After lying dormant for nearly a century, Maine’s hard cider industry is ripe for a comeback

Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Downeast Magazine

Photography by Mark Fleming

David Buchanan has tasted the forbidden fruit. Or the forgotten fruit, anyway. Strolling through his 600-tree apple orchard in Pownal, he pauses to admire the greenish-golden globes suspended from a nearby tree. These are Harrison apples, he says, once widely considered the nation’s best for producing rich and complex hard ciders. Throughout the 19th century, the trees were widespread across New England, but they fell out with Prohibition, when hard cider was criminalized and authorities set about destroying trees bearing cider apples. For most of the 20th century, in fact, Harrison apples were thought to be extinct, until a devoted fruit collector found a single tree in New Jersey in the mid-1970s and shared the plant’s tissues for grafting, resurrecting the lost strain.

“There is so much history in that style that has been forgotten,” says Buchanan. The 51-year-old owner of Portersfield Cider grows more than 226 different apple strains, more than half of which are American cider varietals. “I’m excited to eventually be able to produce a cider from it. I have no idea how it — or many of these varietals — will taste. This is really a research project more than anything.”

Buchanan, who just launched his hard cider operation this year, is one of more than a half-dozen Maine orchardists who’ve recently committed themselves to reviving the craft of brewing hard cider. The American colonists’ beverage of choice and a popular drink well into the mid-19th century, cider is enjoying a renaissance in Maine on the heels of the state’s boom in craft beers. Nationally, hard cider sales have surged by 278 percent since 2010, with craft cideries in orchard-heavy Maine accounting for a tiny but growing portion of the industry’s $400 million in annual sales.

“The craft beer movement took off, and people were willing to spend more money for quality product,” says Andy Ricker of Turner’s Ricker Hill Orchards “I’d say that craft cider is still a decade or two behind beer, but it’s rapidly catching up.”

Although the Rickers have been producing fresh sweet cider commercially since the 1970s, they’re new to the hard cider biz — not that they’re tiptoeing into it. Last year, Ricker’s family opened a sleek new tasting room on their ninth-generation apple orchard. Ricker already produces some dozen different styles, including Mainiac Mac and Maniac Gold, a pair of balanced and accessible ciders that are canned and sold statewide, made mostly with recognizable varietals like McIntosh and Golden Delicious. One of the state’s largest hard cider producers, Ricker Hill is at the forefront of the movement to boost consumer interest in a market that has long been dominated by cloyingly sweet national brands like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard.

Hard cider is commonly canned or bottled and marketed like beer — often sold in six packs and kegs, for example — but the process of making it is nearly identical to winemaking, especially where horticulture is concerned. Just as the quality of wine is influenced by grape varietals and terroir — often defined as “the flavor of the earth” — so the character of the apples determines the nature and quality of cider.

“The key to great cider is in the selection of the apples,” says Steve Linne, owner of Blacksmiths Winery in Casco. Under its Fatty Bampkins label, Blacksmiths produces a line of ciders that nicely balances tartness and sweetness. Linne has been growing the Fatty Bampkins brand for six years. Cider-brewing rewards patience, he says, since the brewing process tends to involve a fair amount of trial and error.

Most cider makers source from their own orchards and sometimes buy additional juice from outside sources. Others, like Eli Cayer of Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory, may do some foraging. Cayer’s been churning out adventurous fermented beverages (think kombuchas made from roasted tomato or turmeric) since 2010, and he and his team find terroir in unlikely places, heading out in U-Haul trucks to harvest wild crab apples around urban Portland, for example.

Once harvested, apples are sorted to identify those best for pressing into juice. At small operations, like Nathan and Megan Hall’s Kennebec Cider Company in Winthrop, that means sorting apples by hand. Ricker Hill, on the other hand, has a fully mechanized sorting line. Fruit passes down a conveyor belt and into a black box where, in a split second, a machine photographs each one 45 times and assigns it a grade. Apples continue down the belt and are sorted into bins based on grade, some earmarked for cider, others for individual sale at market.

Many cideries keep a steady supply of backbone varietals like Cortland and McIntosh while dabbling in heirloom strains like the subtly sharp Black Oxford and the pear-like Ashmead’s Kernel, adding layers of complexity to the final blend. Once apples have been pressed, the juice is mixed with a variety of yeasts to begin fermentation in barrels or stainless steel tanks. After fermentation, ciders are bone-dry, and a cider maker’s style and skill come into play as elements are added (or not) to augment the sweetness and balance the alcohol level. Most will ferment each varietal separately before blending, so to capitalize on the strengths of each in the final product.

Along Came a Cider (Or Ten)

We set out to explore the radical breadth of styles and flavors that makes Maine’s cider boomlet so much fun. Our search was fruitful.

“Apples like Northern Spy are well suited for aromatics, for example,” explains Kennebec Cider’s Nathan Hall, “whereas a varietal like Honey Crisp will impart a lot of sweetness, and crab apples, a personal favorite of mine, give the cider much-needed acidity.”

Other ingredients range from fruits like quince and blueberries to more adventurous, tasting-room-only additions like wild horseradish root — more proof that experimentation is at the heart of the craft cider scene. At Urban Farm Fermentory, they’ve even gone beyond the “flavors of the earth,” producing a cider-and-seaweed concoction best described as tasting like the Gulf of Maine, if maybe the Gulf of Maine were made up entirely of hard cider.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t sound so bad.

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