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The Cider Press: Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire

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Cider photographs by Christopher Lehault

Call it an "epiphany" cider: a single sip that washes away all existing notions and opens us up to what cider could be. For me, that sip came from Farnum Hill.

Since the 1980s, Farnum Hill Ciders has been at the forefront of the American cider revival. Their commitment to revitalizing the growth of heirloom apples in the United States is unsurpassed, and the nuanced beverages they produce are a reflection of that commitment. We recently had a chance to chat with Louisa Spencer, the self proclaimed 'mom' in this mom and pop outfit.

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Stephen M. Wood and Louisa D. Spencer, Proprietors of Farnum Hill Ciders

How did Farnum Hill get started making cider?

Way back in the 70's we began to see that growing the world's best McIntosh apples and hand-packing them for wholesale was becoming unprofitable. Shipments of Granny Smith and other excellent dessert apples from southern hemisphere countries began to push New England storage Macs aside on grocery shelves.

In the 80's we started grafting and testing unusual "heirloom" varieties. During that period Steve (Wood, Louisa's husband and co-proprietor of Farnum Hill Ciders) also started visiting cider growers in England...Cider seemed economically viable and, to a wine fan, also fascinating for both its horticulture and production methods. But to make the best possible fermented ciders it looked necessary to get away from eating apples and grow some varieties that taste truly terrible fresh.

The crucial bad-tasting element seemed to be the tannic content in bittersweet and bittersharp apple varieties grown commercially in Britain and France. These apples give the body and structure that made big British brands more satisfying than the 'six-pack ciders' beginning to appear in the States.

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Poverty Lane Orchards in the fall

So how did you transition from an edible apple orchard to a cider one?

We began growing heirloom specialty varieties and then cider apples in hopes of remaining a wholesale orchard, which is naturally much larger than the retail-and-pick-your-own operations that many New England orchard businesses have become. After testing many cider varieties for hardiness and quality by grafting scions to existing trees at our place, Steve planted ten acres of inedible fruit in the 80's, then found a partner willing to help buy more ground on the same ridge along the Connecticut in order to plant many more acres. The idea was that we would learn to make excellent fermented ciders and that at the same time others might become interested in cidermaking, and would discover that they'd need our apples to do their best work! And that's how it has turned out, though not as fast as we once dreamed.

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What makes Farnum Hill Ciders different from other ciders on the market today?

We not only grow the tannic, complex cider varieties needed for satisfying fermentations, but we also found that a few of the heirloom eating apples that we planted for wholesale can 'cross over' into cider. Esopus Spitzenberg, Ashmead's Kernel, Golden Russet, Wickson and a few others have brought extraordinary fruit, floral, and earthy notes into our blends, as well as keen acid that's critically important to balance the tannic elements and ensure clean fermentation. Nobody else has access to the variety mix that we happen to grow.

The second thing is that we decided early on to stop trying to emulate English and French ciders, and treat the American cider scene as a blank slate where we could find our own style. Even the European apples we grow here develop differently in our tough climate than they did back home; often the flavors are more concentrated. It's important to understand that any orchard-based cider is inclined to be unique, just because the land and conditions of each site are unique, and will give individual character to the fruit grown there.

While most American cider producers are developing sparking ciders, Farnum Hill Ciders is also committed to producing still cider. How do still ciders differ from sparkling ones?

Still ciders offer the fullest flavor and nuance just because there are no bubbles in the way. Still ciders are perfectly normal in other countries, and still wines are of course preponderant everywhere. Our hope is that enough people here will explore cider that there will be market interest in the many many variations that spring from terrain, fruit variety, climate and technique, all the local realities that mysteriously end up in the bottle. We'd love to see distinctive ciders all over the landscape, and some of the remaining great apple regions in the States be recognized as cider 'Napas' and 'Sonomas.'

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Fermentation tanks and barrel aging ciders at Farnum Hill

Tell us a little about Farnum Hill Cider's experimental cider line,
Dooryard.

The experiment is really a test of public taste, to see whether Americans can enjoy the kind of stronger bittersweet blends that are common abroad. Most of the Dooryard blends are more tannic and more funky than the fruity profile of our regular labels. Over the years we've often had to let go certain blend batches that we found just delightful but that would not wear any of our usual labels. We were nervous about releasing them so early in the development of American cider taste.

Then came 2010, a severe year when early spring heat pushed the tiny apples so far ahead that when regular temperatures returned in May, most of the crop was destroyed by frost. Hardest-hit were the high-acid varieties needed to achieve the flavor profiles behind our regular labels. Many cider varieties, perhaps because of their crazy sugar content, came through better. So we stopped thinking about trying out bittersweet-heavy blends on the market, and decided to just do it.

The 'Dooryard' name comes from our recent history of selling small-batch blends from the barn to growler customers who come back with their bottles, taste through whatever we're offering, and refill with their favorites. Dooryard is an expanded version of that 'small-batch' approach.

You have also started to experiment with Perry. Can we expect to see a Farnum Hill perry on the market anytime soon?

We are growing perry pears because Steve is a fruit fanatic who wants to grow whatever will reach its highest quality on this land. The grafted perry varieties that we started years ago have taken forever to give us much to work with, partly because it turns out that New World rodents such as squirrels became addicted to these brutally bitter tannic Old World fruits and literally devoured them from the trees.

So at last we've made a little batch of in-house perry and, frankly, I think it's not quite up to the Farnum Hill ciders. It's very aromatic and pleasant, but there's less going on in it than we look for in the ciders. So that part needs work. Meanwhile Steve just put two hundred little pear trees in the ground so I imagine that something will come of those, years from now.

What's in your glass when you are not drinking Farnum Hill?

Red wines, usually French.

Are there any American cider makers that you are excited about right now?

We went to Virginia last month, to a conference of cidermakers and would-be cidermakers, and we were blown away by a lot of what we tasted. Albemarle Cider Works and Foggy Ridge Cider have orchards going and have established vigorous retail and local wholesale trade. We've been impressed by them for years.

A couple of other well-equipped cider operations are just beginning to produce, waiting for licenses, etc. But the thing we found so amazing is how clean, drinkable and also individual those new VA ciders were. Believe me we have tasted a lot of beginners' fermentations over the years, and of course we remember our own blunders from the '90s. Early samples sent us by cider-makers were usually a test of good manners, just not pleasing, full of flaws. But these people's samples were enjoyable, made from local apple varieties mostly, and showed real skill. So we're excited about Virginia.

How are this year's ciders turning out?

We are maturing 2010 juices and trying to make the most interesting and delicious use of the assortment of fermentations we were able to put together out of a very strange harvest. Now that they are pushed to make complex, balanced and delicious blends from far fewer options, they find the results of their blending decisions to be excitingly good.

Tasting Farnum Hill Ciders

We already discussed our fondness for Farnum Hill's sparking, Semi-Dry Cider back in our Thanksgiving cider round-up and it still the go-to table cider in my household. But some of the most interesting ciders coming out of Farnum Hill are their still ciders, rather than their sparkling ones.

Farnum Hill Extra Dry Still (7.5% ABV, 750ml, $13) is a bone-dry cider with more body than most still ciders on the market. While the palate is laden with strong mineral and tannic components, the is an underlying notion of tropical fruits and a unique, floral quality to the aroma. This is an austere cider that can replace dry white wine as a pairing for seafood, poultry or aged sheep's milk cheeses

A bit more earthy, Farnum Hill Kingston Black Reserve (8.5% ABV, 750ml, $20) is a single varietal cider made entirely from bittersharp Kingston Black apples. A testament to one of the more balanced heirloom apples, the Kingston Black Reserve mingles citrus peel and and floral notes with a slight, musky character. The cider is aggressively tannic and sour but hides some of its assertiveness behind a healthy amount of body.

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Currently only available on tap in select markets, it looks as if Farnum Hill's Dooryard series will finally see its way to bottles sometime in 2011. We had a chance to try Dooryard 1108C, one of the most intricate ciders to pass through Serious Eats HQ. The warm, fruity scent bursts with banana, honey and peach. But the palate is almost a complete contrast, with peppery mineral flavors and a quinine-like astringency. Dooryard 1108C's complexity leaves little room for pairing but can be enjoyed with raw oysters or as an amuse before any celebration.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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