This Cider House Rules

LIke many apple orchards around the state, Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon has great views. Situated on an aerie with a spectacular tableau of the Connecticut River below, you can see fertile farmland for miles. And like most orchards, there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary about them when you first drive up. There’s the standard white farmhouse with laundry hanging out to dry, the barn with a farmstand next door, the three Black Labs ready to greet you with wagging tails, and row after row of craggly apple trees.

What Louisa Spencer and Stephen Wood create here, however, is anything but ordinary. Along with your basic McIntosh, Cortland and Macouns for local sales, and groves of heirloom varities for shipment to New York, a generous part of the orchard is dedicated to vintage cider apples. These unusual varieties register barely a blip on the radar in the U.S. today, but were quite popular when this country was young. And on the other side of the pond, they have always been cultivated and pressed into cider, although Spencer claims they grow better here.

The idea for growing cider apples blossomed about 17 years ago when Spencer and Wood saw a decline in the prices of farmstead apples and a proliferation of imported apples from agribusinesses around the world. People could get a juicy, crisp McIntosh shipped from South America any time of year. So Spencer and Wood decided to find their own niche.

To do so, they looked back in history, to the time when this country was in its infancy and Johnny Appleseed was planting apple trees around the country. What most people don’t know is that he wasn’t planting them for eating apples, but for making hard cider. (Because it inhibits growth of microorganisms, hard cider was often cleaner than the water in America’s first colonies, and therefore a staple for them.)

At first Spencer and Wood weren’t sure if their idea would bear fruit, as it were, but this offshoot of the orchard, called Farnum Hill Ciders, has burgeoned into an operation that Johnny Appleseed would surely be proud of.

Awful-Tasting Apples Make Great- Tasting Wine
Unlike a Mac or Cortland, cider apples are not very pleasant tasting. In fact, these “bittersweets” and “bittersharps” can be downright nasty when you bite into them. But the bitter and often acidic taste that makes them taste so bad in raw form actually creates a superior product, with all the characteristics of fine wine, when pressed and fermented.

Because their product is so different, it sometimes defies definition. It’s not the mass-marketed hard cider you see on grocery store shelves. It’s not the apple cider that you buy at orchards and serve hot with a cinnamon stick. (In fact, Spencer points out that just as you wouldn’t compare grape juice with wine, you wouldn’t compare that apple cider to her product.) Farnum Hill Ciders are made with either a blend of vintage apples, such as their Extra Dry, Semi-dry and Farmhouse ciders, or — as in the case of their Kingston Black — a single variety.

They’ve done lots of experimenting over the years to find the types of apples that will grow best in their particular soil and climate and create the most intriguing flavor for their ciders. Some describe the Semi-dry as similar to Champagne but more “fruit forward.” Others like the Farmhouse because they think it’s sweeter. While one person will describe a cider one way (smoother, rounder), someone else might think something totally different. “The more we do the less we can predict what people will think of them. I’ve given up,” says Spencer.

When you have something so unique and remarkable, you’d think you’d want to keep other orchards from doing the same. Not so with Farnum Hill Ciders. “We’re really hoping the whole thing builds and builds,” says Spencer. “It’s very hard to be alone in a category. It would be much easier if we were sort of Napa Northeast, you know? Bus tours by the side of the orchard. That would be cool.” In fact, they allow anyone who aspires to have cider orchards to come and cut budwood and go home to do their own grafting. Sometimes they come from quite long distances, she says.

Spencer, who peppers her descriptions of the different apples with phrases such as “punishingly good” and “fabulous” or “just fantastic,” says that not everyone likes their ciders. “You’re not obligated to like it. There is no wine that everybody likes.” But, she adds, “Even the people who don’t like it, if they have a wine background, they respect it. They see that it’s very well made and it’s delicious to somebody, it just doesn’t have to be their cup of tea, which is all we can ask. We don’t need anybody to float our boat; we just need a reasonable population of cider drinkers.” NH