It isn’t easy to make great hard cider. But it is a genuine, passionate pursuit, one akin to making outstanding wines. That is, according to Colin Davis, one half of the Good Food Awards-winning Shacksbury cider team. Davis and his business partner, David Dolginow, founded Shacksbury, which is based in Vermont. They have received quite a bit of attention for their old-fashioned, locally rooted, internationally-inspired and nationally distributed hard ciders.
“David and I were both really drawn to agriculture,” Davis said. “And it so happens that where we live — the Champlain Valley of Vermont — is one of the best places in the world to grow apples. Making cider is a great way to add value to that crop. We’re really committed to working with local orchards, and planting our own, because we want to see the agricultural economy of this area thrive.”
Keeping that agricultural economy thriving actually began with a trip to Europe.
“Very early on, when we were just thinking about starting a business, I traveled to Europe to taste ciders in England, France and Spain,” Davis said. “It was an incredibly eye-opening experience. I tasted ciders unlike anything I’d tried before, and realized that the apple can do really amazing things.”
The trip to Europe resulted in the partnership with Simon Day, an English cider maker, and Ainara Otaño, a Basque cider maker from Spain. Day, a winemaker by training, and Otaño, whose family has been making cider for generations, share their expertise, as well as their apples, in collaboration with Shacksbury.
All About the Apples
“We’re building a little community of cider makers who support one another. Another benefit for us is that cider-making varieties of apples are much more widely grown in England and Spain,” Davis said.
The cider apple varieties grown in England and Spain are a complement to the homegrown New England cider apples.
“We don’t expect grocery store grapes to make a fine wine. Nor would we expect the same grape varietal to taste the same, across region or year. The same is true for apples and cider,” Davis said.
Great hard ciders require apples with specific characteristics. While the science and art of cider making doesn’t stop with the apples, it has to begin there. Their first rule of thumb: if the apple tastes good, it probably isn’t a good cider apple. Think small, dry and astringent, and the apple is probably right for cider.
“The same things we love in dessert fruit — juicy, sweet apples — don’t necessarily make for great cider,” Davis said. “There’s a reason we talk about ‘spitters,’ meaning the apples you bite into, then spit right out. But press those apples, let them ferment, blend them, and you might just have something pretty incredible.”
Cider apples can be elusive here in the United States. At one time, the number of apple cultivars grown here was tremendous, Dolginow said. Apples aren’t true to seed, and varieties were once valued not only for fresh eating, but for hard cider making, too. When apples were used close to home, not bred for shipping, varieties were plentiful.
“Modern agriculture has winnowed the number of varieties down to just a handful. And those varieties, in many cases, were chosen not because they’re the tastiest, but because they’re easier to grow and ship, or they look a certain way.” Dolginow said.
In fact, the lack of local and regional apple cultivars suitable for hard cider has led the pair on a search. “The Lost Apple Project” was born out of the desire to regenerate the diversity of the region’s apples, and find cider apples around which to build their brand.
“We started seeking out wild apples — a category that for us includes everything from chance seedlings in fields to old orchards that haven’t been maintained — because we couldn’t otherwise get our hands on the kind of fruit we wanted,” Dolginow said. “We’re not interested in ‘old’ apples per se. We’re interested in diverse apples.”
Most Shacksbury ciders are blended, not single-varietal creations. It’s a rare apple that embodies all of the properties needed for great cider.
“We’re looking for aromatics, tannins, acidity and a certain amount of sugar. It’s almost impossible for one apple to do all of these things alone,” Dolginow said. “We’re pretty picky when we forage. We probably only take one in every three varieties we find, and of those, a tiny percentage are what we’d call our superstars.”
The Re-emergence of Lost Apples
The Lost Apple Project has the pair fielding calls from all over Vermont, New York and the rest of New England. It’s been a good tool for getting their brand known, too. A Kickstarter campaign helped to finance their apple-seeking endeavors, and resulted in a positive response from serious cider lovers as well as those who knew little about apples. It also resulted in over 100 apple varieties being sampled and collected, about half of which they fermented, and a mere five of which they’re now propagating.
“The kind we value the most, because it is the hardest to find, is one with lots of soft tannin, low water content, lots of sugar, and strong secondary flavor and aromatics,” Davis said. “We’re still on the hunt. Not necessarily for any one mystical apple, but because we know there are still so many varieties out there to explore.”
The duo insure that their “lost and found” apples remain available by grafting them onto mature trees or young rootstocks, and planting them on land owned by Shacksbury, or on that of Sunrise Orchards, in Cornwall, VT. Fully dwarfing trees are planted at Sunrise, while semi-dwarf and standard trees are at Shacksbury. They bench graft thousands of rootstocks each year.
“We would love to see more farmers growing the kinds of apples we like to use. More and more are, but it is still a drop in the bucket,” Dolginow said. “Growing apple trees is a long-term, capital-intensive proposition, and many growers see apples that are only good for cider as too risky.”
“You make cider just like you make wine. Start with the fruit, press the juice from it, and allow a fermentation to take place,” Davis explained.
The apples make the difference not only in the taste, but also in the process. Most ciders crafted by Shacksbury are aged.
“The fact that most of our ciders are a year or more in the making is also pretty unique. Again, it is the difference in the apples. The ones we use contain compounds — tannins, mostly — that allow for aging. It takes longer, but we believe the resulting product is more complex than most other ciders,” Davis said.
Some of their ciders are “young” ciders, generally made from apples without high concentrations of tannins or acids. Of those that are aged, they primarily do so in stainless steel vessels. Barrel aging is used sparingly, but allows for controlled oxygen exposure, resulting in specific, desired chemical changes.
It isn’t only the “lost apples,” or the European partnerships that make Shacksbury ciders stand apart from the crowd. Their ciders are fermented at cellar temperatures, using wild yeasts, just like early cider makers would have done. It’s also very rare that they’ll use any non-apple flavorings.
“We have a passion for this work and are trying to create a product and agricultural ecosystem here in Vermont that long outlasts us,” Davis said. “We hope our brand reflects that care and ambition.”