Left to right: Brother-Sister founders Peter and Susan Yi. All photographs courtesy of Twin Star Orchards/Brooklyn Cider House
The past several months (when did the pandemic start again?) have tested even the toughest New Yorkers. Peter and Susan Yi and their cider business are practically a case study in the worst-case scenario situation, and the best-case scenario reaction.
Peter Yi, the wine-buyer turned hard-cider entrepreneur behind an orchard growing superannuated apple varieties at Twin Star Orchards in New Paltz and founder of the classic Basque-style Brooklyn Cider House in Bushwick, first got felled by coronavirus in March. After being released from the hospital, he quickly found his wildly popular concept in Brooklyn was unsustainable during this era of social distancing, but he took stock of what he had that could keep working and did not stop growing apples or making cider.
Yi was hardly alone in getting sick with COVID-19. Nor has he been alone in having the pandemic affect his business.
The restaurant industry has lost billions in the pandemic, and several iconic establishments — many of which, like the Brooklyn Cider House, have a highly social and interactive strain in their DNA — have shut down permanently. Neighborhood gems like Keith McNally’s Lucky Strike on the Lower East Side, Emily and Matt Hyland’s Violet in the East Village, John Fraser’s vegetarian Nix in the Greenwich Village and classic icons like Aquagrill in Soho, the 147-year-old Paris Café in the Financial District, and Greenwich Village’s fine-dining emporium Gotham Bar & Grill are also among the dozens closing up shop for good.
As millions of Americans face unprecedented health issues, job losses, and economic repercussions of the pandemic, the question is, how do we react as individuals and as businesspeople? It’s natural to want to pull the cover over your heads and cry, but eventually, you have to get up again. Yi’s resilient reaction is, in many ways, a blueprint for the perfect way to react to an imperfect and sometimes cruel world. Please read on for insight into his journey into cider, and what’s next.
NEW YORK MAKERS: Have you completely recovered from your illness?
PETER YI: Yes. I was lucky in that I got it in the early stages of the pandemic, and I haven’t had any extreme lasting health repercussions. I’ve been able to focus my energy for the last few months on my business, which has been a relief in many ways.
NYM: You got into cider from wine – that’s quite a transition. How did it happen?
PY: I spent 25 years as a buyer and seller in the wine industry, and I absolutely loved it. A big part of my job was traveling to different regions and tasting wines. I was on my way to Bordeaux, and traveling through the Ribera del Duero, and headed toward Rioja. We were in the Basque region of Spain, near San Sebastian, and a good friend of mine insisted on taking me out to a cidery. I was more interested in drinking Txakoli, and I really resisted it, but he wouldn’t let it go. I went, with serious reservations and very little interest, but with one sip, my life was changed. It was that profound.
NYM: What appealed to you?
PY: I have an Old World palate. I love vintage Beaujolais Cru, Bordeaux, Rioja, Loire wines. I like wine that works well with food, because I like drinking to be social. But that first night I found that one cider could pair with four different dishes – something that would require four separate wines. It’s that versatile. The cider there is completely natural, with complex flavors, but at the same time straightforward and just so enjoyable to drink. I also found the atmosphere of sagardotegi [Basque cider house] to be energizing. You go in there with a friend for cider and a dinner, and you leave having interacted with and talked to half the people there. I also found it didn’t affect me in the same way that wine does the next day. I was so enthusiastic about trying different ciders, I seriously overdid it that first night, but the next day, I felt great.
NYM: When you returned to the U.S., did you look for cider made here?
PY: I did, but the problem with hard cider in the U.S. is that the majority of it is still made from table or dessert apples, which are much sweeter, with fewer tannins, and a lot less complexity. Most cider apples were pulled out during Prohibition because you can’t grab one of these apples off a tree and just eat it. It’s way too tart. I knew that first night in Spain that I wanted to devote my career to cider, but when I came home and saw the options here, it just reinforced it.
NYM: What was your first step when you knew you wanted to turn this into your career?
PY: My first step was trying to get my hands on cider apples, which was difficult. I knew I needed a partner, so I called my sister, who worked as an English school teacher and told her about my experience in Spain; I asked her if she would join me on this journey. I explained that I wanted to bring back classic cider apples, plant them in an orchard in New York, where they grew in such abundance before Prohibition, create wildly fermented and all-natural drinks that can be paired with so many different cuisines. It was a gamble, but she took it. That was six years ago. We bought a farm in New Paltz and currently have about 100 of the 200 acres cultivated. It was a table apple farm before, so we just began replacing those dessert apples with cider apples.
NYM: How did you go about finding and sourcing these rare apples?
PY: We did several things. There are a handful of producers working with real cider apples, and we reached out to them for cuttings. We also learned there were wild apples throughout the forests of the Northeast, and abandoned orchards still growing old cultivars. We would set out on weekends during flowering season in April and May, because they were easier to find. Then once we found the trees, we’d mark our maps and return during the harvest season to taste them for flavor. They have to have a certain balance of bitterness and acid, which will give them complexity. If we like them, we’d take a cutting.
NYM: What did you do with the cutting?
PY: If you cut an old dessert apple tree and essentially plant the new cutting onto the tree, it can utilize the existing root system and grow apples within two years. We also planted dwarf and semi-dwarf cider trees, which take anywhere between two and 10 years to grow and produce. Now, we’re producing about 160,000 pounds of apples, which would be 7,000 cases if we used them all for cider, but we don’t. We still have a pick-your-own business at the orchard on the remaining dessert apple trees.
NYM: Can you explain the concept for Brooklyn Cider House and why you decided to open it?
PY: My experience at the sagardotegi was transformative, and I wanted to share the same experience here. We opened Brooklyn Cider House in 2017, but we started working on it in 2015. It took us that long to explain the concept and get the permits from the city, and then we had to transform the space. We added an A/C system, a great kitchen, beautiful light systems, and 1,500 gallon barrels for cider. We offered a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $39, and then unlimited cider catches from the barrels. The cider catch is the key to the whole operation. The spigot on the giant barrel is left open all night, and people just come up and catch cider. That’s why it’s so social, because you’re in line for your next drink and you end up talking to people around you. Plus, the food is party food. Chorizo, other natural Spanish-style meats, roasted vegetables, cheeses.
NYM: When did you realize you had to close it?
PY: Almost immediately. Our overhead is huge, and the model is social. If we can’t do cider catches, there’s no Brooklyn Cider House. And we could only stay afloat with weddings and other private catered events. It was devastating, but we had to either shut it down and move on, or risk losing everything.
NYM: When you realized you had to shut Brooklyn Cider House down, how did you reboot your overall business plan?
PY: We refocused on the orchard. My sister and I love food, so we refocused our energy on creating a welcoming but safe atmosphere there. People can come and visit and taste all of our ciders, and eat wood-fired pizzas, wood-fired burgers and other foods outside. They can also pick apples and just enjoy our orchards. But I am also exploring options to get our ciders distributed more widely.
If you can’t go to New Paltz, you can still buy Brooklyn Cider House ciders online. The Half Sour, with off-dry wild flowers, honey, citrus notes and the Solstice, with passionfruit, white peach, lavender and ginger aromas are in my cart. On my mind: Yi’s resilience, bravery, creativity in the face of devastating loss. If we can all model that, our struggling economy will return to its feet, stronger and hopefully, wiser.