With hard cider making a hardcore comeback across the country, apple growers are tapping a juicy new revenue stream by establishing farmstead cideries and planting varieties too tart or tannic for the lunchbox but perfect for smashing and fermenting into distinctive artisanal brews.
"We're planting a lot of new trees so we can meet the demand for cider," said Dan Wilson, owner of Hicks Orchard and Slyboro Ciderhouse on the Vermont border in Granville. "This year we planted 2,000 cider varieties and next year we'll plant 2,500 in high-density orchards."
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Slyboro is among 10 craft producers who banded together to form the Hudson Valley Cider Alliance to establish hard cider and apple spirits as signature products of the region.
"Decades ago, the apple industry had different segments," Wilson said. "Some grew high-quality fruit for the fresh market. Others grew for the juice market. That market vanished when China became a huge exporter of apple juice concentrate selling at below the cost of production here. Now, with hard cider coming back, there's a market for juice-quality apples of special varieties for cider makers."
In New York, the nation's second-largest apple producer behind Washington, orchards got market assurance last fall when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Farm Cidery law. It created a special license for manufacturers that source all their cider apples from New York growers.
New York now has 29 hard cider manufacturers, up from five in 2011.
Sales of hard cider in the U.S. have tripled over the last three years to $1.3 billion in 2013, according to market research company Euromonitor International. The entry of beer giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors into the hard cider market with their big promotional budgets is benefiting farm cideries as well.
"They're doing a yeoman's job of introducing the idea of a hard cider to general customers," Wilson said. "The hope of small producers is that there will be the same kind of development as there was in the beer industry, with big national brands and small craft breweries. There will be room for all the players."
Wilson invested $300,000 to establish Slyboro as a farm winery before the cidery law was passed. While the pick-your-own orchard pays off mostly in the fall, the hard cider business provides year-round revenue that's less affected by the vagaries of weather. Slyboro products are sold in New York City and other cities as well as at the cidery.
Among the cider apples Wilson planted this year are European varieties like bitter-sharp Kingston Black and bitter-sweet Dabinett, American varieties like Northern Spy and Golden Russet, and some unusual crabapples.
The U.S. Association of Cider Makers was formed in February 2013 to advance cider in the market, share information about growing and regulations, and help members improve their operations. New York cider makers are now banding together to form a state-level trade association.
"We want the Hudson and Champlain valleys of New York to be known for cider like the Napa Valley is for wine," said Alejandro del Peral, who started Nine Pin Cider Works in downtown Albany last year. Nine Pin, which buys most of its apples from Samascott Orchards in nearby Kinderhook, makes more than 15 products, including an oak-aged dry cider from heirloom apples, an aromatic brew aged with toasted butternuts, and a Granny Smith cider with organic hops.
Some growers remain cautious about the cider business. Peter Ten Eyck, third-generation owner of Indian Ladder Farms near Albany, said his son-in-law is starting a brewery and cidery. But Ten Eyck feels he's taking a risk by planting two acres of cider apples.
"Cider apples like Ashmead's Kernel, Roxbury Russet — they're generally not good for eating fresh, and they don't command the same price as a Honeycrisp," Ten Eyck said. "If it turns out that the hard cider market is extremely strong, the price could come up. But what if the cidery moves on to a different variety than I have? This is a huge investment for me; it'll take a dozen years to get my money back."