The Great Cider Adventure Takes Us Every Which Way But East
As our exploration of Massachusetts’ cider scene headed into the Metro area’s beyond Boston, we found ourselves exploring distinct orchards, each with their own ideas on how to use their apples to create some really divine drinks.
One of the first things you think of when you think of the fall is the rich, loamy smell of an apple orchard that seem synonymous with hoodie weather. And as our exploration of Massachusetts’ cider scene headed into the Metro area’s beyond Boston, we found ourselves exploring distinct orchards, each with their own ideas on how to use their apples to create some really divine drinks.
If the Pick-Your-Own crowd is not your scene, the metro area is also home to three cider-only ventures that are finding a myriad of ways to be both authentic AND creative.
Russell Orchards Farm Store & Winery – A Branch of the Family Tree
Russell Orchards is no secret for… well, anyone who’s ever even talked to someone from the North Shore about pick your own. An iconic autumnal experience for families, the farm also has some refreshment for it’s more adult crowds, serving up a great selection of ciders, from Max’s Dry to a Uncle J’s Ice. But this naming scheme isn’t just a cute colloquialism – because Russell Orchards cider business is family run.
“My dad always comes in and checks on us to make sure everything is running,” says Jason Russell, the second generation of Russell’s to work on the farm, and the head of the cider operation. As he mimics Dad’s voice – “This is too sweet! This isn’t…” – Miranda, his sister-in-law and the co-owner of the farm, cuts in. “We called it Max’s dry ‘cause it’s the way he likes it bottled - just like that!”
It was an interesting start for a farm. Max Russell, an aerospace engineer contracted to NASA (seriously), was done with government work. Quitting his job, he bought Russell Orchards, a run down farm in Ipswich, MA, growing it into the pick your own powerhouse it is today. And with the orchard and field thriving, Max and his kids had a great plan for what to do with the surplus fruit.
“...it was because my father-in-law is sort of in relentless pursuit of creating that he started the winery in the 80’s.” Miranda says. “All the apples used in our hard ciders are grown here. There’s never an outside apple brought in, really… We try to make all of the wines [only] with the fruits that we grow here.”
An admirable goal, with a terrific result. The Russell’s have three core ciders – Max’s Dry, Middle Ridge, and Sweetheart – each distinct and flavorful. Max’s Dry is a great New England style cider, featuring a refreshing apple accent and a faint earthy back. Sweetheart offers a dessert apple flavor, similar to a riesling in its sweet fruitiness. Middle Ridge takes the best of both flavors, blending them together to create a refreshing cider that contains both a touch of the sweetness from Sweetheart and the earthy apple flavor of Max’s Dry. Recently, Jason released an ice cider – the Uncle J’s – that exudes a rich flavor and apple bite.
“I think the fruits that we use and the apples we use [make our cider special]” says Jason. But he can’t help adding with a grin: “And a special touch.”
Saintly Cider – The Bar Room Historian (pictured above)
Caleb Noble, founder and operator of Saintly Cider, is sitting at a table in back of the Rowley VFW, two crisp pints of his own cider sitting before him, fresh from the tap. Incredibly fresh, in fact, as Noble has only been making commercial cider since February. But, years of basement brewing and R&D have paid their dividends with a small, but loyal, following at the Thirsty Whale in Newburyport, the aforementioned VFW in Rowley, and with plans to grow into more of the North Shore soon.
“[The North Shore] was known for bootlegging during prohibition.” Noble tells me as we sip his cider. “There’s a farm, next town over... it was a King’s land grant, and for thirteen generations the same family pressed apples [there]... during prohibition they pressed apples! They didn’t stop pressing apples there until 1951.”
This isn’t the only story Noble has for me about the area – while he may be junior in the cider business, he’s well-learned in the history of the area and his work. To Noble, the drink and the area had a natural symbiosis.
“I love history. And what’s more historic than apples? Apples were here when Adam and Eve, Genesis, you know in the bible they’ve been around forever. This area is so rich in history... why not do it in an area where it was [already well] known?”
There has to be something to his theory. Noble’s cider is a refreshing pint, dry and clear, but with a sweet start and tart finish. The carbonation is noticeable on this one, but it gives it a nice drinkability, like a good champagne, only way less likely to give you a headache after the excitement. Besides the cornerstone, Noble has just released his first supplementary flavor, a hibiscus mint that adds a flowery, charmingly green flavor to the existing style of his cornerstone. Both ciders are solidly made, tasty, and eminently drinkable – a result of Noble’s close attention to detail and dedication to the craft.
Cider Hill Cellars – The Mad Scientist
All of cider makers that we’ve talked to are creative, high-knowledgeable and intensely dedicated creators. But Chadd Cook, head cider-maker over at Cider Hill Cellars, takes the chemistry of cider making to an entirely new level. A graduate of UMass’ Stockbridge Agriculture school, Cook’s agriculture knowledge meshes well with an intense passion for chemistry and experimenting.
“I made a batch. It turned out okay... so I made another batch. And then wanted to change something in that one. So I followed basic scientific method… it just became an obsession. It was that biology, science-y lab work thing that I love, but you get an awesome product out of it. It’s like a big chemistry set for adults.”
As the cellars just opened up this past May, they’re working with three ciders, but with more on the way. If you visit this fall, you’ll get their Spring Cider, a dry cider that’s still light and tart – it feels almost like a delicate white wine when you’re drinking it – and their Summer, a semi-sweet cider with a tart-sour back that’s equally lovely. But it was their Raspberry Harvest that really shows how quickly Cook’s mad scientist wont is bearing fruit. Using a pound of raspberries per bottle, this cider will capture your heart-mind-soul-home-car-xbox-etc. with it’s incredible flavor. While we all know the ubiquitous raspberry taste of mass-market food and drink, Cook’s raspberry blend brings a whole new dimension to the flavor, not only bringing the fruit’s sweet notes to the glass, but also the tart and slightly spicy elements that are iconic to a fresh picked berry. And even more are to come – an frost cider, a sour cherry, an autumn cider featuring english varietals, and a line of vintage varietals.
“We can really feature the changes the different seasons have on the cider. With our Spring and our Summer, we actually go out... and blend up every apple that is right into a test cider and analyze the ph and the sugar content. And in that way, over the course of a season, we know that we can do this and this and this and achieve, at least within a range, to make a well balanced Spring, or a well-balanced Summer. With the vintage varietals we can't do that – it'll be up to the season."
We don't know about you, but we can't wait to see a few more experiments.
High Limb – Big Vision, Authentic Taste
"It's tough to explain to people that don't live here." Jeremy Quaglia reflects when I ask why he and partner Kyle Schmitt chose New England for their cider house, High Limb. "There's a lot of other cool areas [making cider]... but I mean, people travel from all around the country to see New England [foliage] turn in the fall. There's something magical about that. It feels authentic."
Authentic is the word of the day at High Limb. While their cider house currently only has two products, both feature a pure apple flavor that will bring anyone born-and-bred in the area home. Their flagship hard cider, called 'the OG' in-house, is a farm fresh cider, sweet and refreshing at the front, with a really great earthy-funky aftertaste that lingers on the tongue.
"It's a nice, classic New England cider... we started with unfiltered because it feels more authentic to us," Quaglia says of their flagship. "We keep it as close to fresh cider as possible, with a super high drinkability."
Honeypot is their first breakout flavor, and ups the ante of their brand by using a saison yeast to spice up the taste. The saison spice is balanced by a great dryness brought out by the added honey High Limb sources locally. The result is the perfect summer (or fall, winter or spring) cider that you just. Can't. Stop. Drinking. And as the Honeypot shows, while the guys at High Limb might be all about the authenticity, they don't plan to stay still. Quaglia and Schmitt have big plans moving forward, including a bunch of new flavors that they're currently working on.
"We have a lot coming down the pike!" Quaglia told me. "There's a lot [on the market]... you have to be careful to not bore your consumers."
That's definitely something High Limb doesn't have to worry about. Keep an eye on these guys – with the quality of their products and their drive to create, they're going to make a big splash into the cider scene, and soon.
Lookout Farm – Brewer + Farmer = Damn Good Cider
Aaron Mateychuk is the head brewer and cider maker at Lookout Farms – a job he's uniquely qualified for, having worked as a brewer for 23 years, and grown up working on farms. Coupling his experience with the fertile acreage and high output of Lookout Farms, and you've got a rich recipe for some serious cider innovation.
"People drink a lot of crazy beers now. So why wouldn't they venture into crazy ciders too?" Mateychuk asks me during out chat. "We want to do more varieties with the stuff we grow here – the other fruit, spices."
As you can guess, things are a little different here at Lookout. Their flagship cider predominantly uses Jonagold apples, which give it a clean, sweet taste with and earthy back – and the rest of their ciders keep pushing that line. Their 1651 is an oaky cider that uses granny smith's to balance out the whiskey barrel flavors; Hop Up is a rich hop cider that embraces the bitterness of hops, but as a pleasant aftertaste that fades fast post-drinking. But the two stand-outs of the farm is the Barnburner and the Strawberry Fields. Barnburner is – as you've probably guessed – a habenero spiced cider that tickles your nose and leaves you with a warm burn at the back of your throat and a crisp pepper flavor on your tongue. Strawberry Fields is a cider that introduces the sweetness of strawberries, but balances it out with the crisp, spicy green of basil, creating a roundness to the cider that in other hands might be unbearably sweet. But that's to be expected when your cider maker has a unique understanding for the ingredients.
"I grew up working on farms... it's just one of those jobs I always had, even when I was a kid. I was mulching strawberries when I was 8 years old. You know – 'give the kid something to do.'" Mateychuk relates with a laugh. "Now to come back here, and we're actually growing everything? What can we grow to complement [the cider]? It's kinda cool to come full circle."
While Lookout is at heart a working farm, their space in South Natick also includes a rustic, airy taproom – with plenty of plans for growing their space on the way, from a line of beers to a second taproom, to live music. Needless to say, we see a lot time on the farm in our future.
Far From the Tree – Staying Weird in Salem
On the outskirts of downtown Salem, rows of old brick warehouses and factories sit side by side with recycling plants and rental van companies. But one of these unprepossessing buildings houses an enticing secret: Far From the Tree cider, Salem’s only cider house, and one of the more interesting entries on the Massachusetts cider list. Their rustic, cozy taproom feels like a refurbished barn, belying the funky ciders their cider makers roll out on the regular.
“We love making straight cider, but we really really really get excited about having fun with it.” Owner and head cider maker Alex Snape told me as we sat at the bar of their tasting room. “You know, our name is ‘Far From the Tree,’ which is talking about being the apple that [doesn’t fall] close to the tree… We’re trying to use local ingredients, but we’re also happy to do something strange and a little different by having something that we have fun with. So, adding pineapple, jalapeno, or fermenting with kind of a weird beer yeast, or aging it in a weird barrel or letting it go off a little on purpose and seeing how that goes.”
While that may sound like an eccentric approach to the purist, the results will make any cider fiend happy. Their flagship Roots is a great dry cider, clear and bright with a pleasant overall taste. From that solid base, they branch out into Nova, a wonderfully spicy hopped cider, to Apple of My Chai, a cider that evokes the delicious smokiness of chai tea. And from there? Well, they fall right out of that damn tree. When I visited their tasting room, their rotating flavors included a zesty, tart lime cider– Rickey– and a tart, fruity watermelon cider known as Gallagher’s Hammer, which is an absolute summer dream. In a land of scrumptious fresh-from-the-tree farms and apple enthusiasts, Far From the Tree’s rotating experimental flavors strike a delightful balance for the region, breaking from (albeit grand) tradition to find a new world of cider.
“It’s just kind of how we have the most fun doing, and I think that translates to the folks that come here to try the ciders and the product. It’s what keeps us excited and laughing. And that’s seems like the key to longterm success as a business – that you are really nailing it when it comes to making people around you happy. If you can embrace that as a success, that’s important.”
The Cider Houses:
Russell Orchards – 143 Argilla Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938, 978.356.5366
Saintly Cider you can find at:
The Thirsty Whale – 24 Market Square, Newburyport, MA 01950, 978.462.1140
Rowley VFW – 19 Bradford Street, Rowley, MA 01969, 978.948.7013
Phat Cats Bistro – 65A Market Street, Amesbury, MA 01913, 978.388.2777
The Deck – 179 Bridge Road, Salisbury, MA 01952, 978.499.4422
Cider Hill Cellars – 45 Fern Avenue, Amesbury, MA 01913, 978.388.5525
Lookout Farms – 89 Pleasant Street, South Natick, MA 01760, 508.651.1539
Far From the Tree – 108 Jackson Street, Salem, MA 01970, 978.224.2904