Our alcoholic beverages, like other foods and drinks, tell stories of places, people and history. While the humble apple may not inspire curiosity at the supermarket, it — and its fermented juice, cider — happen to be a pretty good window into the evolution of food production and appreciation in the United States, from the early orchards at Jamestown, to the proliferation of apple orchards and varieties (as many as 14,000 of the latter at one point), to mass production in the industrial age, to today, when we’ve got both Big Cider and a return to smaller growing plots with heirloom fruits. Of all the ciders we tasted this year, Aaron Burr Cidery’s 2013 Mamakating Hollow Homestead Cider was the most exciting, a 500ml bottle of nectar that connected us to Colonial America and gave us nice little buzz, too.
Without getting too bogged down in history, apples were one of the original crops in Colonial America. They took to the land well and spread easily with seeds; they were used for everything from feeding animals to making cider. Especially for making cider. (And to be clear, we’re talking about the stuff with alcohol. What’s sold as “apple cider” in the U.S. is really just juice.) The apples that would have been used varied tremendously in appearance and flavor, many of them bitter, sharp and sour, different from your everyday eating apples today as wine grapes are from table grapes. Thoreau, in his essay, “Wild Apples”, wrote passionately about them: “I frequently pluck wild apples of so rich and spicy a flavor that I wonder all orchardists do not get a scion from that tree, and I fail not to bring home my pockets full.” Like other fruits and vegetables of yore, most of these old apple varieties were crowded out by mass-produced apples like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious that appealed to a wider audience with a taste for something homogeneous. Between industrial production and Prohibition, cider production waned, only to return in recent decades with a combination of mostly sweet schlock — regulations allow cider to have as little as 40 percent juice — and a small amount of craft cider reminiscent of the old days.
And that’s what Aaron Burr is making. Located in Wurtsboro, New York, the farm dates back to the 19th century and specializes in cider apples with names you won’t find in the produce aisle. They’re all made using traditional homestead methods, which means they’re unfiltered, not sulfited, and are bottle-aged and bottle-conditioned. The founder, Andy Brennan, also makes a subset of ciders using only foraged apples, the kind Thoreau munched on, from places like Maine’s Isle Au Haut and New York’s Shawangunk Ridge. The Mamakating Hollow cider is beautiful stuff, made from a variety of unsprayed wild and abandoned apples in and around Wurtsboro. It’s the color of honey, bright and tart tasting with notes of stone fruit and berries; there’s none of that cloying sweetness of a mass-produced cider and plenty of tannins to add structure. This is the stuff you pack for a big summit, pop open on a special date (a date not expecting Clicquot, mind you) or rack and save for a future occasion. If you’re not already, this is the time to get excited about cider, and this is the bottle to get your hands on now.
Proof: 7.6% ABV
Source: Wurtsboro, NY