Maine’s craft ciders offer a wild taste of history
By Caitlin Gilmet
JOHN ADAMS DRANK a tankard of hard cider every morning before breakfast. The drink was served at the Battle of Concord—to both sides. And Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone.” Maine’s wild and heirloom apple trees have deep roots in the American Colonial tradition, and cider making has a history as untamed and complex as the new American frontier.
The first provisions for cider making are believed to have been carried to the new land on the Mayflower, and it’s said that the first apple trees in the New England colonies were planted just nine days after the ship arrived. For centuries, cider was a rich part of Colonial culture; some orchard towns produced over 3,000 barrels a year, and everyone from farmhands to politicians to militiamen and even children drank cider throughout the day.
And then it all disappeared…until now. Today, Maine farmers are bringing back a classic and creating a new tradition of taste as they go.
When Cider Was Fruitful
The earliest settlers made dooryard cider, a practical, inexpensive brew that was often safer to drink than local water. Apples are easy to propagate, and the colonist farmers grafted wood from England to existing trees to create cider apple trees that thrived in New England’s climate better than the barley and grains needed for ale. Farmers pressed their apples in the fall and loaded the tart juice into barrels that fermented over the winter. Wild yeasts devoured the natural sugars in the juice, creating alcohol and giving the drink flavor and longevity. Cider, along with the beers and wines that followed with successive waves of immigrants from France and Germany, were a huge part of Colonial culture; it’s estimated that by 1790, the average person over the age of fifteen drank thirty-four gallons of cider and beer, five gallons of distilled spirits, and a gallon of fruit wine each year.
Alarmed by endemic public intoxication and its related effects on civic order and economic productivity, temperance minded Protestants brought Prohibition to Boston in 1826. Maine led the nation in banning alcohol when Portland Mayor Neal Dow passed the Maine Liquor Law in 1851, followed by the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919. Teetotalers, intent on restoring moral purity to a nation ravaged by the ills of drink, took axes and torches to orchards, devastating even the strongest trees and their future harvests. With the commercial market for cider gone, cider makers were forced to pull out their trees and focus instead on other more lucrative agricultural products. A hurricane and an epic winter took care of the rest.
And yet—like the truest Maine pioneers, some trees survived. Carried into forests and roadsides by birds and deer, wild cider apple trees grew tall outside the edges of colonial farms, and some of those trees, and their grandchildren, still exist today. That’s what sparked an idea for David Buchanan, author of Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, a longstanding champion of the local heritage food movement. He’s a plant collector, seed saver, and owner of Portersfield Cider, located in Pownal. “Living in Maine, you can’t help but be drawn into the apple orbit eventually, because there are so many interesting wild, abandoned heirloom apple trees out in the landscape all around us,” says Buchanan. His foray into cider making was a natural extension of his fascination with ancient apples and the relative ease of turning them into something people love. “I wanted to save old American apples and explore their potential and their flavors… rediscovering something farmers produced and enjoyed for generations.”
Beauty is in the eye of. . .
Think about an apple for a minute. The apples we’re used to seeing in stores are big, shiny, and they tend to be uniform in appearance. Macintoshes, Cortlands, and Honeycrisps are popular dessert apples, but they make a thin, flavorless, sugary drink. To make great cider, you need apples with a certain inherent wildness and history—the tough, tiny, tart, tasty apples that survived Prohibition.
Maine’s small batch cider makers are hoping to restore New England to something like its former glory, with hundreds of regional varieties of cider made from a huge diversity of apple types. They’re focused on sourcing, propagating, cultivating and foraging the best local fruit they can find, and slowly building up our national stock of cider apples to rival those found in cider strongholds like England, Spain, and France.
Commercial apples are grown for their looks, but that beauty is often skin-deep: they have less flavor and depth than a knotty, hardy cider apple. “The nutrients [in cider apples] are lower, and their juice ferments slowly. It’s a richer, more flavorful fermentation,” says Buchanan. “An apple like a Macintosh is cultivated, so it may have been irrigated, which means it holds a lot of water, and that dilutes its flavor. Insects have been fought off with sprays, and the tree has likely been fertilized, which adds nitrogen, and that makes the fruit ferment faster. What I want is smaller, uglier fruit, because it has more character.”
Conventionally attractive apples need not apply. Cider apples don’t sit on shelves waiting to be chosen, so it’s okay if they have bumps or blemishes, as long as they’re healthy. “I’m not interested in beautiful fruit,” explains Buchanan. “The best cider comes from wild fruit, where the fruit is small, the flavors are concentrated, and the sugar level and the tannins are concentrated.” The apples he covets don’t get as many inputs as commercial apples, so they’re strong from fighting off pests, and they’ve developed interesting flavor compounds as a result.
A Matter of Taste
Buchanan opened a tasting room at Portersfield Cider in May because he wants people to be able to experience the amplitude and dimension possible with so many types of cider apples available for blending and experimentation. He has over 200 varieties of apples, with a range of traits and flavors. Buchanan features these unique apples in batches as small as five gallons, available only at the Portersfield tasting room. With so many possibilities to play with, cider makers love to try out new blends, so it’s worth seeking out their latest triumphs in liquid alchemy before they’re gone.
Portland’s Urban Farm Fermentory is an experimental urban farm and fermentation factory that makes kombucha, mead, cider, fermented jun tea, and gruit, a medieval type of beer featuring botanicals. Founder and owner Eli Cayer says that their tasting room is the perfect place to sample rotating and limited-edition small batches of ciders that capture the spirit of Maine’s apples and their multiplicity.
“You can take the exact same apples, the same variety, and grow them on opposite coasts, and they’ll taste totally different,” Cayer says. “They develop their own character based on their individual microclimate, and that changes every year, depending on what’s happening to them. It’s really interesting to try wild island apples, for instance, because there’s a world of difference between those and inland mountain apples.”
Where the Apples Fall Far From the Trees
Gene Cartwright of Whaleback Cider loves “discovered fruit,” especially apples grown in the mineral-rich soil and salty ocean fog of coastal Lincolnville, where you’ll find his farm and orchard. Cartwright learned about cider making while he was a Fulbright Scholar in the former Yugoslavia, where he studied the role of collective agriculture under Communism.
“I was interested in value-added produce,” says Cartwright, “and brandy is a great example of that. It’s legal to make, so every family has a still.” He learned that it’s possible to make brandy from nearly anything with sugar in it, and he’s tried a wide variety of brandies, including kumis, a favorite summer drink from Kazakhstan, made from fermented mare’s milk. “It’s really good,” Cartwright insists with a laugh.
Back home in Maine, Cartwright started looking at the apple trees around his small farm differently. He put in an orchard on the property itself, but he was also drawn to foraging fruit across Maine. “There are these ancient, ancient trees with wild fruit that has this great combination of tannins and acids,” he says. “So that’s what I’m looking for when I’m out walking or driving around. Once you start seeing them, they’re everywhere. I’ve starting geocaching my favorites so I can keep track. Everyone making small batch cider in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire has their little stash of favorite neighborhood trees.”
Cider makers Abbey Verrier and Angus Deighan of Rocky Ground Cidery relish the hunt for the wildest apples they can find. They met in Bar Harbor, where Verrier was attending College of the Atlantic while Deighan worked at a biotech firm. As part of her agricultural coursework, Verrier visited England with Maine pomologist and author John Bunker and toured British cideries. “I loved learning about apples and cider from Abbey, and then it just sort of clicked that I could have this life where I wasn’t under fluorescent lights all the time,” remembers Deighan. He quit his job and they started making cider.
The pair cleared forestland in Newburgh Village in order to reinstate an orchard abandoned more than 70 years ago. While they wait for their trees to grow, they’re traveling the state in search of fresh fruit, unique seeds, and grafting stock to marry with their seedling rootstock. Last year, all of their cider was made from foraged fruit.
Deighan notes that they recently found a fruit tree that netted them 22 bushels of pears for cider, at 60 pounds a bushel. “We collect everything in my Subaru, so you can imagine how that thing looks sagging in the back.” A raccoon pelt purchased in Dover, nicknamed “Eric,” is their mascot, and he rides along on the dashboard.
“Our explorations have helped us find 100 percent wild trees that grew up from seed, and we selected the trees that have the qualities we want,” Deighan says. “We’d been using apples that had good cider properties to begin with, like Pullman Sweets, which is an heirloom apple with low acid. Those are some of the oldest trees you can find in Maine, so we think those should be long-lived in our orchard. We graft wild trees to Pullman Sweet rootstock above the first branch, so every seed has a chance to produce its own unique tree. It’s really a big experiment, basically having two parents with good qualities, and trusting that good apples will follow.”
Walk on the Wild Side
Noah Fralich of Norumbega Cidery in New Gloucester started making cider as a hobby, backed by a master’s degree focused on environmental economics and sustainable agriculture, and he honed his craft through coursework in Ithaca, New York with a well-known British maker. “Cider is all about quality in, quality out,” he says. “A lot of it comes down to sourcing. Just like wine, it’s about the varieties. So working with good fruit is just as important as what happens when you get everything together in production and things start bubbling.”
Norumbega Cidery makes a classic cider from a combination of dessert, culinary, and cider fruit, and it also offers a popular berry medley, spiced hard cider, and honey hard cider with local ingredients. Fralich says, “People typically look for three or four main things when they’re making cider: the absence or presence of acids, tannins, and sugars, and then, more diffusely, aroma or flavor.” Fralich says his secret recipe is ultimately simple: “No preservatives, no sulfites, just a little sugar to prime the bottle for carbonation. Cider is a really stable product, and it’s naturally delicious, so I never saw any need to complicate that.”
Brian Smith of Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren has a traditional education in winemaking, and his wines and ciders focus on pre-industrial, highly natural techniques that produce simple, high quality products. “Cider is much like wine, especially the types of natural wine we make,” he explains. Smith makes a sparkling apple wine called Chaos, and his favorite product is a foraged cider called Wild Man, which includes apples from 150 local trees each year.
“We ferment all of our ciders with native yeast, not commercial yeast, and the process is long and slow,” says Smith. “We have an old barn that allows us to have really long and cool fermentations, and we take our time. We don’t add sulfites or filter it, and we bottle condition it to add some bubbles. So the only ingredients are apples and a little bit of cane sugar at the end to prime the apples for fermentation. You can manipulate the juice chemistry, but I kind of just like the pure apple taste. That’s our thing.”
While many cider makers prefer to use commercial yeasts, which are cultured and inoculated, in order to make their product more consistent, many of Maine’s small batch producers are more adventurous. Spontaneous, or wild, fermentation allows the natural yeasts and bacteria on the fruit and in the environment to colonize the juice’s sugars. Indigenous yeasts need more time to work their magic, which typically results in a slower, more flavorful fermentation.
Urban Farm Fermentory is a proponent of spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts. Cayer says, “All of our cider is wild fermented, which gives it more depth of flavor as it develops than commercial yeasts could. A lot of producers inoculate their batches against wild yeasts and then add commercial yeasts, maybe because it gives them more control. But we like the wildness, and it takes a lot of skill to develop something that tastes consistently terrific without sacrificing that wildness.”
From Seeds to Cider Culture
You can find Maine ciders at farmers’ markets, co-ops and stores across the state. Producers encourage seeking out lots of varieties and developing your own preferences about style and taste. Cultivating orchards will increase the number of cider apples available, helping producers keep pace with demand for cider, which is starting to command its fair share of shelf space with retailers who like its versatility and authentic Maine taste.
Ultimately, cider drinkers will determine what happens next. As drinkers start to acquire preferences for types of ciders, producers expect that regional styles will develop in response to interest and demand. David Buchanan of Portersfield Cider says, “I see all of this as a collaboration between producers and consumers. American cider doesn’t have its own strong identity yet; it’s an emerging drink, and we’ve forgotten what it used to taste like. I want people to be able to visit my tasting room and learn about the range of flavor in wild or heirloom trees, crabtrees, and characteristic Maine apples. We’re headed toward a goal for what Maine cider tastes like that isn’t fully defined yet, and that’s what is exciting.”
Eli Cayer loves seeing new faces at the Urban Farm Fermentory tasting room in Portland and says that all anyone needs to fall in love with cider is a little free time and an open mind.
“It’s a really exciting time for cider,” he adds. “There’s absolutely a Maine character developing, and people are
starting to understand and appreciate what’s special about that. You get such a sense of history and place with apples and a chance to develop something that tastes distinctively of Maine, that tells our story.” G&HM
This article was republished from the 2017 issue of Green & Healthy Maine Visitor’s Guide. Subscribe today!