What Do We Mean by “Harvest Ciders”?
When I am sampling our ciders at the farmers market or events, I’ll frequently have someone say to me “no thanks, I don’t really care for cider.” When I ask why, the answer is usually “it’s too sweet.” Or someone will come up and say “I love cider,” and then make an ugly face when they taste our sparkling dry cider because it is totally different from the brands they usually buy. We need a good term to help consumers understand the difference between the kind of cider we make and the canned ciders they might typically find at their local retailer. There are critical differences in apples and especially production processes that impact both flavor and price.
The more I discuss this with other cider makers, the more clear it becomes that there are two critical differences. First, we make cider from a wine point of view, meaning the fruit is only pressed at or close to harvest and then fermentation and aging take time. There is essentially one ‘vintage’ per year of a specific cider. Second, we use apples that have more intense flavors, and often some proportion of tannic apples. The heirloom and tannic varieties are extremely rare (less than 1% of apples grown in the US), and are therefore significantly more expensive than typical grocery store varieties.
Both of these factors means that the cost of producing our ciders is way more expensive than ciders made by pressing left-over grocery store apples out of cold storage every 4 weeks all year round, fermented quickly, doctored to a recipe for consistency and canned immediately. So, why do things in such a radically different, more expensive way? Flavor.
Fundamentally, a cider that is pressed from interesting fruit once per year at harvest and properly fermented and matured will have significantly more apple character without the addition of sugar or fresh juice or concentrate or anything else that canned cider makers may use to ‘add back’ to their 4 week base ciders.? Within the tiny world of those of us who make cider this way, we can debate apple sourcing, varieties, ‘naturalness’, terroir, authenticity, artistry, science and more, but the fundamental differences in flavor and economics are between the ‘harvest’ approach and the ‘every 4 weeks’ approach, and the use of apple varieties that have higher flavor / acids / tannins.
Here’s our own specific take on ‘Harvest’ ciders at Eden:
Heirloom and tannic cider variety apples yes, AND grown locally, sustainably, and for the express purpose of producing cider. In particular, harvesting apples at peak ripeness, not under-ripe for storage and shipping to grocery stores where crunchy texture matters more than developed sugars and flavors.
Sustainable for the environment and for our rural communities – Wild-foraged apples are ‘cool’, but nobody gets paid to grow them, and ciders made from them don’t provide the reliable support that small family farms need to preserve their living and therefore preserve our working landscape. In New England we have the land and climate to grow amazing high flavor apples, but our hilly topography means we can’t do it at large commodity scale. Orchards growing global commodity variety apples have been failing here for decades now, and are often replaced by housing subdivisions with lawns and driveways. Growing rare, high flavor varieties is a sustainable option for small scale orchards. We work in long term relationships with 8 orchards in our area, 4 of which are less than 10 acres of trees, and only one is over 60 acres.
Pressing apples at harvest or soon after when flavors, sugars and acids are at their peak, not out of cold storage months later when they are dull. This is HUGE, because it means that we make one batch of a cider per year. That is completely different from modern ciders that produce a new batch from a recipe every 3 – 6 weeks, based on pressing apples out of cold storage or using rehydrated apple concentrate.
Fermenting the juice like wine, slow and cool, allowing all those precious flavors to develop over time, and express the unique character of the apple varieties and the place they were grown
Maturing ciders so their acids, tannins and any residual sweetness are fully integrated and balanced
Rejecting cheap, fast wine-making tools like adding sugar, acid or tannin out of bags to adjust flavor, or fining agents to speed clarification of the ciders, or enzymes to fix microbiological issues that could be avoided through more careful care of apples and hygienic facilities
We are not as religious as some about commercial yeast, organic yeast nutrients, or filtration. We use these where they support the expression of the apple character and the type of cider. For example, we filter our ice ciders just before bottling to avoid any refermentation of residual sugar inside the bottle that would ruin the product. We use champagne yeast for the in-bottle secondary fermentation of our naturally sparkling ciders because there is already alcohol in the cider at a level that prevents spontaneous fermentation at that point. We use organic yeast nutrient to support healthy fermentations in blends of apples that don’t have enough nutrition to avoid off-flavors that would detract from the expression of the beautiful apple flavors that our orchards produce. In every decision, we are looking to maximize deliciousness, which we believe starts and ends with the fruit.
I am incredibly grateful that you are interested enough in cider to have read this far! The choices we make mean that our ciders are expensive and limited in quantity. Without your support, we couldn’t support the orchards, the apple varieties, or our employees that work so hard and share our passion for this amazing fruit and the liquid it becomes. Please spread the word about Harvest ciders. Encourage others to ask these key questions about the ciders they choose. What varieties are in this cider? Where and when were they grown? When were they pressed? How long from pressing to bottling?
Or just kick back and enjoy one of our ciders with your next meal, because really, your great cider experience is the most important thing of all to us.
Eleanor Leger, Founder
Eden Specialty Ciders