Upstate’s vanished gold

November 23, 2007

Part 1: A bittersweet legacy

Journal entries from 1779 written by pioneers arriving in Ontario County noted they found apple trees that appeared to be 20 or 30 years old.

The trees — only crabapple were thought to be native — possibly came from seeds purchased by the Seneca from a military/trading outpost at Kanadesaga, near present-day Geneva.

Within several decades, orchards were everywhere. By mid-19th century, so were cider mills.

Only a fraction of the product of these mills was the sweet cider familiar to today’s upstate consumers. Without refrigeration, there was only one practical way to keep the cider.

“The easiest thing to do with fruit is let it ferment,” notes Edward Varno, executive director of the Ontario County Historical Society. That resulted in hard, alcoholic cider.

Such cider became a beverage as ubiquitous then as bottled water is now. It provided nourishment to families on the frontier tightening their belts in lean late winter. Even as hamlets and commerce spread, cash remained scarce, and hard cider became a key part of a barter economy.

“For a barn raising, you might set out a barrel of whiskey or cider and pay for your labor that way,” Varno said.

But within a few short decades, a darkness began falling over hard cider, and eventually its market died. Now, serious attempts are under way to revive consumer consciousness — and therein lies a tale of tolerance and intolerance, propaganda and marketing and, most of all, history and change.

The story of hard cider touches on upstate New York’s immigration trends, industrialization, the women’s rights movement and current demographics.

The latest chapter boasts an assortment of contemporary figures as colorful and diverse as any of those from previous centuries: a federal scientist who has traveled to some of the world’s most remote areas retrieving apple samples for a DNA bank in Geneva — sort of a reverse Johnny Appleseed whose Indiana Jones exploits include fleeing for his life from a pack of apple-coveting monkeys in Tibet … an entrepreneurial couple who discovered in western France that elixir loved and then forsaken by upstate New Yorkers except for a few scattered holdouts … a farmer down in Springwater who, just like his father before him, has each fall and winter been quietly making and barreling the best hard cider he knows how.

These and others will be profiled in Part II tomorrow. Suffice it to say that each one of them feels linked one way or another to the past through their love of orchards, apples and fine cider. That past, though, is not quite as romantic or bucolic as one might think.

‘Summer complaint’

According to Cornell University professor of horticulture Ian Merwin, the Northeast has “an ideal climate” for traditional hard-cider apples, which aren’t very tolerant of high temperatures. Historically, upstate has grown a wide variety of such apples — golden russets, King Davids, red ralls, Redfields, Roxbury russets, white Jerseys, zapatas. Bite into some of these varieties and you’ll dispel any notion that good-tasting apples make for good cider, or at least good hard cider — most of them are bitter.

Central Washington state might be more known for apples, but those are eating apples that can stand the hotter summers there. The old cider apples with their poetic names loved the soils and lake-cured climate of western New York. Even today, in a region where the vineyard is the new king, few rural properties in the Finger Lakes lack apple trees. You might have to look hard to find them: gnarled and twisty old survivors slowly being choked out by forest growth, but often colonizing themselves with offspring that, alas, seldom reach maturity because of bud-loving deer.

Nor do the old apple varieties survive in the wild, since apple trees don’t grow true to their seed but are subject to the vagaries of pollination — or to human-engineered grafting.

The Seneca apparently didn’t have that grafting skill, but the settlers did. Elegant, now-yellow maps from the 19th century showed orchards with each line of trees detailed, and those orchards were numerous. Around Canandaigua, they claimed the lakeshore. Where Sonnenberg Gardens is now, there was one. In fact, leaving town in any direction, one would soon be among orchards, the maps show.

“The farmer would put the barrel on a wagon, take it to Canandaigua, sell it in town,” Varno said.

In time, cider mills were “all over the place,” said Wilma Townsend, curator of the Ontario County Historical Society Museum in Canandaigua. Among the better-known ones were those on Dryer Road in Victor, at Wheeler Station in East Bloomfield, on Parrish Street in Canandaigua and alongside Flint Creek in Gorham.

In the old days, hard cider was one way to avoid what ailed you — “summer complaint” in the form of upset stomachs from consuming spoiled food or stagnant water. Refrigeration was unknown until the 1850s, when the well-to-do started using iceboxes. According to Townsend, it would be another 30 or 40 years before average families used them. In the interim, as far as apples, there were evaporators that dried them out for preserving, as well as canning and jelly-making. But fermenting apples remained the easiest, cheapest and arguably most recreational way to keep all that Vitamin A and Vitamin C in the house.
Too recreational, it turned out.

‘As savage as a bear’

By the early 1800s, alcoholism was a plague in semi-civilized western New York. Locally, cider wasn’t as high-octane as that made in New England, which had access to ports and hence cheap sugar from the West Indies that hiked the alcohol content of its cider. But naturally fermented cider, at 6 to 8 percent alcohol, has just slightly more potency than beer. With sugar rare on the frontier, farmers threw in all sorts of other glucose: molasses, limes and grapes or raisins. In deep winter, they would freeze their barrels, leaving only liquid alcohol to be siphoned out — applejack.

Then, as now, the ravages of drunkenness were twofold: social and economic. Kids were abused, women were brutalized, according to Townsend and Varno. As upstate’s agrarian economy shifted somewhat to manufacturing, men were expected to show up on time for work, but old habits died hard and the workplace was often short a man or two.

It was no surprise, then, that the two forces behind the temperance movement that reshaped the 19th and early 20th century were women and employers.

From a pamphlet on “the effects of ardent spirits” that was printed in 1827 in Canandaigua by Bemis, Moise and Ward publishers and authored by one Jonathan Kittredge: “While on earth, the victim of intemperance is as stupid as an ass, as ferocious as a tiger, as savage as a bear, as poisonous as the asp, as filthy as the swine, as fetid as a goat, and as malignant as a fiend.”

From the transcript of an 1833 case in Wayne County Court, in which a farmer is testifying against a member of a “family of drunkards” who were his neighbors: “He one day while at work in my father’s field, got quite drunk on a composition of cider, molasses and water. Finding his legs to refuse their office he leaned upon the fence and hung for sometime; at length recovering again, he fell to scuffling with one of the workmen, who tore his shirt nearly off from him. His wife who was at our house on a visit, appeared very much grieved at his conduct, and to protect his back from the rays of the sun, and conceal his nakedness, threw her shawl over his shoulders …”

The allegedly drunken young man was Joseph Smith Jr., who achieved fame for his prophecies that would lead to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who, throughout his adult life, until his lynching while jailed, faced a variety of character allegations that are debated to this day. The testimony by the Manchester farmer may have been tempered by religious bias, but, at the least, he presented a generic picture of a blight of the times.

Looking back at the case 50 years later, local resident Ezra Pierce wrote: “Did young Joe drink? Everybody drank them times. … They would have it at huskings, and in the harvest field, and places of gathering; the Smiths did not drink more than others.”

Class warfare

In the 1830s, men in the fields might look up from their toil to the sight of a barge gliding by at a mule’s pace on the new Erie Canal, often with barrels of apples and cider piled high. Hundreds of vessels would pass every day — a parade of commerce no more notable then than the sight now from the freeway of a FedEx freight jet landing at the Rochester airport.

Within a few decades, that historic east-west canal route was commercially enhanced by new north-south railroads. It has been a long time since tracks ran through such communities as Naples, but in the mid-19th century, Naples was served with three trains a day, according to Varno.

Now being shipped in all directions, cider was king, but it wasn’t the only culprit in coarsening the lives of some of its imbibers. Even by the 1830s, it was starting to lose its dominance locally to wine and beer, while whiskey had always been in the background.

Just as sunny, south-facing slopes were ideal for orchards, the lakeside slopes of north-south running ridges proved hospitable for vineyards. And the Bristol Hills became recognized as one of the best places in the East to grow hops.

The Finger Lakes also had the other two key components for beer: plenty of grains and good water. With German immigrants starting to supplant the cider-swilling Anglos, a market for beer locally — 40,000 barrels by 1835 — was met by a pair of Scottish brothers, the McKechnies, in their Canandaigua brewery on Buffalo Street, in a building since converted to house the Daily Messenger.

The drinking wars hit full fury. Much of the furor was nuanced by class and ethnic distinctions. It seemed tolerable to the town-based Yankee power elite for German farmers or Irish canal-diggers to take to drink. But Anglos, seen as the heart of both the economy and respectable society, needed to be sober. In Canandaigua, pillars of the community such as philanthropist Mary Clark Thompson were leaders in the temperance movement. Local lore has it that she took psychic revenge on the McKechnies by converting the site of one of their former mansions to the first Thompson Hospital.

So cider was a top target. But was it the temperance movement that killed it off? Probably not. Historical records indicated that by the time Prohibition was finally enacted in 1919, hard cider was a commercial has-been, still widely available but not something people were willing to pay good money for. For decades, Coca-Cola had been available to the thirsty. By Prohibition, recreational-drinking tastes had shifted solidly to slightly fancier and more exotic beers and wines, and distilled spirits — local historian Varno notes that in time, next to nearly every sawmill or other source of surplus industrial heat came a distillery. (Home stills were more a Southern tradition, although not necessarily all that far south. The Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s — an early test of the sovereignty of the new republic that violently pitted farmer/distillers against the tax collectors — raged just on the other side of the Alleghenies, in Pennsylvania.)

Reviving the taste for a truly native upstate drink is the quest of a western New York cadre of impassioned cidermakers — the subject of tomorrow’s story.

As one takes Route 89 south down the west side of Cayuga Lake, the vineyards and wineries unfold one after another. Just outside Trumansburg, up on a hillside, there’s yet another sign and a flapping flag proclaiming “Open.” At this particular member of the Cayuga Wine Trail, there are the big vats, the prerequisite tasting room, the bottles with their elegant labels.

Yet there isn’t a drop of wine on the place.

Hard cider is what Bill and Cheryl Barton make and sell at Bellwether Cidery — somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons a year. A bottle of their Original cider sells for $9.50. The label reads: “Leading the revival of an American tradition.”

Indeed, hard cider has been made in America since the 1600s. John Adams would have a tankard for breakfast, while Benjamin Franklin preferred his at a later hour. (Draw your own conclusions: Both men were industrious, but Franklin was said to be a more efficient worker, finding plenty of time to devote to play when work was done.)

Franklin may have developed his taste for really fine cider in France — that’s where the Bartons developed theirs. In America, hard cider was often homemade and inconsistent in quality, and it had faded from mainstream tastes by the 20th century.

Unlike most cidermakers, the Bartons did not start out making sweet, nonalcoholic cider — the basis of hard cider. Bill was a home brewer of beer. But the trip through the villages and lovely orchards of Normandy and Brittany was an epiphany. Back stateside, they eventually enlisted the aid of the late Bob Kime, a food scientist at Cornell University who, among other things such as beekeeping and vegetable growing, was an expert on cider apples.

So what the Bartons had going for themselves here upstate was a support system already in place for the wine industry — despite the mystique of wine-making, the basics are nearly identical to cider-making — including the neighborhood expertise of Cornell and the venerable, world-class State Agricultural Experiment Station one lake over, in Geneva. Also going for the Bartons and a handful of other upstate hard-cider revivalists is “an ideal climate” for growing cider apples, according to Cornell horticulture professor Ian Merwin.

What upstate New York doesn’t have going for it is what Cheryl Barton said they found in western France: “people who respected the tradition of the product.”

That presents a marketing problem.

Several years ago, a team of two Cornell economists wrote a research paper indicating a potential niche market could be developed for premium cider. But according to Merwin, hard cider is “a tough sell” to upstate consumers.

For starters, good cider isn’t all that cheap. It’s the end product of a labor-intensive process that, like fine wine, doesn’t lend itself to mass production. In fact, says Merwin bluntly, “it’s harder to make a good hard cider than a good wine.”

The problem is consistency. Every year’s harvest has different chemical characteristics, even within the same apple variety. This past dry summer, for example, resulted in particularly sweet apples. Like wine, variations in the fruit from year to year, or even month to month, are both a plus and a minus — and a headache either way. It’s nice to have annual variations, yet one needs a taste consumers can recognize. In other words, no matter what vintage, a Bourdeaux must taste like a Bourdeaux.

In cider, when it comes to variety vs. consistency, the Bartons strive for “a little bit of both,” Cheryl said. “With our Original cider, for example, we want people to recognize the taste but also appreciate the subtle differences from year to year.”

The Bartons see their cider as a product akin to wine or premium beer. And that’s the same marketing stance taken by the Finger Lakes’ other cidery, Eve’s, down the pike a bit in Ithaca, plus several wineries in the region that sell apple wine — which is hard cider whose alcohol content has been boosted by adding sugar. (Hard cider such as Bellwether’s is naturally fermented with only its own sugar content and is only slightly more alcoholic than beer. Another key distinction from apple wine and supermarket-brand hard ciders such as Woodchuck is that premium cider does not use apple concentrate.)

But working against that upscale image for the product is its past.

“Hard cider got a bad reputation historically,” said Merwin. “Uneven quality — the image of the farmer making it in his cellar.”

Which a lot of farmers still do, along with converted home brewers — such as Bill Barton once was — and other country people such as Tom Mitchell of Springwater for whom cidermaking is a family tradition.

Mitchell, 52, has been making hard cider ever since he was 18, using a different recipe than that of his late father, Herb. He waits two frosts before he picks his apples because lingering makes for a more sugary apple. He picks a lot of them, enough to make about 100 gallons in a typical year. No, he laughs, he doesn’t have a drinking problem, but he does have “a lot of friends, all the way to Rochester.”

The fanatics

But Mitchell is a piker compared to Gary Audey, whose unlikely day job involves working for Bethlehem Steel in Buffalo. In his spare time, Audey is a cidermaker’s cidermaker — a leading expert much in demand as a speaker at cider fests such as the one held every year in northern Massachusetts, part of a triangle involving southern Vermont and New Hampshire that is to New England and its “boutique” ciders what the Finger Lakes are to upstate wine.

Audey’s orchard in Erie County, interestingly enough, is on the site of a former vineyard. His thousand trees grow about 300 varieties of apples, and he also has a nursery for experimenting with new trees and graftings.

For all the hard work that goes into making a good cider, Audey is a firm believer that one has to start with the right blend of apple varieties. “There’s an old saying: Cider is really made in the orchard,” he said.

He has mixed feelings about the proliferation of apple wines (9 to 12 percent alcohol opposed to hard cider’s 6 to 8 percent) sold by wineries. “In my view, they’re looking for something to set them apart (from other wineries). They don’t have their own orchards but are buying juice that has already been pressed” elsewhere, he said.

The Bartons at Bellwether Cidery also take a purist’s view toward high-test cider such as apple wine or the sugar-boosted, 100-or-more proof cider fermenting in the barrels of some home cidermakers. Referring to the falling-over knockout power that some ciders can attain, Cheryl Barton said, “We want to express the fruit, not the dominoes.”

Nonetheless, “we started in the basement, too,” she freely admits, and she’s always willing to share information with others. Every year, the Bartons have a get-together with local cidermakers. One observation from these happy gatherings: “Some of the shyest cidermakers are some of the best,” she said.

Amateur and professional alike, the cidermakers stress it all starts in the orchard. “We want the apple to influence the cider,” said Barton.

A legendary figure whom many of them cite as the top apple guru in the region is Philip Forsline, whose resume reads more like that of Indiana Jones than what he is, a scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based at the Geneva Experiment Station.

Close call

Forsline is the go-to guy when serious cidermakers need serious advice about apple varieties and maybe even a scion — a cutting — or two from some heirloom variety to graft to their trees. After all, he is in charge of the world’s largest repository of apple varieties, which sits on 50 acres in Geneva and contains thousands of genetic strains that are carefully catalogued and preserved, two of each, in the event of who knows what — the two-of-each concept served Noah well.

When Forsline isn’t tending his super orchard, he’s out in the field as a sort of reverse Johnny Appleseed, collecting samples anywhere in the world where apples grow and bringing them back to Geneva. On one expedition, in Tibet, he and his comrades were confronted by a troop of apple-coveting monkeys, one of which ripped the backpack full of samples from his wife’s back. They fled for their lives.

A more recent trip was to the highlands of Kazakhstan, to a forest that grew at an elevation between 2,000 and 6,000 feet and had some wonderful apples that might have represented one of the fruit’s initial strains. “You’re seeing in that forest apples that look like they’re right out of a supermarket,” he marveled. “Big, healthy … genetically pure, the horticultural equivalent of finding the perfect man in the Garden of Eden.”

An interesting footnote: The forest’s climate was similar to that of upstate New York, only a bit harsher, Forsline said.

In fact, the experts seem to agree that upstate New York has everything it needs to establish a hard-cider industry — climate, support system, tradition, orchards — everything, that is, except consumer awareness. Only a scattering of liquor stores and restaurants carry hard cider.

Cheryl Barton has this suggestion: Stop by and see if you like hard cider, and if so, badger your local liquor store to carry it. Not exactly a sophisticated marketing campaign, but as Forsline discovered in Kazakhstan, everything has to start somewhere.

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