The word “cider” can have different meanings depending on whom you ask. On American shores, most people picture the sweet, unfiltered apple juice that hits store shelves in the early autumn. They’re not wrong. But thanks to Prohibition and some strange legislative tinkering, that notion isn’t entirely correct, either.
Since its inception, cider has meant the product derived from the fermentation of apple juice, otherwise known as “hard cider” – the first alcoholic beverage to reach America, brought over by English settlers. At the time, and well into the 19th and early 20th centuries, cider was a necessity when water supplies were suspect during the colonial era. It evolved into the drink of choice to wash down a meal at the bar.
Then, along came Prohibition.
Cider never recovered from that doomed decade-long social experiment. Other industries, including local breweries and distilleries, suffered as well, paving the way for the mass-produced beer conglomerates that take up most of the liquor store shelves and bodega fridge space. Prohibition was also a period of some concerted semantic tinkering, which is why in many states the law still stands that “cider” simply refers to unfiltered apple juice.
But now cider is bubbling back up into the mainstream – even though, according to Jeremy Kidde and Jason Grizzanti, founders of Doc’s Draft, this renaissance was not without its challenges. In the early 2000s, a handful of years after the company opened its doors, promoting a handmade and locally produced beverage was a hard sell. Bar owners and distributers were more interested in cost than craft. But today, Doc’s is part of a growing community of farmers and cider producers in the Black Dirt region of upstate New York.
Today, Doc’s Draft crafts a creative variety of ciders, revealing the beverage’s versatility – from the original (made using 100% local apples and featuring a honey-like aroma and deliciously tart finish) to the fruit-based raspberry, pumpkin, black currant and pear.
Doc’s is currently the biggest cider producer in New York state, distributing roughly 100,000 gallons a year. To put that into perspective, the largest American cider producer, Woodchuck, produces over 2 million gallons annually. This allows Doc’s to retain its handcrafted, small-scale quality, while still distributing to over 20 states.
The first step of production is the apples, lots of apples – almost 9,000 pounds for a single 1,000-gallon tank. The original orchards used to be able to supply all the apples, but as the business grew, so too did the supplier list (all are still local orchards from the surrounding region). The apples are then put through a wood cider press from the 1970s.
The apples are sorted, then ground up and dropped into a series of layers separated by wooden dividers, with a cheesecloth-style fabric draped in between (these layers of apple mush are aptly named “cheese”). A motorized press descends and squeezes out every last drop of liquid, which is then quickly pumped into a series of gigantic fermentation vessels.
The tanks, stark and monolithic, reside in two long rows of six or seven. Fermentation is achieved with champagne yeast, which gives Doc’s Draft a crisp and refined palate reminiscent of a light and fruity white wine. After fermentation is complete, the cider is still pretty thick. To thin out the mixture, the tanks are cooled to near freezing point to allow all the particles to settle, then passed through a very thorough filtration system and into the bottles.
All in all, it takes about a month for a ripe apple to be turned into bottled cider – a process that involves techniques both ancient and modern. Because at its core, cider is meant to be a simple, refreshing drink to accompany a meal at the bar.
Of course, like most homestead alcoholic beverages, there is a popular and earnest cider home brewing movement – a way, perhaps, to return to our agrarian roots. Combining a few simple ingredients and giving them enough time to settle in, you have a crisp drink to enjoy on a brisk, sun-swept autumn afternoon.
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Leading image by Will Kanellos.