wine model: “Where small differences between similar things are not only not penalized but paid for.”
The downside was that there was no other use for cider apples, which are inedible on their own. But he needed to grow a high-value crop in order to survive, and cider was the obvious answer.

Wood started making and selling hard cider on a commercial scale in 1995 (he changed the name of his cidery from Poverty Lane to Farnum Hill – the hill his orchard sits on – after his wife convinced him that putting the word “poverty” on his juice was bad marketing). His ciders started to get critical attention and access to New York restaurants, but he noticed that stores didn’t seem to know where to place them – with the beer or the wine? – and ended up burying them on a back shelf somewhere. He realized that hard cider needed its own category.

“It’s not good enough to make a cool cider,” he said. “You need more good cider around it.”

Steve Wood grows cider apples on M.106 and M.111 rootstock. During harvest, his workers shake the branches with poles and pick the fruit off the ground.
Steve Wood grows cider apples on M.106 and M.111 rootstock. During harvest, his workers shake the branches with poles and pick the fruit off the ground.

He decided the best way to do that would be to encourage other apple growers to grow hard cider varieties.

“We arrogantly reckoned we could stay on top of the pile – but we needed a pile.”

One of the first growers Wood approached was Souther, whose orchard is about an hour southeast of him in Concord. Souther planted cider trees in 1998. He and Wood have gone back and forth over the years, sharing apples if the other had a short crop. Wood keeps prodding him to make his own cider, but Souther said running a u-pick farm market and selling cider apples keeps him plenty busy.

Wood’s attempts to expand the cider supply seem to have paid off – especially in the last few years. More and more growers have been showing up at his orchards lately, cutting budwood from thousands of his trees.

“There was a dramatic shift several years ago, from enthusiasts to serious growers putting stuff in the ground,” he said.

So the industry is growing like Wood had hoped, but he’s a little ambivalent about the direction. He said there’s too much “concentrate alcopop Chipotle maple aardvark blood cider” out there, when the real emphasis should be on apples and orchards.

“Our objective has been to get back to the real value of all this land,” Wood said. “If you rely on retail – a tasting room, pies and cookies – you’re running a store and trying to pretend you still grow apples for a living. We wanted to see if we could still grow apples. We want to keep putting pallets on trucks with forklifts. That’s when you see if what you’re growing has inherent value.”

When will the ride end

Cider apples and cider are the most profitable parts of Wood’s business at the moment. Demand for apples is so high he could sell his whole crop twice. He’s even constructing a new cider-making facility – an unusual extravagance for him. Wood expects the good times to continue for a few more years, but after that he’s not sure. A lot of the trees he’s provided budwood for will start bearing all over the country. There could be a wave of cider fruit coming, followed by lower prices – and Wood could find himself in the same place he was 30 years ago.

Souther sees a “leveling off ” coming for hard cider, maybe even a dip. He also sees the industry going down two divergent paths: “the high-end wine thing and the six-pack thing.” Right now, the six-pack market – cheaper cider in metal cans – is growing faster than the high-end market, he said.

Dolginow said smaller, specialty hard cider producers have been growing fast lately, possibly taking market share from larger companies like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard.

“It’s a fascinating time,” Shacksbury’s co-owner said. “Certain segments are growing robustly, while others are slowing down. Our segment, farmhouse ciders, is a very small percentage of the overall cider industry, but our bet is that it will continue to develop.”

Dabinett is one of Wood's "workhorse" bittersweet varieties.
Dabinett is one of Wood’s “workhorse” bittersweet varieties.

Hard cider has grown to about 2 percent of the national beer market, said Harry Ricker, and he thinks 4 percent is attainable on a national scale. To get there, however, there will have to be a “shakeout” of producers who make less palatable cider, his son Andy said.

New England

There might be a leveling off in hard cider’s future, but for now one thing is clear: “We desperately need more cider apples,” said Dolginow, speaking for all cider makers.

But it’s a big leap for growers. Back in his hard cider block, with its view of the Adirondacks, Barney Hodges weighed the pros and cons of growing cider varieties. On the one hand, they can be profitable – he can get $18 to $24 per bushel – but on the other there’s a “fair amount” of risk. Many of the varieties – Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Wickson, to name just a few – are unfamiliar to U.S. growers, and since many cider makers are willing to buy dessert apples, growing specialized varieties that can’t be used for any other purpose might seem unnecessary, he said.

To overcome this reluctance, Dolginow is working to build connections between growers and cider makers in his region. His hope is for a durable, long-lasting hard cider industry in Vermont, as well as the rest of New England.

“Apples have a long history in New England,” he said. “We are uniquely situated to be a leader in the hard cider industry.”

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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