Cider Week FLX: So 'Hard' It's GoodOct 03, 2014
Today marks the beginning of Cider Week FLX, a celebration of the reemergence of craft cider production in the Finger Lakes, through Oct. 12. “People have always made hard cider here [in the Finger Lakes],” said Eric Shatt, who, along with his wife, Deva Maas, owns Redbyrd Orchard Cider in Trumansburg. “Before Prohibition, cider was the main drink.” The resurgence of the flavorful beverage has been slow but steady. Just up the road from Redbyrd, on Route 89, sits Bellwether Hard Cider and Wine Cellars, the first Finger Lakes producer to bottle cider. The trifecta of Redbyrd, Bellwether, and Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, N.Y. have helped expand hard cider’s popularity to a larger group of colleagues, spanning several upstate New York counties, that are able, and willing, to collaborate on events like Cider Week FLX. For years Mr. Shatt and Ms. Maas shared an interest in experimenting with cider-making. “We used to ‘wild-gather,’” Mr. Shatt said, laughing. “We’d go around looking for farms with heirloom apple trees that no one was picking the fruit from, and we’d knock on their doors and ask if we could take their apples.” Organic wild apples inherently withstand the Upstate climate and are resistant to disease and insects, making them the ideal ingredient to ferment. Mr. Shatt and Ms. Maas’ pastime eventually evolved into researching cider production in the United States and Europe, determining that there was an “untapped” interest in the beverage, and, ultimately, planting their own multi-variety apple trees — with intriguing names like “Gnarled Chapman,” “Brown Snout” and “Searsburg Cherry Bomb” — to use for hard cider production. “Eighty percent of the quality of the cider comes from the quality of the fruit you use,” Mr. Shatt explained. Redbyrd Orchard Cider’s supply consists of 1,000 fruit trees in the Trumansburg orchard, and 250 at an orchard in the village of Burdett, roughly 15 miles southwest of Trumansburg. Mr. Shatt’s goal is to plant an additional 600 trees over the next two years. Much of the cider-making process is still done by hand, beginning with harvesting the apples to be pressed. Redbyrd’s cider is made from combining various types of apples and pressing them to achieve a wholeness of flavor and the right pH balance. Mr. Shatt faithfully records everything he does, using the log-keeping skills he perfected while working at wineries. The result is a sweet cider which is inoculated with a champagne yeast and allowed to ferment, then blended again with other fermented ciders. The final decision is whether to force carbonation, to use natural carbonation or to consume the drink un-carbonated. How does one survive as a single-crop farmer in today’s economy? Mr. Shatt and Ms. Maas began by taking a business course through Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming. “We started small and grew the business slowly,” using the skills learned at Groundswell to create a business plan that assisted with acquiring bank loans, Ms. Mass explained, “And our patience has paid off.” Mr. Shatt agreed, noting that at this stage of business development not only are they able to sell everything they make, but they also can cover all the costs of the business. “We now know that our long-term financial goals can be met doing what we love,” he asserted. The future of the hard cider market looks good to both of them. “The big beverage companies are starting to produce it now,” Ms. Maas observed, which to her indicates that a there’s a solid trend emerging on a larger scale, one that offers consumers a chance to compare and contrast the different brands. “Cider is coming out in full-force, from the big market to small, micro-cideries,” she concluded. Despite the positive momentum, there are still challenges to owning a small cidery. Agricultural seasons demand intense labor at specific times of the year, and weather adds an element of unpredictability. Redbyrd Orchard Cider has no other employees, and Mr. Shatt maintains another job, as manager of Cornell University’s Orchard and Research Farms. As for family life, “We’re like ships passing in the night,” Ms. Mass admitted, as the couple looked at each other and laughed. Regardless, both believe that running their own cidery makes sense for their future. They love living the farm life with their two young sons, and enjoy sharing their product with others.