Cider Week: an interview with Sara Grady
It’s Cider Week in New York! That means cider tastings, special menus and dinners at all of our favorite restaurants, and did we mention cider tastings!? Wheeeeee! Bird bestie Sara Grady founded Cider Week last year in an effort to “bring awareness and appreciation for this reemerging traditional American beverage”. We asked her some hard hitting questions to get to the bottom of this bacchanalian week, its earnest origins and which one we should really be drinking.
Tell me more about Cider Week – this is your baby, right?
Yeah, I created Cider Week last year as part of the work I’m doing to support the viability of orchards, and to establish hard cider and apple spirits as signature Hudson Valley apple products. Actually, Cider Week has grown beyond just Hudson Valley cider and now involves a group of craft cider producers from throughout New York and New England – all of whom have a shared goal to build appreciation for and awareness of (real) hard cider.
How did you get involved with Glynwood?
I got deeply interested in food and agriculture because it’s where all my interests in culture, history, nature, art, and science intersect. I used to produce educational and doc-style media for television and exhibitions… but it felt like commentary and I wanted to feel like I was making things happen. So I started doing video work about farms and food projects, one of which was Glynwood. I was just in the right place at the right time! I got a job there as a program director, and now I create programs to support regional food production. It’s creative, I get to help people who are passionate about what they do, and I am always learning! I love it.
How is Cider production linked to the renewal of farming?
Apple growers in the Hudson Valley, like many farmers, have been challenged in recent years by rising costs of production, changing weather patterns, and development pressures. Hard cider and apple spirits are higher value products that allow farms to diversify, add value to the crop, even out the growing season – and therefore can bring higher profits and a steadier income.
Also, apples sold for fresh eating are expected to be perfect-looking and unblemished – so any fruit that is not cosmetically perfect can’t be sold fresh. But when you’re just going to crush the fruit and ferment the juice, beauty is irrelevant. So it’s a great way for a grower to reclaim the value on fruit that might be rejected for supermarket shelves – maybe it got hit by hail or is otherwise marred, but it’s still perfectly delicious! Incidentally, growers who specialize in hard cider apples may be able to spray fewer chemicals since a lot of that is just to ensure perfect-looking fruit.
On a more general note, I think a delicious farm-related beverage like cider helps to build an appreciation for agriculture. So in my mind, cider can become a celebratory emblem that demonstrates our support for farms and orchards. New York pride!
Can you explain how Cider is made? How long does it take to ferment? What determines whether or not it is sweet or dry?
Cider is the fermented juice of apples. Just like wine is the fermented juice of grapes. The basic process is this: press apples for juice, then add yeast to the juice. Yeast eats the sugar in the juice and produces alcohol. (Note: some producers rely on “wild yeasts” instead of adding commercial yeasts, mostly in Europe.) “Dry” means all the sugar has been converted to alcohol. There are different methods – some cider makers will ferment to full dryness and then “backsweeten” with juice, some will arrest fermentation before it ferments to full dryness… There’s a whole world out there of cider making with lots of different techniques and styles. Just like wine!
The artisanal ciders that I am familiar with can take weeks or months to ferment (but if you’ve ever had a jug of fresh unpasteurized juice you know that it will easily start to ferment on its own). I’m told that the industrial / commercial producers produce it much more quickly by using more aggressive yeasts – they might turn it around in just a few weeks.
By the way – just like the distinction between wine grapes and table grapes, there is a difference between cider apples and table apples. You can make cider from table apple varieties, but there are many varieties of apples that are well-suited to cider but you wouldn’t want to eat them. These are apples that can be super tannic, acidic, sugary, or astringent. Mouth-drying, mouth-puckering, simply inedible. But those qualities bring complexity to cider, which is a blending art (again, just like wine). So the revival of real craft cider in America will lead to the revival of these heirloom apples, which are a lost part of our history and our food culture. Drink it to save it!
Which came first, Cider or juice?
Hard cider is made from juice. Until about 100 years ago, “cider” always meant the slightly alcoholic fermented beverage that we now call “hard cider.” Which is what it sill means in every other culture of the world.
Cider (hard cider, that is) was once a ubiquitous and quintessentially American beverage. In frontier days, all cider was “hard” – there was no pasteurization or refrigeration, so it would have just naturally fermented. It’s often said that it was safer to drink than water. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t bringing healthy food to the frontier – he was bringing the raw material for booze! But Temperance, urbanization, immigration, the rise of beer, and then finally Prohibition led to the loss of our American cider culture. Orchards were chopped down, apples were recast as a healthy food for fresh eating, and “cider” came to mean fresh juice.
Now I think we’re in a transition.. restoring the word cider to its original meaning.
Tell me, what is your favorite Cider? Which one do I have to try?
If you go to the Cider Week NY website (www.ciderweekny.com) you’ll find a list of regional cider makers. Seek them out. There’s a great diversity of ciders there, and everyone has a different preference. Personally I like dry, tannic, even funky ciders with earthy flavors… I’m intrigued by the unfiltered stuff from Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider. I also love the leathery, acidic flavors in Farnum Hill Ciders. And I adore the champagne-method ciders from Eve’s Cidery. And there’s a new cider from the Hudson Valley made by Aaron Burr Cidery that’s very gingery and delightful.
Here’s something you have to try: ice cider. Ice cider is like ice wine, more of a dessert wine, sweeter and more alcoholic. There’s a company from Vermont called Eden Ice Cider. Their cider is not syrupy sweet, it’s complex with an incredible balance of acid that almost brings a savory note. My mouth is watering just thinking about it… it’s so delicious. They also make an aperitif that is flavored with basil called Orleans. It’s incredible!
Are there any ciders that are really strong or umm, less palatable?
I think the Spanish ciders can be challenging. The Asturian cider is so tart and acidic, reminiscent of nail polish remover… I’m told it works with food. Despite the fact that it might not be what we are accustomed to, I’ve also been told about the lively cider culture that surrounds this Spanish cider and I find that so inspiring!
What is your favorite thing to eat with Cider?
With ice cider: Cabot clothbound cheddar.
With a tart, dry, or acidic cider: spicy food.
With a softer, semi-dry cider…. just about anything!
You can cook with cider too, similar to white wine – I was just given a recipe for mussels in a cider broth, YUM.
Is Cider produced year round, or only seasonally?
There are amazing technologies for storing apples these days, so it’s possible to make cider year-round and that is what I am told the more industrial style producers do…
But farm-based ciders are more seasonal. These producers want to use quality apples, so pressing and fermenting start shortly after the harvest. However, I think it’s misleading to think of cider as an autumn beverage. You might be thinking about apples in October and that might make you want to drink cider – but the cider you’re drinking was probably bottled in spring and made from last year’s harvest. Frankly, it would make more sense to celebrate cider in the summer, after fermentation and bottling are finished. And what a delicious, refreshing summer drink! (Whose crazy idea was it to schedule Cider Week in October, right when all the cider makers are busy harvesting apples…?)
photos by Sara Forrest taken during the Hudson Valley exchange program at many orchards and distilleries in Hudson Valley, New York, and this Cider Week in New York City