Matthew Critz never expected to become an apple cider maker. But then again, he also never expected to become an apple and pumpkin grower, or a maple syrup producer, or a host of a farm that draws visitors to Cazenovia, New York from all over.
"I just wanted to sell Christmas trees, but then one day I wake up and there's 3,000 people in my driveway. How does that Talking Heads song go? How did I get here?"
But mortgages don't pay themselves, and a strictly seasonal product like Christmas trees don't always cut it in the small farming business. So Critz, whose 350 acre farm was established in 1985, began to diversify. His newest product is cider—great sweet stuff like you'll find in apple orchards around the state, but also, as of last year, a line of hard ciders that have already started to win awards. Ranging from extra brut to sweeter and dessert-like, the brews from Harvest Moon are delicate, effervescent throwbacks to cider the old fashioned way, from the 120 year-old press that crushes the apples to the appreciation of the tannic qualities that make great cider so worth drinking.
Critz's story to cider is one you'll hear from a number of beverage producers in upstate New York—an education that's almost entirely self-taught. "It's not like you can go to Cornell and take a course in this sort of thing, like wine. But I was a chemical engineering major in college, so the basics made sense to me." Dabbling leads where it often does—obsession—and before long Critz was experimenting with his cider every way he could, a process that's grown with his apple orchard, planted just in 2005.
It's interesting cider for a few reasons, but none more than the astringent complexity of his dry brews. Critz recognizes the value that tart, bitter cider apples lend to a finished cider, even one primarily made from out-of-hand dessert apples, and goes to great pains to purchase cider apples from the few farms in the area that do grow them. "They're very hard to get, and you have to order the root stock for trees several years in advance." Many other small cider makers don't bother with the trouble.
The cider apples he planted two years ago are just starting to bear fruit, and will join his cider brewing as they become available. Until then, he'll keep pressing his stock of dessert apples and accentuating them with cider apples he can find.
Critz treats the bases of his ciders similarly, fermenting them with Champagne yeast for about two weeks, then aging for a month, then decanting to another aging chamber for six months. The ciders are sweetened and carbonated to varying degrees by New York state fruit juices, honey, and—unusually—maple syrup (way too pricey for the average small cidermaker, but when your farm doubles as a sugar shack, it's a handy synergy). The maple syrup is used as a sugar charge rather than a flavoring, which Critz thinks makes a more interesting, nuanced drink than other sugar charges.
Though Harvest Moon's most interesting ciders are their dry offerings—the bone-dry, Champagne-like Rippleton Original, the honey-sweetened but beautifully tart Blissful Moon, and the sweeter but balanced Four Screw—the most popular ones inevitably are the sweetest. "Our biggest selling cider is our sweetest one, every time. That's just the American palate." But even if Critz's tastes don't always match up with his customers', that hasn't discouraged him from keeping up a tradition that few others do. "Cider used to be the most popular drink in the agrarian 1800s. Now are there are generations that haven't tasted it."