The beverage sector has long been the hottest selling category in packaged goods. This is true of both soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. While other packaged food manufacturers are very pleased to achieve the rare 40% profit margin, beverage makers routinely see upwards of 60% margins.
From yogurt drinks and “coco waters” to flavored malts and infused spirits there seems no end to the public willingness to try new drinks. Basically, beverage introductions follow the maxim: “If you pour it, they will pay.” The only limit seems to be available shelf space. So, it’s rather surprising that one of the world’s oldest and most versatile alcoholic beverages has so little of that shelf space in America. I am talking about hard cider.
At it’s best, the light, sparkling style of cider made in the Normandy region of France is a remarkably sophisticated beverage that is very food-friendly, makes an excellent cocktail base and has the effervescent charm of sparkling wine – all at a fraction of the cost.
The New York Times described it this way, “some Normandy cider is equal in delicacy and flavor to fine Champagnes.” This is rather amazing praise when you think about the difference in price. And, this comment is even more amazing when you learn it was published by the Times in 1896. So what happened to cider, and why aren’t we all drinking it at dinner today? Hopefully, that will change very soon.
It’s only a matter of time before a genuine Normand-style cider is produced here. For the well-heeled readers of TheBizzyLife, I would like to suggest an investment opportunity that will quietly have the first-to-market player toasting their success for many profitable years to come. It is a new cidery in Sonoma called Pomona Cider. This startup is headed by upstart cidermaker, Wayne Van Loon. Mr. Van Loon seems to have pulled together all the components required to properly launch this “new” beverage in America. And he is now looking for financial backers to increase his size.
After honing his fermentation skills in the Oregon wine industry, Van Loon moved to Normandy to learn the cider trade as an apprentice at Domaine Dupont. He returned anxious to revive this distinguished sparkling beverage in the U.S. He quickly recognized that the missing component was the proper fruit. Ideal cider apples were simply nowhere to be found. But, Van Loon was undaunted. Combing orchards throughout the nation’s apple-producing regions turned up nothing promising. But a chance conversation with an old retired orchardman turned up rumors of an abandoned orchard in Central California bearing “odd old cider apples”. That led to Van Loon’s “eureka” moment.
Van Loon discovered this orchard hidden in the Santa Ynez foothills where a stand of mature apple trees were producing what may be the ideal American cider fruit. Because the trees were misclassified years ago, this fruit can now be had for pennies on the dollar. If you want to find out how to participate in this Pomona Cider venture, contact Van Loon here: firstname.lastname@example.org
With his BATF license in hand, recently acquired Champagne-style equipment procured and a small production underway, Van Loon is now looking for financial partners to take his enterprise to the next level – by establishing a new planting in northern California where this wonderful variety was developed and then adding Normand varieties for blending. I predict this will be the beginning of a whole new beverage category and a huge boom in consumption – much like the booms in the consumption of “white zinfandel”, sake, craft microbrews, and infused vodkas changed the culinary landscape over the last four decades. Better still, while these other beverages had established competitors at the ready, American cider is still a ground-floor opportunity for a savvy investor. But I’m getting ahead of myself in this tale of a modern Johnny Appleseed.
From colonial times to well into the 19th century, hard cider was America’s beverage of choice. It was quite literally the “breakfast of champions” for the general population at the time of the Revolutionary War. This was an unsophisticated brew – heavy, unfiltered and very high in alcohol due to “jacking,” the term for freeze distillation. The fall cider was often fortified into Apple Jack, by leaving it outside and then periodically discarding some hard chunks of the frozen water, while the softer icy cider containing the alcohol was retained for consumption or further fermentation. Continuing this jacking of the fermented juice, cider with an alcohol content of less than 10% could be concentrated to over 30% alcohol. This kind of strong brew was the colonialists preferred beverage for breakfast and lunch.
Cider was a truly populist drink in early America, enjoyed equally by the working class and aristocrats. Around 1625, William Blackstone supposedly sowed the seeds for the very first American apple orchard, close to Beacon Hill. And William Endicott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a distinguished orchardist; as were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Cider was held in very high regard up to the end of the 1800’s, but its production faded and died in America.
The change came with the westward migration. On the ranches and farms surrounding the rural settlements in the plains states, home brewers found themselves sitting on land far more suited to grain than orchards, so half of the nation’s taste began shifting to beer. Unfortunately, the other half of the population in urban areas were quicker to embrace temperance. Eventually, these “Drys” prevailed, ushering in nationwide prohibition. And with the 18th Amendment, hard cider fell on hard times.
Cider however has remained very popular in many other parts of the world – the U.K., Belgium, South Africa and of course in northern France. The Normandy region is where la pomme à cidre really shows it’s finest form. As far as I know, Normandy is the only region in France that has no classified AOC (Appelation d`Origin Contrôlée) wines. But, the sparkling ciders there are remarkable. They are clear, light and dry – much like Brut Champagne. They have effervescence similar to beer. And, at just 6% alcohol, they are less intoxicating and lower in calories than wine. Plus, they have a wonderfully bright green apple bouquet that makes them perfectly compatible with appetizers, sushi and lighter entrees.
The French AOC designation is the government’s guarantee of origin and quality currently enjoyed by a number of wines and cheeses, has been awarded to only two ciders. The Cidre Appelation Pays d`Auge Contrôlée, where Van Loon apprenticed, is one of them. Here ciders must be produced from designated areas within the Pays d`Auge using specific apple varieties. Cidre Pays d`Auge must also meet strict production criteria: They must be made of 100% juice with no added water or sugar, no use of concentrate, and fermentation must be achieved with natural yeasts.
According to Van Loon, the Pays d’Auge has approximately 185 apple varieties approved for the production of calvados and cider. Cider apples are then divided into four categories according to their proportion of sugars, acidity and tannins – Sweet, Bittersweet, Sharp and Bittersharp. Typically, French ciders are a blend of juices from several cultivars to provide more depth of flavor. There are few apples that will make a good cider all by themselves. The Golden Russet is one such variety, and is prized in both single variety and multi-variety blends of cider. Another is the Wickson Crab, named for Edward Wickson the head of great California fruit authority and California’s leading pomological authority about a century ago.
Wickson was a mentor of sorts to one Albert Etter, the man who developed this new ideal cider apple. Etter combined raw aptitude with unusual vision, making it his life goal to create new fruit varieties uniquely suited to California and the Pacific Northwest. In reality, Etter was a methodical lunatic, probably suffering from OCD, and absolutely fixated on apples. In 1900, at the age of 28, Etter began by growing a grid of several hundred varieties obtained as seedlings from the new University of California Extension. He then systematically crossed these varieties to create literally thousands of new hybrids.
The diminutive Wickson Crab may be Etter’s crowning achievement. Crossbred from two obscure varieties (the Spitzenberg Crab and the Newton Crab) Etter may have stumbled on the perfect cider apple. Unlike many cider apples, this variety is a delicious table fruit that was likely mislabeled and renamed as the Crimson Gold. And now it seems Van Loon has stumbled on a mother of them in an abandoned orchard. This is like finding beverage gold.
And true to his name, Van Loon has been overcome by a bit of pomological lunacy too. With his grand vision of creating a “grand cru,” Norman-style cidre in America, Van Loon believes he will ultimately need to blend several Norman cider varieties into his Wickson’s juice. To achieve that end, much like Etter before him, he sourced French cider varieties from an Ivy League University testing station; currently the only source in the U.S. for many obscure apples. However, unlike Etter, Van Loon has no ready nursery on which he can graft. So Van Loon did something brilliantly subversive – he grafted his French cuttings onto existing trees in a giant agri-business orchard to keep these varieties alive until he is ready for them.
Using digital illustrations of trees and GPS plotting overlaid on a detailed topographical map of this orchard, Van Loon can return at any time and “harvest” future cuttings from the host trees. This is a truly victimless crime, as the host trees are unharmed, the additional odd apples produced will be sorted and thrown away, and the cuttings used as grafts were all certified USDA disease-free. Someday these apples may catch the puzzled eye of a migrant worker who wonders how the wildly different apples ended up on a few odd branches. They will be ignored or pruned and he will move on.
The best thing about this bit of agricultural subversion is it’s accidental marketing genius. This story will become an origin myth for Pomona cider that will be whispered in wine bars and restaurants and seen in beverage columns forevermore – but it will never be confirmed, because the location of the host orchard cannot be revealed. There is no crime when no body can be found.
With these apples, and this story, Van Loon is positioned to become much like the Randall Grahm of ciders. In the 1980’s Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, called himself the Rhône Ranger and attended wine events in a Lone Ranger costume touting the beauty of ugly varietals. His idiosyncratic wines and eclectic persona helped pioneer the boom in Syrah and other Rhône varietals in Californian. And that was just a gimmick. Van Loon’s genuine apple antics, dedicated pomology and pioneering spirit are certain to do the same for cider. If you want to find out more or participate in his lunacy, contact Van Loon here: email@example.com.
Keep in mind on New Year’s eve that Norman-style cidre makes a great alternative to sparkling wine. If you want to try a great one a recommendation follows below:
Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandy, produced by Domaine Familial Etienne Dupont
Cidre Bouch is a naturally sparkling cider created using the traditional method of the Pays d’Auge. Full of fruit and freshness, the taste reveals the aromas of apples and citrus with finesse (“cidre bouché” is a generic term for traditional cider, literally “cider under cork”). This cider is produced in a controlled fermentation in stainless steel vats using indigenous yeasts. Unpasteurized and unfiltered, stabilization is carried out via successive racking.
There are about 6000 trees of typical Pays d’Auge apple varieties in the Domaine Dupont orchards. Typical varieties include Saint-Martin, Binet, Noel de champs, Mettais, Frequin and Rouge Duret. Most are bitter sweet. Sweet, acidic, and tannic apples are all used in the same proportion for balance.
If you are unable to locate this amazing cider, you may be able to purchase it through their distributor here: http://www.bunitedint.com/company/contact_us/
Suggestion for further reading on this cider; download the PDF here:http://www.bunitedint.com/information/producers/sales_sheets/51/