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Exploring American Cider: History, Politics and Social Issues

book cover on background of red apples

Getting out and experiencing cider firsthand is the best way to learn about the country’s oldest beverage, but with Dan Pucci and Craig Cavallo as your well-versed and deeply passionate guides, cider culture from coast to coast is at your fingertips. In American Cider, A Modern Guide to a Historic Beverage, the authors unabashedly cover the gritty history, politics, and social issues at the root of American cider, and dig into the factors stemming its resurgence. We reached out to Dan and Craig to get their perspectives on the cider industry around the nation after their extraordinary three-year journey to bring this inspiring book to life.

How did you first get hooked on cider and cider culture, in general?

Dan: I first found cider when I started buying random bottles at a now defunct Polish Beer store in my Brooklyn neighborhood. The owner stocked everything, and cider had a relatively forgiving price point for a beginning wine professional. Then, I started working with cider at [Wassail] a restaurant in New York’s East Village where I was in charge of creating beverage pairings for an extensive, but modestly priced 10-course tasting menu. It was hard to find beverages that could stand up to the amazing food while fitting into the budget. Cider challenged people’s expectations and was price-friendly.

Craig: I got hooked on cider through Dan, after he asked me to join him on the book project. From there, the people are really what drew me into cider culture. The community is incredibly compassionate, ambitious, and humble, and it’s a joy to be a part of.

What made you decide to embark on this journey and ultimately write this book? How long was the process?

Dan: American cider lacked a global and national context. Back in 2016, 2017, the same analogies and the same stories about Johnny Appleseed [were used] to tie in whatever cider story was being talked about. I wanted to tell a story that could showcase the diversity of the category.

Craig: Dan was dialed in to the national and global cider community from his work at Wassail, but he didn’t have as much experience writing, so he asked me to join him. I was a freelance writer for a good while and on staff for a spell at Saveur. Dan started a few months ahead of me but our first conversations were in March 2018 and the book was published three years later, in March 2021.

How did you settle on the format for the book – to present cider within a historic and socio-political framework?

Dan: We wanted the historical and socio-political information to be our guide through the modern cider makers. We thought that it would give the book more of a narrative, rather than just a list of cider makers.

Craig: The book was an evolution. In a way, I’m often convinced the apple was our compass, in that its strange majesty pushed us to frame the book the way we did. What the book became is far from what we first envisioned. The regional aspect idea was there early on, as the eight regions highlighted in the book are those where cider and apple cultures are thriving today and have historically been established. As for the socio-political framework, there is no way to write a book about apples (or agriculture really) without touching on elements of economics, politics, and race. We were also very tired by the oft repeated and largely false colonial nostalgia narrative that dominates the cider conversation. Our goal is to provide context for today’s growth in cider making and cider drinking.

What are some of the most intriguing things you discovered about apples and cider?

Dan: Some of the most interesting history has to do with where apples originated and their unique genetics. The European colonization of North America gave us apples from Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, France, England, Ireland, Russia, and Spain. It all contributes to the unique diversity we have today.

Craig: For me, it’s how deeply tied apples are to everything. There are over 15,000 known and documented apple varieties in North America, which is to say…we found many unusual varieties!

Spending time on the road and working on this book together, what was the most surprising thing you learned about your co-author?

Dan: I have known Craig for over 10 years and have worked with him in restaurants and retail stores for years. It was different to do a unique creative project with him and to learn about his writing process.

Craig: I knew Dan so well before the project, but seeing him engage with folks in the community was a chance for me to get a tangible sense of his passion, commitment, and dedication—and also the respect people have for him—to helping push cider forward.

What were some of the most unexpected differences you discovered about the industry across the country?

Dan: The huge range of types of orchards, from small, single-person operations in the mountains of Vermont, to massive commercial operations in Eastern Washington. But more than organizationally, there are different varieties, root stock, orchard design, and set-ups that all make different ciders.

As you explored different regions across the U.S., what similarities in the industry surprised you most?

Craig: It was the pure sense of pride and dedication people have throughout the industry, with a shared goal to educate and develop the category. That, and the fact that despite the drastically different topography and geography of the country, apples and cider exist in so many corners.

Dan: Everyone is threatened by climate change in their own way. Droughts and wildfire on the West Coast; in the Northeast and Midwest warmer temperatures early in the year are punctuated by spring frosts that can devastate the entire year’s crop. Hot temperatures in the spring can lead to serious fire blight issues in the Southeast. Orchards are all adapting to the new challenges that they may be facing in the years to come.

You mention that cider made from apples grown in one region of the U.S. tastes different from cider made from those same apples grown in another region. How much does terroir factor into cider and cider making, and ultimately in consumer taste?

Craig: Terroir plays a huge role. One thing we explore in the book is the idea that terroir encompasses the people of a region, and not just the soil and climate. Cider in New York, for example, is bolstered and influenced by the invaluable work of researchers at Cornell, while cider from the remote corner of Southwestern Colorado is being pushed by communities coming together and using cider as a way to bring economic value back to fruit from 100-year-old trees throughout their county and beyond. As for consumer taste, who knows! We’re all learning so much year after year that there’s no way to lock in any sure-footed expectations from the consumer perspective. But that’s what makes cider so great!

Dan: Cider has a long road until it finds its terroir, but more than specific apples playing a role in the taste of cider, the cultural terroir and human impact plays a bigger role. Former homebrewers in Michigan and Oregon bring different knowledge and techniques than wine makers in California and the Finger Lakes.

With the nationwide resurgence of cider, what are some of the most serious challenges facing growers and producers now?

Dan: Climate change. It is challenging all preconceived notions of how apples grow and especially how apples can be grown with cider in mind.

Craig: Climate change…and a lack of resources—money, labor, research, etc.,—that is poured into other beverage categories.

You both mention climate change. How is it affecting growers now, and what about future orchard plantings?

Dan: Climate change is putting pressures on growing regions across the country. Droughts, early frosts, polar vortex and other aspects of climate change are making growing apples more challenging in established regions and adding stresses for large and small growers alike.

Craig: I think the future is unclear, but California, maybe more than any other state, is facing the most devastating and real threats from climate change with drought and the growing viciousness of wildfire. Beyond California, increasing temperatures and erratic late frosts are becoming increasing threats to growers in the Midwest and Northeast, as trees are blooming earlier in spring in tandem with late spring frosts.

Are biodynamics and sustainability playing a role in cider now?

Dan: Growing apples for cider is different than [growing them for] other purposes. Small-scale producers are using biodynamics and other regenerative approaches to grow apples for cider.

Craig: A few growers in the Finger Lakes are growing biodynamically. Biodynamics can be impossible depending on climate and geography, given the countless pest pressures and diseases that threaten orchards. Sustainability, on the other hand, is an increasingly part of orcharding, as more and more growers are seeing the value of a whole farm ecosystem and not the perils of monocultures and farming in an exclusive and singular mindset.

The Hudson Valley is the oldest commercial apple growing region in the country. Where is the industry here headed in the next five years?

Dan: We will see more cider specific orchards being planted with the express purpose of making cider.

Craig: Cider from the Hudson Valley has the potential to completely change within five years. Fruit intended specifically for cider is being planted on an exponential scale, so as the trees come to bearing and the raw materials change, cider stands to have an entirely new profile and character. That said, there will continue to be a bounty of heirloom apples, and as cider makers continue to hone their craft, cider in general will continue to improve.

How do you think New York cider is positioned in the marketplace when compared to other regions?

Dan: New York cider has the potential to bring together great apple growing, excellent fermentation knowledge, and a large consumer market thirsty for local products. Hopefully, in years to come, cider will be a staple of the New York diet.

Craig: New York cider has the advantage of standing on a 400-year-old history of fruit growing. The know-how, experience, and practical information being made increasingly available from Cornell and other researchers–coupled with an incredible climate for apples–stands to make New York cider some of the best in the world.

What are some of the most exciting cider making trends happening around the country now?

Dan: [Cider making is] not really a trend because it has been years in the making, but the new cider- specific plantings that have been going in the ground over the past decade are producing some amazing cider.

Craig: For me, it’s the increased interest in fermenting with wild, or native, yeast. By removing the yeast variable and allowing juice to ferment naturally, there is less of an interference in understanding how a varietal (or varieties) taste when fermented.

How do approaches to cider making differ from region to region, or east to west coast?

Dan: Local cider making is determined by the infrastructure that exists in the place—the market, the existing apples, and the technical know-how. It manifests in things like more fruited cider in the Northwest because of the access to commercial, non-apple fruit farms; then there are the California winemakers and Michigan brewers I mentioned earlier.
As for apples, the same variety grown in different parts of the country will taste different, in California they will have more tannins, and be higher in alcohol and richer compared to New York…but there are so many differences it is hard to compare apples to apples.

Craig: This goes back to the terroir question. In terms of differences, we see a lot of forward-thinking cider coming from Oregon, inspired largely by Portland’s robust beer culture. For similarities, there is an increased interest in coferments—fermenting apples and grapes together—mostly in regions like California and New York where there are both wine and cider infrastructures and know-how.

What is the most intriguing thing about apples that you discovered on your travels? Did you come across any unusual heirloom or native varieties?

Craig: The most intriguing thing goes back to how deeply tied apples are to everything. There are over 15,000 known and documented apple varieties native to North America, (see Bussey’s Illustrated Guide), which is to say… we found many unusual varieties! Scott Farm in Vermont and Montgomery Place in the Hudson Valley have amazing selections of incredible, lesser-known varieties.

Dan: I think some of the most interesting history has to do with where apples originated and the unique genetics they brought. The European colonization of North America brought apples from Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, France, England, Ireland, Russia and Spain. It all contributes to the unique diversity we have today.

Did you meet any cider makers who are using unexpected types of apples or other fruit to make cider successfully?

Dan: I think the most interesting thing recently has been with the series of rough vintages in California, grape coferments that have gone mainstream. Winemakers of all types are embracing apples and other fruits to blends with grapes.

Craig: Matt Sanford at Rose Hill Farm in Red Hook [New York] is fermenting everything from apples and grapes to plums and cherries. His bottlings are always exciting and boundary-breaking.

What are some of the general cider trends we can look forward to in the next few years?

Dan: More apples being grown with cider in mind rather than as a by-product.

Craig: I’d like to see, and expect to, cider being released with some age to it. The majority of spring releases now are from the previous fall’s fruit. But I think if cider makers have the means/capital to hold back inventory and let flavors develop we will see an increasingly complex, developed, and textured ciders hitting the market. Higher Ground is a new release from East Hollow Cider in Petersburg, NY. It’s a blend of Harrison, GoldRush, and Golden Russet that Seth Jones aged for a year in neutral oak before releasing it, and it’s one of the most lush and richest ciders I’ve had to date.

What are some of your favorite regional cider and food pairings you experienced during your travels?

Dan: Minerally, fruity cider with oysters. And nettle pasta with Puget Sound Kingston Black.

Craig: Cider is such a versatile category that I think it’s the best beverage to consider for any pairing. We drank some amazing cider from Fable Farm in Vermont with homemade prosciutto and pickles that was mind blowing. But cider is great with anything fatty or spicy. Cider dances a great waltz with any kind of cheese and meat and spice.

Having tasted so many ciders around the country, what is your favorite cider or type of cider?

Dan: No idea! For me, the excitement is in learning, not in favorites.

Craig: Choosing a favorite is a disservice to the 1,000+ cider makers in the country, but I do love Champagne-style cider, and think Metal House in Esopus makes some of the most compelling cider. And their approach is a great example of old meets new, which was a goal of ours with the book—to outline how modern cider makers are borrowing from yesterday’s infrastructures to make dynamic cider today.

AMERICAN CIDER – A Modern Guide to a Historic Beverage
ISBN: 978-1-9848-2089-1
Ballantine Books [2021]

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