The Cider Craze Has Its Roots Here. In Lebanon, NH. And the Guy Behind It Has Some Thoughts...


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"Sex-sweat and worry-sweat are not the same aroma," Steve Wood says. He's talking about cider-making. You might wonder how we got there. 

Wood is the co-owner, with his wife Louisa Spencer, of Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Cider in Lebanon. He is large and expansive -- both in his gestures and his words -- and talking to him about cider is a crash course in the vagaries of the apple business and the complexities and history of cider-making. Which he knows well, because Farnum Hill pretty much created the resurgence of alcoholic ciders in this country. It's too lame to call him the Johnny Appleseed of the modern American craft cider revival. But, well, he is.

It started with Poverty Lane, where he began producing in the early '70s and bought in 1984 -- though he's been growing apples since 1965, when he was 11. By the late '80s, the business was facing devastating competition from more efficient apple-growers all over the world and finding it impossible to compete on what had always been its long suit: quality. 

"We almost bailed out," he says. "We thought about going into retail -- substantial retail, like those places in southern Connecticut. Fortunately, my wife and I came to our senses. We were temperamentally unsuited--the idea of running a bloody store all year, waking up every morning saying, 'Can I help you?'..." The sentence dribbles off into a few mumbled words about scented candles.

In the 1980s, Wood installed cooling tanks for apples. They're now filled with cider.

Meanwhile, however, he and Spencer had been traveling to the UK to visit family, and he'd taken up with cider-makers there. At home, really just playing around, they'd also started grafting English and French cider varieties, as well as American heirlooms. "I’d like to argue this was business, but the truth is, I was just gardening," he says. But when things fell apart, he used that experience to plant the first real cider orchard in North America, 1000 trees -- "Which may sound like a lot," he adds, "but is just a small commercial orchard." He spent time in England studying cider-making, and around this country studying wine-making.

Here we come to the first of two swerves that deliver us to how sweat smells.

Farnum Hill stumbled along for a few years, gaining fans around New Hampshire and in a couple of cities like Boston and New York. Then Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer, delivered a glowing tribute to hard cider as a meal accompaniment, and to Farnum Hill in particular. Food writers all over took notice. "It was the coolest thing since sliced bread!" says Wood.

Steve Wood, with a sliver of Poverty Lane Orchards behind him

But there was a problem: There was no cider category for retail outlets -- read wine shops. Farnum Hill wound up on the same shelves as aquavit, or Manischewitz. "If this was going to work," Wood says, "we had to get more people doing it."

So he and Spencer embarked on what have now been almost two decades'-worth of creating their own competition.  They encouraged apple growers to plant cider varieties, giving away their own stock to get it going. They brought over an English cider-maker, Peter Mitchell, to teach Americans how to do it. They consulted freely, to growers and cider-makers. And gradually -- then suddenly, if you've been in a supermarket anytime in the last few years -- it worked. 

Here we get to the second swerve. There are really two broad strains of hard cider on the market. There's what you've most likely tried, which tends toward sweetness and flavoring -- chipotle, raspberry, ginger.... Wood calls a lot of it "cheap apple alco-pop, which is based on the cheapest apples the cider-maker can buy, without attention to condition or provenance." He mentions the practice of "back-sweetening" cider with apple juice or concentrate. "That's like making wine and then pouring grape juice back into it until you get it to taste like grapes again." He is not a fan.

Cider fermenting

Then there's what Farnum Hill does, which is the apple version of wine. "We grow fruit to turn it into complex ciders. Our ciders don’t smell or taste much like apples. Nobody expects wine to taste like grapes. So why do you expect your cider to taste like apples?" Wood wryly admits that not everyone gets this. "We're a tiny sliver of the market," he says.

But if you care about ciders with complexity, then you also care about refining how they smell and taste. And to do this, you have to figure out how to talk about it, so that you can describe it and then decide how to change it. "If our stuff is any good it is because we know that we don’t know what we’re doing. We live in a constant state of curiosity and terror," he says.

So for the last 15 years or so, he and Spencer and a few others have amassed volumes of tasting notes. Though Wood has no patience for "all that wine language that makes you want to kill someone over dinner," he wants his tasters to describe what they're experiencing. You'll find descriptors like "green pond," "feet," "mucky spring day," "corn on the cob," and "lemon" in their notes. "Most people don’t know they have this amazing sensory memory," he says. "And aroma is the most powerful mnemonic sense. It brings back memories way better than any of our other senses. Almost everybody can do this -- if they’re not chain smokers."

But to work, a descriptor has to be precise. "Sweat" isn't very useful, he thinks. Your armpits smell different from your feet. Your partner's or friend's sweat smells different from yours. And sex sweat smells different from worry sweat. So if you catch a faint aroma of sweat in that cider... which is it?

Thought we'd never get there. Didn't you.

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