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Ciders take center stage
by Erik Wollschlager
An apple a day
Fall has certainly fallen in Western New York. A mere 20 minute drive in any direction from the heart of Buffalo will transport one from the hustle of the chilly city streets to the surrounding hills, blanketed in yellows, oranges, and reds, as though flames had worked their way toward the sky. This season is synonymous with many things that our area draws its identity from, but perhaps none more-so than the forbidden fruit—the apple.
The benefits of the apple are too numerous to list; filled with vitamins and all one needs to keep the dreaded doctor at bay, nature’s ruby and amber candy hangs by the dozen from the tree branches in WNY orchards—and such orchards have become a destination for families looking to spend a day in the fields, hauling bag after bag back their vehicles. The story of the apple does not end here, for aside from its branch-to-mouth simplicity, the apple makes the perfect ingredient for autumn’s favorite dishes. Pies, cakes, cookies, muffins—the bottomless well of apple-inspired pastries is enough to bring joy to even the pickiest eater (and, worth mentioning, pairs amazingly with bacon.)
In the millennia that man has existed, however, there is no apple product that is more revered, nor more historic, than cider. Apple cider is a generational gift, enjoyed by the young and the old alike, but recently, fermented cider has gained popularity in the West—a product which has pervaded European beer markets for quite some time. It is told that when the Roman Empire reached the borders of the Brittanic Islands in 55 BC, the natives were already enjoying fermented cider. Nearly 1700 years later, the Pilgrims emigrated from Britain to populate the Americas, and brought with them recipes for fermented cider.
The importance of cider in international markets cannot be understated—British cider comprises 30% of the beer market, and Irish consumption nears 20%. Currently, in the US, cider is only .8% of the beer market, but that has quadrupled from just .2% mere years ago—the populace of the US is catching onto what the Northeast already knew—cider is delicious, refreshing, and an amazing gluten free alternative to beer. The age old argument of “Tastes great; less filling” has no home here—fermented cider indeed tastes great, but doesn’t include many of the components that make beer such a gut-busting beverage. National products such as Woodchuck and Angry Orchard have been building a shelf presence, even going as far as following the craft brew trend of offering seasonal selections. Their importance to the market can no longer be overlooked.
And, so, here we are in WNY, where apples grow abundantly in our temperate climate. Entire businesses are built around apples—regionally, we have several orchards which each host a variety of attractions, and there are many cider brands, to which many citizens are loyal. Most pervasive is probably Mayer Bros. cider—from their cider to their donuts, to their famous cider slushies, no autumn is complete without a visit to the mill, and a fresh pull of their cider, accompanied by frycake. Few would imagine that this harbinger of fall for so many children would be the base for a line of incredible local fermented ciders, but this is indeed the case. In 2011, Hamburg native Lenny Ciolek partnered with Mayer Bros. to produce the first runs of McKenzie’s Hard Cider. The annual line includes their Hard Cider, which is the base for most of their products, and also includes their Black Cherry Cider. The Mayer Bros. Cider is also the base of each of their seasonal ciders, to which the brewery adds flavors that best accompany the faire of the season. The seasonal reserve is a brew which includes cinnamon and nutmeg, producing a flavor which is comparable to delicious liquid apple pie. Also available is their Green Apple Cider, a product which is a bit more tart than the others, and, because of the yeast used, parallels champagne in such a way that the McKenzie’s Mimosa is quickly becoming a common drink at brunches all around the region. McKenzie’s is available at grocery stores, beer stores, and is on tap craft brew pubs locally, and is soon expanding beyond their 19 state reach.
Also in on the apple action is Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, located in Medina, NY. One of their most popular wines, their Leonard Oakes Fuji, is derived entirely from apples, and they broke out of the wine mold recently with the release of their Steampunk Cider. The combination of dry English apples and sweet dessert apples is a tribute to old world ciders and the new burgeoning sweet cider market—thus the name. Just down the road, at Becker Brewing, the giant orchards provide more than enough apples for the brewery to produce their own hard ciders.
20 of the 37.5 acres that make up Donovan Orchards is dedicated to 25 varieties of apples, several of which are English and American cider apples, and these are the basis for the delicious brews available at BlackBird Ciderworks. The tasting room in the small ciderhouse hosts a Thursday Happy Hour from 5-9, where they offer discounted pints, growler fills, and, of course, bottles of their products—which are also available in local grocery stores. With over 10 different ciders to select from, BlackBird has cultivated brews that range from sweet to dry, and from bright to smoky.
The use of apples in fine fall beverages has become pervasive, indeed. Nationally marketed Redd’s Apple Ale is produced by brewing behemoth Miller Brewing, but local brewers are finding ways to include apples in their own brews. This past summer, Community Beer Works borrowed some barrels from Buffalo Distilling that had previously housed their apple brandy, and CBW used them to age their Belgian Tripel, The Tripod. The barrels imparted a delicious caramel apple flavor, which made this heavy-hitting brew quite dangerous. The brewers at Resurgence Brewing and Cider Creek Hard Cider, Dave Collins and Kevin Collins, respectively, recognized the tasty collaborations they could produce, and so, with a fermenter of the Resurgence Saison recipe, they pumped in some Cider Creek, added some smoked apples, and let the yeast do its work. The resulting apple ale is a great seasonal treat, and is available at the in-house beer garden at Resurgence for pints and growler fills. The brewers at Pearl Street Brewery have created a light and tasty Raspberry Apple Ale, which is available in their taproom.
One of the greatest things about cider is that it lends itself to blending. Black ‘n’ tans have become black ‘n’ golds, and there is no limit to the delicious concoctions that one can create with a little imagination. The sweetness of cider naturally combines with the smokiness of a porter, and even as craft brewers get more creative with their beers, craft beer drinkers can draw inspiration for creating their own collaborations by the glass. Cider is unique in that it allows the drinker to design just the right drink for the moment.
Sunset is coming a little bit earlier, sunrise a little bit later. Hoods are starting to be pulled a little tighter to ward off the chill in the air. As we all draw our seats a little closer to our bonfires, our gloved hands replace the beloved coozies of summer. More and more, apple-inspired beverages fill the bottles that occupy those gloved hands. Once the preferred drink of our Anglo ancestors who first occupied our land, cider is gaining a place in the market, and a place in our hearts. Shelves are stocked with locally crafted ciders and apple brews whose ingredients are grown right in our back yards. Don’t miss your chance to support these local businesses and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
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