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New England Wants to Be the Bordeaux of Cider-Making

“If our cider’s any good, it’s because we don’t know what the hell we’re doing,” says Stephen Wood of New Hampshire's Farnum Hill Ciders. And it's that kind of approach that is setting his cider apart from the sweet stuff that's been taking over beer...
June 22, 2015, 5:18pm
Photos by the author.

Cider doesn't have to be sweet. Louisa Spencer and Stephen Wood—owners of Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire—relish the opportunity to make bittersweet ciders, which highlight fruitiness and minimize sugar use.

"If our cider's any good and our fruit's any good—and I think it is—it's because we really know that we don't know what the hell we're doing," Wood said. "We don't have any illusion of being real experts at any of this. I'm going to be dead before I know how to deal with an apple tree … the bloody monks started in Burgundy in the 12th century! We're just scratching the surface of what can be done and how to do it. We're really in a constant state of surprise or shock—and terror."

READ: This Apple Historian Wants You to Meditate on Your Fruit

Wood is, perhaps, too humble. He may not want to be called an expert, but he carries years of expertise. Wood has worked on Poverty Lane Orchards (where Farnum Hill Ciders is located) since he was 11 years old, and he and his wife Spencer have owned the orchards since 1984. It's precious property with one of the most diverse collections of apple trees in the US.

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Louisa Spencer and Stephen Wood.

"I think New England has a chance to be a Bordeaux of cider-making," Spencer said. "This [cider boom] promises to bring a realization of the specialness of orchards and American orchard land, which is some of the best in the world."

The duo rely heavily on apple varietals rarely seen in the supermarket, like Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Major, Somerset Redstreak, Ellis Bitter, Harry Masters Jersey, Wickson, Ashmead's Kernel, Golden Russet, and Esopus Spitzenberg. Those apples become Farnum Hill's Extra Dry, Semi-Dry, Kingston Black Reserve, and Dooryard ciders.

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Kingston Black is a flat cider with a rich texture and surprising flavors. It's described on the website as having the scent of candle-flame and turning off the phone. While all Dooryard bottles look the same, they are generally made from batches of staple ciders that have deviated with unique flavors, and thus differ from bottle to bottle. Farnum Hill numbers those bottles (and attaches a tag with a QR code) so drinkers can see on the website which deviant batch is in a particular bottle.

But this season, as Farnum Hill attempts to appeal to customers with its more accessible products, the emphasis is on extra-dry and semi-dry ciders. Wood and Spencer are happy to make the shift—just because a bottle doesn't scream complexity doesn't mean it's not a better cider. Spencer's favorite cider is her company's Extra Dry, and Wood thinks good alcoholic beverages should "shut up" and let the drinkers do the talking. It should lubricate conversation, but not be the center of it.

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Nicole LeGrand Leibon.

"Our aim is to make the States a place where, if you're a good host, you've got a red, a white, a decent beer, and good cider on-hand at all times," Spencer said. "It's a staple thing—you've got to have it."

Cider is slowly getting to that point in the US, but there are still some hurdles to clear. Cider isn't wine and it isn't beer. There are stereotypes that go along with beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers, but what is the typical cider-drinker? Craft, artisanal, and traditional cider companies are still trying to figure out their target audience. Still, cider-making is much like wine-making—not only in the production process (which is identical), but also because its consumers value differentiation. Unlike wine, however, cider quality does not change with age. And it's similar to craft beer in terms of alcohol content.

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Many cider-makers are chasing highbrow wine consumers, labeling their product "craft" or "artisan" to set themselves apart from six-pack cider-makers like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard. Farnum Hill, however, prefers to be called a traditional cider.

"People who want to talk about their own craft and their own art—they want their signature on the bottles," Wood said. "We all agree that our trees should sign the bottles, and that we're just agents of the trees. We know where the good stuff comes from. It comes from that dirt. And it comes, in part, from the fact that we're pretty good at growing apple trees … But it's out in those orchards where the cider is made. We think our stuff is not art—we think it's work, but what we're proud that we've been working a really long time to be marginally good at something."

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The Farnum Hill team loves their apples and their apple trees. Ironically, they want honor to the fruit by showing how un-apple tasting an apple can be.

"Preferably not apples," Wood said when asked about his cider's flavor. "Peaches, citrus fruit, and some tropical things. It's the fruit with a kiss of yeast … cider with substantial tannic structure—something holding it up. That's how we think about the phenols—the bitter and the astringent things."

To achieve this goal, Farnum Hill holds countless cider-tasting sessions. The team free-associates with nouns, adjectives, and anecdotes (that's where the "whiff of turning on a phone" came from). The leader of those sessions, Nicole LeGrand Leibon, challenges the team to tame subjective language into objectivity. Leibon, Wood, and Spencer want an analytical vernacular that captures cider with exactitude. The don't want to emulate French and English ciders; instead, they'd like to make something influenced by those ciders, but that is uniquely American.

"It's the moment of stopping making something imitative by stumbling into objective sensory evaluation," Wood said of the tasting sessions. "We stumbled into it—not like a wall, but slowly down the road."

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Because of this, Wood has no recipe for the ciders. The team makes a batch, tastes it, and adjusts if needed. And while the task of creating consistency is staggering, Farnum Hill has managed to do so.

Only 15 years ago, they were schlepping their tasters around the streets of New York City, pitching their cider to wine distributors when there was no place in liquor stores or restaurant menus for their product. Cider was relegated to dusty corners, where the bottles would share racks with peach wine.

Even now you'd be hard-pressed to find a bottle of Farnum Hill in liquor stores—but that's because it's pretty much sold out until August. In each bottle, drinkers can taste Farnum Hill's bittersweet labor: chasing cider perfection.