Recently I was lucky enough to visit New York for the first time (taking advantage of my wife’s transatlantic relatives – a cousin getting married). As is my custom, when Caroline mentioned that we’d be travelling over there I stuck a grubby hand in the air and mumbled “gosh there are some awfully good drinks producers in that area. Is there any chance etc etc”.
Which was how I ended up fulfilling a long-held dream of visiting the Finger Lakes, where I met unquestionably some of the best and most thoughtful cidermakers – no, drinks makers of any sort – that I have encountered in my life.
Top of my ‘to visit’ list was Eve’s, whose ethos and story has long been an inspiration, and whose ciders have regularly found happy homes in my rack and glowing reviews on these pages. I first wrote them up fairly early on in my cider writing existence, back when we were a column on Malt (who still provide a link to us, God bless and keep them). And one of their glorious pét nats, Deridder, was in my ‘Essential Case’ a year back.
Visiting Eve’s was such a special pilgrimage for me that I asked the fine folk at Pellicle whether I could write them an article spotlighting the cidery. But going through the transcript of my conversation with Autumn and Ezra I felt there was so much wonderful detail that the necessary word limit of the article prohibited me from including.
So here, in all its wonkish glory, is the entirety of my chat with two of my cider making heroes. Huge thanks to Autumn and Ezra for being so generous with their time and transparent in their detail. Buckle in folks; this one’s an epic.
CR: How did you end up here – how did Eve’s start?
Autumn: The origin story of Eve’s cidery in a nutshell! I was working on an orchard and waiting tables when I was a younger person and kind of really falling in love with orchards. I was on a leave of absence from college so I was at that stage of my life when I was like ‘what am I doing?’ And I think I had this flash of vision that if I could find a way to make a living pruning apple trees I would be happy. So this was what I’m going to do somehow – I’m not sure how. And also I was waiting tables so I was just learning about wine and food – wine is like this thing that actually has this geography behind it and oh my gosh there are different grapes that are grown in different regions. Just wrapping my mind around that – it was very exciting.
And 1999 Steve Wood was on the cover of Fruit Growers News. Our son always calls Steve the Godfather of Dry Cider. He was the person who introduced – or reintroduced – apple growers in the US to the notion that there are cider specific varieties that are not eating apples and that have been chosen for their fermentation qualities. And specifically cider apples with tannins in them, because by and large in the 80s and 90s there wasn’t a piece of fruit around that had tannin in it. So he was on the cover of this trade magazine that the orchard received – they profiled him, and he’s talking about how his wife is from England and they were travelling to visit relatives and seeing these orchards and it turns out they’re cider orchards so he brings back scion wood and says ‘screw the wholesale Macintosh market, we’re going to plant thirty acres of Dabinett and Chisel Jersey and whatever else in New Hampshire!’
And that just blew my mind. I had never heard of such a thing. So I got in my car and I drove up there. And one of the things Steve told me, besides giving me scion wood and tasting me through his ciders (and admonishing me to spit!) was that I had to go and take a course with Peter Mitchell. Before I did anything. So I did actually do that, and it was really interesting because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Because the context of even thinking about cider apples and cider – because cider didn’t really exist at that time in the US as something that was alcoholic – the context I was trying to understand it in was the context of the Finger Lakes wine industry. Which became a thing in the 70s when New York State passed a law that allowed farms to get low cost licenses to make wine from their fruit, and had sort of blossomed. At that point it was more like a tourism industry and now it’s maturing and the wine is getting better. But that was the context. So I was really surprised that half the people in the class were like employees of Bulmer’s, and we went and toured the plant and looked at the million-gallon tanks and I think one of the things that I got the most out of that class and that trip was actually: ‘there’s so much potential to actually have a Finger Lakes cider region like there is a Finger Lakes wine region, but with real cider fruit’.
So that’s like the beginning of what was the little spark.
CR: Talk me through your approach to the way you make cider here?
Autumn: It’s always evolving. Certainly the way we’re making cider right now is not the way we started making cider. I hope that I get another twenty chances to get better at making cider! But I could talk to you about how we made cider this year. This year we had the biggest crop that we’ve ever had. In part because it’s a great year, but also because [when] we started this project, building a first generation farm from scratch and with a farm income, putting trees in open fields – the varieties we want to use don’t exist here. So those orchards are maturing and this was really the first year we started to see and were able to make 15 different single varietal ciders. And several of those were like a Kingston Black from the North Orchard and a Kingston Black from Candyland Orchard. So having enough fruit and enough good fruit that we were able to see and taste the things that we were inspired by. We have transitioned to only doing wild yeast fermentations – we don’t inoculate with yeast, so that’s been an interesting journey for me personally as a Cidermaker just coming into my confidence with my abilities and being able to take that kind of risk. We ferment in stainless steel and neutral oak barrel and from there it’s where the cider goes. We bottle some of the ciders still – we just sent out our club shipment with the first releases of the year, which was mostly still cider because everything else takes a bit longer. But we’ve also started making some pét nat ciders, which is really fun for us because there’s this high-stakes having to react to primary fermentation in real time to get it into the bottle. Then you don’t really have to do anything else! Then we do 20,000 bottles of champagne method cider which is all hand-disgorged. I’m hoping to get some of it released by June but most of it won’t be released until August-September.
CR: I’d like to talk climate and terroir if I may. I love the line on your website asking if you can make a drink taste of a place, so tell me about the place.
Autumn: When you see this place there’s obviously a multitude of geological forces that have shaped what you see but probably the most dominant one is the glaciers. There were two glaciers that came through, the last one 10,000 years ago, which is pretty recent. So the glaciers came down from the north and just about 9 miles to the north of here, halfway between here and Ithaca, there’s a high elevation area. High elevation even before the glaciers got to it. And it stopped them, and that’s how the lakes were formed – the ice was dammed up and it’s moving and churning and spinning its wheels, and it dug out the lakes. And then it broke through that high elevation area and a lot of what it created was what is called a glacially oversteepened valley, so it would run down where there had previously been a gentle valley stream and cut it. The hillside you’re looking at across the valley is very sheer. It’s like this hillside. You can’t take machinery on it, it’s challenging to walk on. Where we’re standing right now is 900 feet, top of the hill is 1700-2000, but the valley itself is actually 100 feet deeper. After the glacier went down to Pennsylvania it melted and receded then they sat for a long time in that high elevation area as well as the lakes, and during that time the entire elevation area was full with a lake called Lake Ithaca. And as they melted they had massive gushing water that flowed out of them, flowed down this valley and deposited what’s called glacial till. That’s material that the glacier carried with it and then dropped out. So there’s literally 80 feet of gravel where we’re standing right now.
One of the things that I think is fun and interesting about this site is that we have an orchard down here in the glacial material – dry, very well-drained, gravelly soil. It has a very high nutrient capacity, but it’s very, very, very dry and very, very, very deep. Then up there on the hillside it’s in basically silt that’s the native rock material. So it’s shale that has weathered for millions of years.
So that’s the basic geology lesson. If I would contrast it to what I know of the UK I would say the climate is more extreme. So maybe colder winters and hotter summers and a lot more oscillating between dry and wet – and I would say that’s something that’s changing rapidly right now. There used to be a flow to the seasons in terms of precipitation and now we’re getting a lot more drought years and deluge years. In my childhood it didn’t really rain in August. There’d be a thunderstorm here or there, but that was the dry month. That’s when the ground got hardened. And last year it rained almost every day in August. When I checked we’d had over 70 inches of rain.
CR: Reading about the 2021 vintage on your website it sounded such a challenge
Autumn: It was better than 2018. 2018 was cold and dark and wet and 2021 was rain and then heat and sun. I actually wondered if there was enough photosynthesis happening in 2018, but there was definitely in 2021.
CR: It’s funny – in 2018 in Herefordshire and Somerset we had an incredible vintage for sunlight and warmth – everywhere else seems to have had a terrible year. I work with barley farms in Ireland and they had a terrible time. What are the challenges of growing apples here … and what makes here great for apples? Do particular varieties do especially well?
Autumn: That’s an interesting question. We took a tour of English cideries in 2017 or so. We went with a bunch of growers, New York State growers; a lot of them are pretty big growers as well as some folks from Cornell University and I remember farmers talking about their spray programs saying things like ‘I spray five times’ or something like that. And literally every day we were there it was misting – everything was wet all the time. And everybody was like ‘why are these trees not covered in scab?’
So that was a really interesting thing, because we think of the North East as being a very disease-rich area; everyone says ‘it’s humid and it’s wet,’ but it’s not just that. Maybe it’s the strain that lives here versus over there, but I don’t know what it is. This is considered a very difficult place to grow apples, believe it or not, from a commercial standpoint, because of disease. And that’s for people who need to grow blemish-free apples for eating, so Washington State, where it’s in the desert and there’s irrigation is a great setup for them. But does the fruit taste good? There’s a lot of varieties that can’t even grow in Washington State because they’re varieties that are traditional North East varieties that people expect to taste in a certain way and they taste like garbage when they’re grown up there!
One of the things about here is that the falls are really condusive to high-sugar, high-acid fruit. It gets really clear and sunny and cold at night and warm during the day – not hot – and that sort of weather pattern allows the acid to develop as they’re ripening, as the sugars are increasing, so I think that’s something that’s really special about the Finger Lakes – that we grow really bright, high-acid fruit.
CR: My friend Albert from Ross on Wye cider and I were wondering about this actually – that a lot of Finger Lakes cider is acid-forward despite the fact that there are some bittersweets around, and that ciders like Albee Hill always contain a lot of bittersweet, tannin-forward fruit.
Autumn: You’re right. It’s a combination, and it’s almost like a cultural thing – maybe people who grew up drinking Finger Lakes Riesling, so they have a taste in their mouth that is what they want to taste. But for sure. I can’t wait until we can do some things where we have Single Variety bottlings like Albert has, for example. And then actually really taste that – same year but side by side with the same variety.
2021, which was very wet and rainy and somewhat diluted I think we grew the best Kingston Blacks that we’ve ever grown. I have wondered about that because the brix that we get on the Kingston Blacks seems way higher than what you guys are getting. Sometimes the cider can be challenging to make a balanced cider with, and this year it’s just gorgeous – the aromas are beautiful, Brix is lower, tannins are much softer. So there’s that too – like here are all these varieties that people selected as they grew in a specific climate for the way that they tasted, and then you pick them up and you put them somewhere else and it’s pretty unpredictable what they’re going to do and which ones are going to be good and so on and so forth.
CR: Kingston Black can be pretty finnicky over where we are too – it often gets a bit mythologised – but there have been some really great ones bottled in the last few years.
Autumn: It’s the Pinot [Noir] of cider!
CR: It really is! Your website talks about organic orcharding – can you tell me a bit more about what that means?
Autumn: So to be really clear, and this is a little bit of a dig, when you use the word ‘organic’ it should mean that you are accountable to a certifying agency – which we are, we’re certified organic orchards. So that means it’s not just us telling you ‘we don’t spray synthetic chemicals’. We get inspected, we pay fees, we keep records, we’re accountable. So that’s what it means on the surface level.
What it means more broadly to us and to me is in some ways it’s like a counterpoint to the way that apples are grown conventionally. They’re some of the most high-input crops that exist. Which is really interesting given that it’s a tree crop that’s rugged and survives by the tens of millions of seedlings in the wild. Now obviously somebody’s going to say ‘yes but those trees don’t crop every year and those apples aren’t nice and nobody’s trying to make a living off them etc etc’ but personally I believe that even if you’re certified organic and you’ve restricted what’s in your toolbox in terms of pest management, 80% of spraying is cosmetic for apples. And that is a shame, because even when you’re eating an apple, is it more important to you that it looks like Snow White’s perfect apple, or that it actually tastes good? One of the ways that apples are grown is the yield is maximised and the size is maximised and the farmer gets paid literally by the volume – they get paid 40 dollars a bushel or 10 dollars a bushel, whatever they’re growing. So everything about that incentivises the farmers to fill their apples with water and have large, nitrogen-filled cell structures – pithy, tasteless, watery apples. So fundamentally I think the way we’ve had to teach ourselves and orientate ourselves in our farming practices is thinking about the way that we get paid is by how good the cider is at the end of the day in the bottle. And in a lot of ways that goal is directly in conflict with those other goals that I mentioned.
So what does that mean on the ground more practically? I don’t know where to start – we could go in a billion directions. One of the things we’re beginning to believe after doing this for 20 years is that the bigger trees are better for growing cider fruit.
Ezra: That’s another big difference between the way people like us grow and the way people who are producing for the eating market grow.
CR: We definitely have the same dichotomy in the UK
Ezra: Right, so you see any new orchard going in around here generally in this country they’re trellised and look almost like a vineyard.
Autumn: So there starts to be these fundamental problems I think, which is that some of what’s in the cider is minerals. There’s more than just sugar and water and acid and tannin and fruit. So when you have really shallow-rooted plants, and this is another thing that’s really important to us, if they’re growing in a dead soil, they’re not actually interacting with that soil. So I think not only is the quality of the cider reduced but also the tree’s immune system is reduced, and that’s kind of a downward spiral. So we put a big focus on our soil and what’s happening in the soil and how you’re going to balance having a thriving, microbiologically active soil with diverse plantlife growing in it and how you balance that with weeds competing with the trees – so all those things become an art and a tweaking that we’re very interested in. But it’s very different from cultivation or herbicides.
Ezra: You asked about some of the challenges to growing here. One is how lush it is around here – you can see it’s just starting to really blow up – but with organic production we don’t manage the bases of the trees with herbicides. I think that’s one of the challenges, it leads to a lot of work to a certain extent and some vulnerabilities if you don’t manage those bases.
CR: To what in particular?
Ezra: If you allow the vegetation to grow up around the trees, that can become a host for fungus, for example. Another challenge is how sloped it is where we have our orchards, and the shallow soils that we grow in on them, so that sometimes the trees need to be supported.
Autumn: Even though they’re big! A whole bunch of trees fell over last year because the soil is so soft and it had been raining all summer long and the crop was huge. And then it got windy and these 20 year old trees just fell over.
Ezra: Of course they were relying on a trellis – they needed the trellis to begin with – but the trellis failed and then another area that was staked, those stakes didn’t hold. It was a big, big crop. But there are definitely advantages – first of all it’s beautiful when you’re up on the hill growing the apples. But manoeuvring equipment and the tendency of trees to want to fall downhill with their crop is kind of difficult.
Autumn: And then getting the apples down here!
CR: You were talking about minerals in the soil and the cider not just tasting of sugars and juice. Take Albee Hill – that talks about minerality a lot. So these minerals are directly contributing to the flavours of the ciders?
Autumn: I believe that, absolutely. I believe that’s another reason for my feelings that older trees make better cider. Because they have much more well-established mychorrizal from fungal connections, they have deeper roots, more of them – more surface area that they’re in contact with. We made two Golden Russets side by side – one from 40-year-old trees, one from 15-year-old trees, and it’s a good example of what I’m talking about. They both have beautiful aromas and they both have the acid. But one of them has something else. What is it? To me it’s a density or something like that. I think it’s like, yes you can say ‘what is it about the minerals in your site’, but I’m not sure that we’re there yet because too many people are still growing apples the wrong way, and it’s more like ‘what is it about minerals at all! Do you have minerals? Is your soil mineralised or is it dead? Are your roots actually accessing the minerals or can’t they?’
CR: Moving back from farming to making – you’re especially renowned for sparkling and particularly traditional method ciders. What influenced you in that direction?
Autumn: Honestly I think because of the way that cider as an alcoholic beverage was reintroduced to Americans was through six-pack beer alternatives in the 90s it’s an expectation that many consumers have that cider’s sparkling. So we have to make some sparkling cider. And from that point we have a handmade, natural aesthetic. We never wanted to start a beverage factory and get CO2 tanks and force carbonate.
Ezra: I wasn’t there when Autumn started making champagne method cider, but my feeling about it is that it was actually something doable. Not only the quality way of putting the bubbles in, but something that could be grasped.
Autumn: And that you could do with no equipment. That’s part of it. I started the business with money that I saved from waiting tables. I literally had nothing. So I couldn’t write a business plan and put in a budget for loads of equipment.
Ezra: Champagne method is actually pretty low-tech! It’s not low tech the way some people – the majority – do it as far as disgorging goes; the freezing of the necks.
Autumn: We don’t do that.
Ezra: No, we’ve never done it that way – never even seen it done with the frozen necks! But we didn’t have a bright tank, we didn’t have a particular type of bottle that would accommodate things like that.
Autumn: And honestly, the bubbles are better. If you’re going to do the bubbles, I think, they should be elegant and creamy and persistent and a focal point of the beverage. And I feel like a lot of times the way force-carbonated [ciders] taste to me is as if the bubbles are an afterthought – an add-on.
Ezra: It’s not integrated, it’s just checking that box, that it’s bubbly.
CR: You do such a range – when you’re putting them together can you give some examples of what might drive your creations?
Autumn: So many things. One of the things – and this is a big change in our business – is, to be quite honest, ‘how’s it going to be sold?’ In the past, one of the considerations that we had a lot more than we do now is we have to have enough of a quantity of something to make it worth it to have the distributor make it a SKU, to get it on a shelf and have enough that then it could be reordered. We recently started a cider club and that’s been really amazing for us because the amount of people that we have in the club right now means that if I make a barrel it’s sold to the club. So what happened this year was we did the fermentations and with an eye towards that we went to the trouble – which it is trouble! – to do a press and have it be enough to fill one barrel and then be done, there’s a lot of logistics involved in that. What we’ve been able to do as the fermentations finish and we go through and taste the barrels is say ‘this is fantastic’ and pull that out as a single barrel and we know it’s sold already, which is amazing to us!
Then we have some blends that we do every year, and they have to have some type of through-line. It’s not that it’s the same variety blend every year, it’s more like it’s an idea. Like the idea behind the Albee Hill is basically that we take the best barrels that came off Albee Hill and create synergy with them – so there’s a lot of blending trials – so that’s the idea behind Albee Hill: ‘what is the best that came off that hill that year, that’s put together in a way that’s food-friendly an expressive?’
CR: I want to focus on that because Albee Hill has been such a hit in the bubble that is the UK cider community – in fact of all the American ciders that have come over Albee Hill is possibly the cult favourite. So I really want to learn all about that.
Autumn: It is a special place. And it’s an unlikely place. When you look around and you see that there’s forest everywhere around here, that’s because after the Civil War the American government displaced the Haudenosaunee, who were living here, and gave away tracts of land to Civil War veterans. And white European settlers came here and cut down all of the forests and proceeded to go about doing what they knew how to do: destroy the environment, erode the soil, try their hand at animal farming. And it’s not a rich and fertile place. It looks like it, but for growing grain, for example, it’s a hard place. So during the depression there were a lot of farmers in the hills around here and the New York State government decided that they should have a better life, and moved them off their land and sent them to the Mid-West and other places. In some ways to sort of save the land, because it was eroding from the type of farming they were doing – that type of farming is actually really inappropriate for this place. We’re surrounded by perennial trees; you can see – these are the north-east forests of the United States, they’re one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet – it’s a really great place to grow trees.
So something about Albee Hill is that this place was a farm in the early 1900s. There are the remnants of a three-acre Northern Spy orchard, so people used to actually used to grow apples here. There’s a train depot that went down to New York City. But there’s been a real exodus from this area – a depopulation – and part of it is that it’s not like the north Finger Lakes where it’s lower elevation and a softer climate and rich, rich, rich soils where they can grow grains. It’s the opposite of that. It’s harder.
So it’s a little crazy that we’re doing it here. If you were to call Cornell and say ‘I’m moving to New York State to start an apple orchard’ they would say ‘alright, buy a piece of land in Wayne County up by Lake Ontario.’
So you get to taste a cider made in a place where no one’s going to grow apples except crazy people! Except a lot more people are going to start doing it now because actually cider offers this whole other really interesting world and interesting window and places like that are actually more interesting in cider I think.
CR: It’s amazing how more marginal climates – tougher terroirs – often result in the most expressive, characterful drinks. I think of vineyards on these cliff-faces in the Mosel for example that make these incredible, unique wines, where if the conditions were any easier they wouldn’t be like that, so it’s great to come somewhere like this which is so different to the conditions where I’m from. The closest we have to this sort of landscape in the UK is probably Welsh Mountain Cider in mid-Wales. They’re on a slope at a similar altitude to here, and that’s my only touchpoint for these sort of conditions. But again, their orchard makes this distinct, characterful cider with this amazing through-line.
One thing I wanted to ask about was that a couple of years ago I met Matt Miller when we both visited Ross on Wye and we did a varieties tasting. And he told me about your apprenticeship program, so I’m really curious to learn about that.
Ezra: He was our first one. That was when Autumn took a sabbatical.
Autumn: That’s true. That’s kind of how it started, was because we thought about getting extra help when I took a break from the farm for a year and worked at Forge Cellars around Seneca Lake and managed their Pinot Noir vineyard. It was really challenging, really intense, but I’m very proud of the work that I did.
So that’s how it started and then we realised that it’s really exciting that there are smart, artistic, ambitious young people who want to throw their lives at cider. We feel that we want to support that and encourage people … and temper their enthusiasm with some brutal reality!
Ezra: It’s good for us. A lot of people aren’t really aware of what the reality of the physical labour is, so there’s an adjustment period.
Autumn: A dark night of the soul!
Ezra: Yeah, most people do have some sort of revelation! But what we get out of it besides a young, strong person is that they have a perspective which certainly I’m not connected with, just from growing up at a certain time.
Autumn: And it’s also nice to build community. I think for us, thinking about ‘what will the cider industry be?’ it’s not thinking about ‘who’s going to compete against me?’, it’s ‘what is the collective vision of the cider future that we’re building together co-operatively?’ And that’s really gratifying.
CR: We have a bit of that in the UK at the moment. In Herefordshire particularly, people like Ross on Wye and Tom Oliver and Little Pomona, they’re bringing people in and energising people. It’s really great to see.
Autumn: When I was working at Forge my friend’s partner has a château in Gigondas and I got to go and do their white wine harvest with them. And he’s an incredible person and I was lucky to spend a lot of time talking to him. And one of the thins I asked him once, because he has an enterprise in the Finger Lakes but is a little critical of the Finger Lakes wine scene as a whole – there’s a lot of room for improvement – I asked ‘what would you think it would take for the Finger Lakes wine region to become a world class wine region?’ And he said ‘it’s cross-pollination’. You can’t get insular, you can’t get in your own little thing – you have to keep cross-pollinating to make something better.
The thing that’s the most exciting to me still is the people who are small enough that they have their hands in the growing and the cidermaking, and/or are absolutely transparent about ‘the apples in this cider are this variety, they came from this farm, not my farm but this person’s farm over here and that’s what you’re tasting.’ I think a lot of people are trying in the Finger Lakes and trying to be accountable to transparency. And I think it’s going to get more and more exciting because folks like Charlie [Eve’s new intern] are going to make cider; one of our interns, Catherine, ended up scratching the plans to buy land in Vermont and has bought land in the Finger Lakes. So I think it’s going to get better and better.
CR: Something you touched on earlier, and something on your website – you talk about this land being the unceded territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and mention your support for their ongoing efforts at land and seed rematriation. Can you elaborate a little on that?
Autumn: Sure. There’s an interesting piece of American history which is the denial of American history which leads to generation after generation of white privileged people almost re-enacting and perpetuating systems of oppression that were what this country was entirely built upon. Speaking for me personally, even having an unconventional education, there’s so much about New York State – even the history of this land here – that I wasn’t really aware of. To the extent that when we would go out and forage and find these really amazing apple groves, what we’d assumed and what made sense in terms of the way that we had learned history was that they were probably the descendants of European settler homesteader orchards. That they brought Malus Domestica and planted it and so on. One of the things that we didn’t ever learn or talk about was the fact that for 300 years European settlers and the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy had a thriving, busy, bustling trade relationship. And the Cayuga, the Seneca, all the Nations that were living here around the Finger Lakes were exceptional agriculturalists and they had stunning orchards – beautiful apple and peach orchards with thousands and thousands of trees.
Driving around there’s these historical markers that allude to a history still hidden in plain sight. George Washington was a land speculator, first and foremost – it’s how he made his money. By the time the Revolutionary War was happening folks were champing at the bit to start settling this area particularly. So George Washington charged General Sullivan with a campaign of genocide in 1779, ostensibly to punish the Haudenosaunee for taking the side of the British, but actually only some of them had. It was ruse. They came through with a scorched earth campaign which included burning 50 villages, 1500 houses, millions of bushels of corn and girdling thousands of apple trees. They didn’t even have the energy to chop them down – it’s just to kill the tree. And they did it all in September before a very, very harsh winter. So the people fled, the British didn’t give them any food, they starved to death in camps up in Canada. And white people just moved in.
So 20 or 30 years later somebody was talking about how abundant the apple trees in the area were that the Indians left behind – that they were so abundant that the settlers were making cider from them and selling them. And they made an amount of cider that was the equivalent of $24,000 in today’s money and I was thinking ‘that’s kind of like me’. I’m going out into the woods thinking ‘oh I’m this amazing fruit explorer and I’ve discovered this wonderful fruit and I’m going to put it in a bottle and make it into a pét nat and make some money off it’. And that feels really problematic to me.
I think you can take it in so many directions as to why it’s an important thing to think about. But there’s also an issue for the sake of our collective humanity, which is that the Eastern Woodlands Indians, of whom the Haudenosaunee were the most powerful and most organised culture, were living here for thousands of years without destroying the environment; in harmony with nature, without causing climate change. Then Europeans came along and look where we are now – and at some point there’s going to have to be some kind of solution or else humanity as we know it is at risk of a big change.
So what can one person do? Reparations I believe is the responsibility of our government; given the political climate in this country right now it’s probably not something our government can even try. But I think that part of the story is just making it part of our everyday lives. So for us that means making meaningful financial contributions and/or in any other way that we have some sort of resource that we can offer, whether it’s some type of social capital or networking abilities, money, equipment, stuff like that.
I’m not saying that we have the answer or ‘oh we’re so great because we’re doing something right,’ but I think it’s at least something that I hope people will think about: ‘how will I build this into my business?’
CR: That seems, from what little I know of the Finger Lakes cider scene, to be something that quite a few makers are thinking about, building into their models and making part of collective consciousness?
Autumn: Absolutely, that’s right. Because the more we normalise it and talk about it the less freaked out and defensive people are and the more they can adjust to the idea of what it actually is.
CR: Going all the way back to the start, how has Eve’s been affected by the pandemic?
Ezra: Well we’d been thinking about starting a cider subscription – or known that it was a possibility. We checked it, for a number of reasons, for a few years. Then right at the start of the pandemic Autumn started the cider subscription, which has really grown for us – and I think that the pandemic might have had something to do with peoples’ interest in buying directly from the producer and having it shipped to them. So that had a big affect on us. Our sales to distributors were way down because the restaurants were closed, and that’s half of our distributor sales. We kind of drew back in the first year of the pandemic – had less labour, less sales. But the cider subscription was a big thing.
Autumn: We flip-flopped. We were like 25% retail, 75% wholesale, and I think right now it’s about 40% wholesale, 60% retail, with the biggest portion of that being online sales, and the biggest part of that is the club. So a major upheaval in the way we put things out into the world for sure.
CR: Touching on what you said about restaurants, there’s this idea of a ‘fine cider’ category in the UK now. For the last 10 years or so there’s been this cider boom in the US, but in terms of ciders that might go in place of wine on a restaurant table, for example, what’s the scenario? And how important do you think it is for cider to have that place?
Ezra: I think it’s really important.
Autumn: Very important. When we first started selling cider in the early 2000s nobody knew what it was. We were selling cider at the Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York City and literally people didn’t know what it was. They bought it because they tasted it and they liked the way it tasted, really. Otherwise people were like ‘cider?’ And then you’d pour it and they’d say ‘wait, does this have alcohol in it?’ The category did not exist. And then this guy stopped by the stand, turns out he’s Danny Meyer and he says ‘this is great, could you drop a case off at my restaurant, it’s just over this way’. We go over there, it turns out it’s Gramercy Tavern.
That type of tastemaker legitimising what you’re doing – there’s no amount of work you could do of convincing somebody that this is actually good that could be the equivalent of being on Gramercy Tavern’s wine list. And in fact that’s true – we get that all the time – ‘I’m so glad I found you, I had your cider at this wonderful restaurant in this place, this place or this place, I want to order some online’. So it’s very important.
Ezra: Basically a lot of what we talk about with our cider is food. It’s all part of that conversation – what it goes with, where it’s being served, what other people think it’s good with, just like wine.
CR: And final question – what are your short and long-term plans and hopes for the future?
Ezra: I think for the business to be manageable for us and not too many more people. Flipping to the retail seems like a positive thing where it’s not like you have to produce a lot to make money on volume. Probably to make the cider even better, to have the growing of the apples really down.
Autumn: What I’m really looking forward to is working less!
Ezra: So having a system that works very well.
Autumn: We’ve been trying to work it out. We got bigger, we got smaller, we got bigger. So we’re trying to find the sweet spot. But I think one of the thing’s that’s also going through my mind these days is what happens next? Because it’s an extremely physical job, you know, and it’s not realistic to think that we’re going to do it until we’re 80. So what happens next? That’s an interesting question – part of a much bigger conversation that a lot of first generation farmers in sustainable agriculture have suddenly started to grapple with when their kids were like ‘pff, I’m not doing this! Ok, whatever, nice dream you had!’
I’m not saying anything about our kids! They’re really little and they can do whatever they want! But it’s definitely something to have invested your life in such a massive project that is so big that you can’t actually keep it going forever. It has to transition to something or somebody.
Ezra: And for it to continue to be really interesting. Notwithstanding I want it to be routinised or established to the extent where the equipment’s all what we need and the system of doing it is very successful. But also to have things that you’re doing that are really interesting.
CR: Still playing around?
Autumn: Yes, exactly.
Massive thanks again to Autumn and Ezra for their time and for donating a few of the photos used in this piece.