From The Crowds At The Cider Summit The Cider Revolution in Chicago Has Begun

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February 10, 2014 at 7:40 pm

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I wasn’t going to write a specific post about the Cider Summit that took place last Saturday at Navy Pier but after seeing the huge crowds that were there, I felt a post was warranted.  I will give you my brief run down and impressions. One of the biggest insights I took away from meeting all these producers is that artisanal cider is all about the apple, the trees, the farm and the land.

The crowds on Saturday were absolutely unbelievable. I attended the 11am – 3pm session (there was a later session 4-8pm) and I got there around 12:15pm and the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier was already too crowded for me. Attendees were hunched around every table and I heard that people had lined up well before 11am to get in right away.

The tables were arranged alphabetically and the first table I encountered was on my list to stop by anyways, Aeppeltreow Winery & Distillery. The neat thing about Aeppeltreow is that the Winery sits on the grounds of Brightonwoods Orchard in Burlington Wisconsin. Brightonwood grows up to 200 different types of heirloom apples, some eating and some for cider(cider apples are too astringent for eating). They were pouring Appely Doux a champagne method sparkling cider, Orchard Oriole Perry(fermented pears, a whole other category that is coming into its own as well) and Songbird Cider made from Macintosh and Red Delicious. Aeppeltreow welcomes visitors to the distillery and offers spirits made from the local products as well. Basically, you never know what Charles the cider maker will come up with next and their blog has a lot of useful and interesting information on it if you want to learn more.

One cider maker that was top on my list was Farnum Hill Ciders at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, NH. Farnum Hill has been making ciders since the 80′s and Steve Wood the founder is known as the “great grandfather of the cider renaissance”(Quote from the book, The World’s Best Ciders). Last year when I attended the summit, my sources told me, “try Farnum Hill, they are the best of the best” and at that point I had no idea of the history. The factoid that interested me was that they were in Lebanon, NH the town next door to the college I went to Dartmouth, in Hanover, which always brings up memories of hiking, biking, driving through the woods, hills and mountains of New Hampshire. Farnum Hill is known for their orchards of heirloom cider apples. This year the founder, Steve Wood, was at the summit, tasting their “Dooryard Cider”. Their Dooryard Ciders are numbered(see the picture below). So for example the #1310 that I tasted, had a pedigree on their website “A happy blend of two fermentations from the 2012 harvest (one early in the season and one late), Dooryard 1310 derives most of its acidity from Esopus Spitzenberg and Ribston Pippin, and its structure from Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, and Ellis Bitter.  It’s a tiny bit off-dry, with aromas of lime and lime peel, tart pie cherries, pear, pineapple, BSA*, and some faint floral thing.  To us, the taste follows the aroma pretty faithfully, together with a bit of brine, quinine, and whisky (do those go together?).  The finish does the same, with pleasant fruits and clean acidity to the end.” The fun aspect of their Dooryard line is that each batch will have a completely different flavor profile based on the circumstances, apples, time, etc. 

Next to Farnum was another cider maker that was pretty incredible, E. Z. Orchards Cidre. Mark Zielinski, was a wine maker before turning to cider and he goes at cider with a wine makers point of view of balancing tannins, acidity and fruit. His family grows the apples and he is all caring about the specific apples. The interesting thing about cider that I gathered during the summit is that it takes a wine makers perspective in balancing tannins, acidity and fruit but the buyers and the people driving demand for cider and at  the summit were craft beer people.

In the interest of time in my writing this, I have to wrap it up. There were a wide variety of producers at the summit and you can’t speak of cider in Chicago without  Virtue(they put cider on the map in Chicago) and they were there in full force tasting Mitten, Percheron, Lapinette(I may have missed one, given they were at the end of the alphabet I got to their very packed table towards the end), Suttons Bay MI cider, wine and spirit maker Black Star Farms (which is a great place to visit as well), Vander Mill Ciders(they are on a lot of Chicago beverage lists and collaborate with Chicago chefs for cider dinners, here is their blog) Spring Lake MI. There were English ciders, French ciders, a whole host of perries, and even the guy who wrote the book on cider, Pete Brown was at a table signing copies of his book that I already quoted from The World’s Best Ciders. After continuing to walk around and feeling a bit overwhelmed in information, people, tasting so many different ciders, I figured I better get the book to make sense of everything.

The crowd was very intent on drinking their ciders. It was hard to get people to look up from their glass to get by them to check out all the tables.  I got the distinct sense this was a very dedicated crowd to drinking their ciders and perries. There had been lots of events in Chicago leading up to the cider summit to stoke this interest and a great site to stay up on cider and craft beer events in Chicago is “Hail To The Ale“. The Fountainhead had representation in the crowd and they will soon be opening a cider pub, “The Northman“. I think maybe this crowd was on to something!

Sandor Katz in his book, The Art of Fermentation, may have hit home on why cider resonates with people, fermenting fruit is steeped in tradition. “One of the great challenges of reviving local food is to avoid simply replicating the most popular globalized products and instead to develop strategies to turn what grows most easily and abundantly in each region into products that satisfy our cravings. People almost everywhere have traditions of turning fruits and other available carbohydrates into alcohol.”

According to Michael Pollan in his latest book, Cooked, in the chapter, Earth, ” Alcohol itself probably contributed to the health, as well as the happiness of ancient people. Alcohol is a rich source of calories as well as nutrients. People who drink in moderation(which a 5-percent mead pretty much guarantees (my thought is you can include cider and perries in this category as well) live longer and endure lower rates of many diseases than both people who don’t drink at all and people who drink to excess.” Pollan ,also, brings up the “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis” on monkeys and fermented fruit. Maybe this crowd somehow intuited that cider is a good thing in more ways than one!

What I loved best about the summit is how so many of the producers were really dedicated to the apples they grew or at least knowing the provenance of the fruit. Granted I am a relative cider newbie, but I just did not realize the wide variety of ciders in the market and how tied to “terroir” (to borrow a wine term )they really were which just adds to the diversity of taste and food pairing that cider offers. Maybe it is the lower alcohol content to generalize which makes a slightly lower price point for cider, or maybe it is just the fact that in the end what captured my attention is that these artisanal ciders and perries just tasted great!

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