A Visit to a Real Cider Producer – Vol. 1, No. 2

• Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders

It was an unseasonably mild November day. The low, bright sun warmed. Most of the leaves were down. The last few frostbitten apples, now beginning to ferment, dangled from their perches. This was to be a long overdue visit – Farnum Hill had been on my radar for three years now.

The farm is run by husband and wife Stephen Wood and Louisa ‘Loulou’ Spencer. The short story is that Stephen’s father was a doctor who aspired to be a gentleman orchardist. “Apples are a problem when you’re a doctor,” said Loulou. We saw the pun immediately, knowing “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Her real point, though, was that juggling both careers proved unwieldy. At sixteen, son Stephen was showing interest in the orchard side. At that time the orchard produced stalwart New England eating varieties like Macintosh and Baldwin.

Lady apples

Small and clustered, the Lady apple is a centuries old variety.

Was it foresight to a burgeoning cider industry or a farmer’s practical wisdom that drove Stephen and Louisa to convert the operation to cider apples? Well, the latter, according to Loulou. The writing was on the wall: grocers wanted hard, well-keeping “dessert” apples, and that new fangled green one from Australia (‘Granny Smith’) was all the rage. (More on just how they converted the orchard in the forthcoming Vol. 1, No. 5 – Seeds and Scions.)

Stephen, now in his fifties, showed up in blue coveralls and a Bruegel-esque red felt hat. He was scrambling to get to Cider Days, down in western Massachusetts. We shook hands. He said that Loulou and sales rep Corrie Martin would be taking us around. Then he was gone. When our party had gathered, we idly strolled through first through the original orchard, then over a trickling streamlet to a younger planting surrounded by very tall deer fencing.

Newton with apple

Newton, the dopey farm mascot.

Newton, the so aptly named farm dog, munched on an apple. We too munched. There was the juicy, yet tiny Lady, a very old variety that may have ties to ancient Rome. Lady grows in clusters and looks like large Ranier cherries. We marveled at the fluted, green and waxy Calville Blanc and tasted the sweet-sour, fragrant Ashmead’s Kernel. We were soon joined by Jessica Saturley. Jess is a bright-eyed, wholesome young gal with a talented palate; she works with Stephen in flavor analysis and blending. We assembled at the barn for a tour of the pressing operation and for a much-heralded tasting.
TPJ Calville apple

The Palate Jack gets a surprising mouthful with a Calville Blanc apple.

The juicing operation is straightforward. Bins of apples are dumped into a hopper, ground into a meal, then transferred by pump to a rack and cloth press and hydraulically squeezed. The juice ends up in 300-gallon totes where it is sulfited. The sulfiting process releases sulfur dioxide gas, which kills wild yeast. The gas then dissipates and the juice is ready to be pitched with a vigorous Champagne yeast. In this way, the cidermaker exercises more control over the final flavor profile. Fermentation proceeds at ambient temperatures either in stainless tanks or oaken puncheons.

At the outset of fermentation, most cidermakers are faced with a choice of whether to ferment a blend of apples or ferment each variety singly for later blending. Farnum Hill does both. They ferment a largish quantity of cider as a foundation based on varietal characteristics and tasting of the fresh crop and juices.

Jessica and Tod

Farnum Hill's Jessica Saturley and Portsmouth brewer Tod Mott discuss the ins and outs of blending.

This base may have five or six varieties chosen to supply necessary sugars, acids, tannins, and favorable aromatic and flavor traits. Separately, single varieties are fermented in wood. In the spring, if a cider blend needs a little fine-tuning, some of the barrel-fermented cider can be blended in. There seem to be no ‘hard and fast’ rules about this process. In all, it has taken Stephen and crew ten years to retool the orchard and a second decade to begin to produce the type of ciders they are striving for.

cider barrels

Varietal ciders at work in their barrels. The barrel labeled 'PERRY' contains fermenting pear juice.

Our tasting included nine ciders, some thieved from their barrels, others in bottled form. We began with the Ashmead varietal. Poverty Lane grows the Ashmead because high acid apples are an essential component of great cider. The cider was still (i.e. sans carbonation), very acidic, and wonderfully fragrant with notes of cherry blossom, honeycomb, and green tea. Next we tried a blend of three old-timey apples: Spitzenberg, Dabinett, and Yarlington Mill. It was a bittersweet base cider with some young tannins, a pippy-stemmy woodiness, corn cob, and raspberry fruit on the nose.

The bottled ciders we tried included the Extra-Dry Still and the ’07 Kingston Black varietal. The extra-dry possessed a light wood-leather note, some ‘forest floor’ terroir, and would pair well with foods suited to white truffles – seafood and egg dishes particularly. The Kingston Black would pair better with turkey, venison, or pork. It was leggy at 9% abv, with light caramels. It possessed a subtle and nuanced barny-cheesy-lover’s armpits quality that made our group titter with voyeuristic smirks.

l_farmhouseAfter the tasting Loulou invited us to the farmhouse for a spread of pumpkin soup, hearty breads, beans, and salads. Of course, there was one more cider there – a cider produced by Cisco Brewers on Nantucket. It was notable because it had been dry-hopped, a beer brewing method that introduces aromatic oils into hoppy beers (e.g. IPAs and so on). Speaking of IPAs, Portsmouth brewer Tod Mott pulled out a growler of his IPA to share. What a satisfying day!

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