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Cider on the edge: An interview with Brendan Barnard from Posterity Ciderworks

I am standing in a small, traditional orchard in Kent, from which I have picked apples for the past two years. I often visit this orchard and know it like the back of my hand, but I have never seen it like this. The long grass, which is usually so lush and verdant, has been yellowed and parched by the heat. Large cracks are forming in the rock-hard ground and the  leaves of the apple trees are beginning to curl. Worst of all, several trees have dropped most of their fruit in a desperate attempt to conserve their dwindling supply of water. A green and pleasant place is slowly shrivelling under the sun’s merciless glare. 

July 19th of this year was the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, with a peak temperature of 40.3℃, and the Met Office reported the driest July in South-East England since 1935. There can now be no doubt that this year of heat and drought, the most severe in decades, will drastically reduce crop yields for many farmers. The situation is the same or worse across much of Europe, including in the major cider producing countries. France has experienced widespread forest fires and declared the worst drought since records began in 1958. Spain’s water supply is at an all-time low and continues to reduce at an alarming rate. The Rhine is dangerously depleted. Us Europeans all seem to be in the same boat, and that boat is rapidly getting stranded on dry land.

The drought is having a major impact on the cider industry. Few craft cider producers in the UK and Europe have the infrastructure required to irrigate their orchards. Even if they did, large-scale irrigation is an inadequate response to the problem, because water shortages inevitably lead to restrictions on water usage. In the absence of any available solution other than laborious hand watering, many cider makers are anxiously looking up at the sky and silently praying for rain. The prospects for this year’s harvest look worryingly uncertain. 

The long-term prognosis looks significantly worse. In years to come, the climate crisis will cause crop failures, lead to food and water shortages, and subject us to increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Most scientists agree that there is still a small window of opportunity to avert its worst effects, but some claim that we have already reached the point of no return and that all-pervasive climate breakdown is no longer avoidable. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that the climate emergency is the most critical global challenge currently facing humanity. It will affect every facet of our existence, and the cider industry will certainly not escape its ravages. Heatwaves and droughts are here to stay. Cider producers will have to adapt to ‘the new normal’ in order to survive. 

In some parts of the world, however, there is nothing especially new about ‘the new normal’. In California, raging wildfires and temperatures of close to 50℃ are regular summer fixtures, and entire seasons can go by without a single drop of rain. For Californians, the climate emergency is not so much a topic of idle political debate or a distant threat on the horizon as a daily lived reality. During the summer months, people just do their best to get on with their lives in oven-like conditions. Agriculture continues to take place, and California remains the source of a very large proportion of America’s fruit. Yet all of this agricultural activity relies on a vast system of irrigation, which is undoubtedly imperilled by the increasing prevalence of drought. California’s rural economy therefore remains highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

It seems that one would have to either be exceptionally resilient or just downright foolish to want to grow apples with next to no irrigation in this inhospitably hot and arid environment. Brendan Barnard is no fool. In fact, he might just be the single most important cider maker you’ve never heard of. His company, Posterity Ciderworks, is certainly not important in terms of size; with a production output of approximately 1,000 gallons per year, it is about as small a commercial operation as can exist in the US market. Nor is Brendan particularly important in terms of influence. He only recently began to produce cider commercially, and he has yet to achieve a prominent reputation as a cider maker in the US, let alone internationally. 

No, Brendan is important because he is producing craft cider on the front line of the climate crisis and at the very edge of possibility, without the panoply of expensive and environmentally damaging measures deployed by the big commercial producers. From his farm in the Sierra foothills, he is diligently experimenting to find out how to grow apples and make cider with no shade cloths or energy-inefficient cooling systems, agrochemicals or concentrates. Perhaps most significantly, the mature trees from which he picks most of his fruit receive no irrigation whatsoever. Through hard work, trial and error and inexhaustible patience, he is learning to make natural cider in almost desert-like conditions. Posterity Ciderworks is important because it is the petri dish in which the craft cider industry’s ability to sustainably adapt to heat and drought is being put to the test. Where Brendan boldly goes, producers in the UK and Europe may soon have to follow. For cider makers in the midst of a climate crisis, learning from his successes and failures could well be a matter of survival. 

I recently caught up with Brendan on Zoom, and we had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about his approach to farming and cider making. Unfortunately, there were some technical difficulties on my end and part of the interview didn’t record successfully, so not all of our discussion has been included in my write-up (sorry Brendan!). Everything that I was able to record has been reproduced more or less verbatim, because I am convinced that what we spoke about is vitally important for the future of craft cider. 

CR: To begin with, could you please tell us how you got into cider making and give us an overview of your overall cider making philosophy?

Brendan: I started making cider about seven years ago, when my wife and I bought a small house around 40 minutes south of San Francisco, right on the coast, in a town called Half Moon Bay. One of the perks of the house was that there were about eight mature apple trees in the garden, so I started making cider because you can only eat so much applesauce! 

When I first started out, I had a home brewing approach to cider, which was much more focused on technical control and remedying the issues that cider has relative to beer or wine, through acid adjustments and that kind of thing. With some reading and experimentation, I came to a point where I realised that I needed to treat apples as apples and cider as cider, not as beer or wine that has somehow gone wrong! These days, it is more a question of letting the apples speak for themselves and having respect for the ingredients. We were growing these trees and taking care of them, but the first resources that you find dictate the first approach that you take. When I was employing the homebrew approach, I was just so unhappy with the results, so I gradually moved away from this very technical way of looking at things towards a more natural approach to cider making, which is focused on terroir and the apples themselves, rather than on trying to control everything as much as possible. What we’re making now is as low intervention as I can manage. It’s a conversation with the fruit. There’s a kind of artistry involved in thinking about how much we should tinker with it: When are we too involved and when are we overriding the potential of the fruit? There’s a certain ebb and flow in the sense that I’m definitely poking and prodding some batches more than others. Sometimes, that’s to help to bring out notes that I think are worth highlighting, and then sometimes it’s because some fruit is just more difficult to work with, and needs a little bit more help to become something enjoyable. But overall, we try to intervene as little as possible. We don’t sulphite anything. That began as just a sensory thing, when I realised that the sensory threshold for sulphites is so low. The wine industry can get away with a ton of sulphites because their flavours get masked, but they are really noticeable in something with the delicacy of cider. So I constantly decreased my dosage of sulphites, until I was at 20 to 30 parts per million, and then I decided to just stop using them. We have control over the fruit from the tree all the way to the bottle. We can guarantee our own cleanliness, so we don’t really need sulphites. I was very worried about the first batch of sulphite-free cider that we made, because everyone tells you that it’s going to go off, but it was totally fine. I haven’t used sulphites since then. 

Anyway, I fell in love with cider making and eventually convinced my wife Kris that we should buy some land and a 1,500 sq. ft production facility about 3 hours outside the Bay Area, east into the Sierra foothills. We’re about an hour east of Stockton and Sacramento and about 1,500 ft into the Sierra Mountains. Our region is a weird hybrid between the hot Central Valley and the much cooler high Sierra Mountains. We get a lot of our fruit from abandoned orchards and wild trees in the area, which are a huge resource for us. The area has settlements going back to the Gold Rush. It started to become populated in around 1840, and we’ve found old orchards that date back almost that far. They range in altitude throughout the Sierra. We effectively get all of our fruit from within about an hour’s drive of where we’re based, and that is mostly by choice. We could buy fruit from further afield and we’ve made exceptions for a couple of batches, for fruit that I wanted to work with from back towards the Bay Area where we used to live. But for the most part, I really want to try to make cider that reflects where we are.

CR: California has achieved a worldwide reputation as an important wine region, but it isn’t so well-known for its cider. Could you tell us about your terroir in the Sierra foothills and what makes it special? 

Brendan: It isn’t well-knownfor its cider yet! The really interesting thing about where we are is that we get huge variations in temperature. In summer, it’s not uncommon to break 42℃, and the temperature can sometimes come close to 50℃ for a couple of days at a time. For most of the summer, there is absolutely no rainfall. Some years, there is no rain at all from May to the beginning of October. I visited an orchard yesterday, and at about 3000 ft above sea level, it was 40℃ and 10% humidity. And then in the wintertime, it can actually get pretty cool and very wet (again, depending on the year). It’s very variable. This year was a big drought year for us. I think that we only got 22 inches of rain, and our highest level of rain over the past five years was about 37 inches. All of that rain comes in that window from October to early May. In winter, the temperature can drop as low as – 5 or – 6℃. 

CR: So you’re farming in a region that is frequently affected by extreme heat and drought. Could you tell us a bit more about how you dry farm apples in your climate?

Brendan: The mature trees in the old orchards that we pick from are entirely unirrigated, but in our home orchard, we’ve planted around 2.5 acres with about 250 trees, and they range in age from brand new (planted this spring) to about four years old. They’re not being dry farmed just yet. We’re still irrigating those trees to get them established. But our goal is to start with the regulated deficit irrigation that’s becoming more popular in the wine industry, and start moving towards dry farming the trees when they reach about ten years old. Once they’ve got that root base established enough to insulate themselves from the heat, we’ll start to withdraw water more and more. We’re already minimally irrigating. In California,  most of the irrigation is flood irrigation, where they open the canal, dump 20,000 gallons of water over an acre, let it soak in and evaporate. The evaporative losses are huge. When it’s so hot, you’re losing 80% of your water to the air. It’s very wasteful. So we do all of our watering via drip irrigation. I usually drip about a quarter of a gallon per hour per tree, for 18 to 24 hours. The aim is to get the deepest penetration that we can manage in a small surface area, to minimise water usage. If I’ve been running the irrigation for a full day, the trees have each received six gallons of water and the surface spot is maybe six inches across. All the rest of that water has gone straight down to the roots and will hopefully go to full use. 

CR: At a global level, climate change poses one of the most significant challenges to the cider industry. California is very much at the sharp end of global warming. What are some of the discoveries that you have made about how best to produce cider in a very hot and dry climate, which might be helpful to cider makers in other regions that face rapidly rising temperatures? For example, which apple varieties grow successfully in your climate, and which rootstocks do you use? 

Brendan: We started out with M111 semi-dwarfing rootstocks when we began planting the orchard. For the first year, it was basically all M111, because it is known for being tolerant of heavy soils, which we have. We’re on pure clay with about half an inch of topsoil. Then as we started drawing from more of the orchards in the area to make our cider, we took note of what is established and surviving. In some cases, we’re talking about trees with 80 years of total neglect, 100 years of no irrigation, no fertiliser, no spraying, no bug pest management, no pruning, and they’re still cropping 400 lb of apples per tree at this point! And they’re huge, so they are clearly thriving. That’s when we started asking how an apple tree hits 45 ft. And we realised that it’s all seedling rootstock. People were starting their own rootstocks in 1880, in the middle of nowhere. That’s what’s still around and that’s what we should be planting.

Last year, about 85% of what I grafted was onto seedling rootstock. The idea is to give it a taproot and take advantage of that really impressive frame. It’s remarkable what we get out here. It’s mind-blowing when you compare these huge trees with the classic super-dwarf cultivation that we see down in the Central Valley, where they’re growing 700 to 800 trees per acre; there’s a tree every three or four feet. They’re irrigating them constantly and it’s just a totally different ballgame. 

As far as varieties are concerned, right now, our home orchard is a kind of test orchard. We’ve experimented with a bunch of different techniques. We’re trying several different rootstocks and we’ve got about 80 different varieties of apples and pears. The goal is to start establishing a benchmark for what can thrive in our climate in the conditions that we’re looking to grow under, without a load of irrigation and without dwarfing the trees. We’re not growing our saplings under any shade cloth or anything like that. We’re interested in discovering what thrives in the real climate that we have – not the massaged conditions, but the actual ones. We have a few English and French varieties. We’re growing some Spanish apples that are doing very well, I would say. There’s a Spanish apple called Piel de Sapo; the ‘toad’s skin’, which is probably my best grower. That is actually not currently on seedling stock. It’s on Bud.118 rootstock and it’s doing really well. I grafted a bunch of it after seeing it grow for two years and just be incredibly vigorous. I grafted it onto seedling stock this year and those trees are maybe 5 or 6 ft tall already! There’s this perception that vigour is bad because it’s a giant pain to deal with in a humid summer climate, but in an arid summer climate, you need bigger trees.

Kingston Black is also doing very well, although it hasn’t fruited yet. It bloomed for the first time this year, but nothing set. And those trees are showing some pretty solid figures as well in our climate. It’s interesting to see what some of these varieties that are typically associated with the cooler European climate can do in a super-hot and arid region. Because of our heat, we generally see sugar levels that are 10% or 15% higher than the textbook standard for a given variety grown under conventional conditions. That means higher potential alcohol. 

I’ve been surprised by some of the stuff that hasn’t thrived. There’s a classic California apple called the Wickson and it’s known for being very sweet, very aromatic and also very sharp. I like this apple and it’s from California, so I decided to grow it. It has really struggled for us on three different rootstocks. It just doesn’t seem to be happy with our soil and our climate, which is fascinating to me. When I did some research, I discovered that it originated about two and a half hours north of us, in more of a cool summer climate. It’s really funny to see that this Californian apple is incredibly temperamental, whereas some European apple varieties thrive so well in our climate.

As well as growing a range of different apple and pear varieties, I’m also very interested in experimenting with the wild trees that grow across the Sierra foothills. When I find a tree that has an interesting character for cider making and that clearly has the genetics to survive entirely unaided, I take cuttings and propagate them. My eventual aim is to crossbreed them with more classic cider varieties, in the hope of producing hybrids that are characterful in terms of their flavour profile, but also highly adapted to our conditions.

CR: You mentioned that your apples have higher concentrations of sugar / higher potential alcohol levels than those grown in more temperate climates, but I’d also be very interested to hear more about how your climate affects the flavours and textures of your ciders. I find that Californian wines are often fuller-bodied and riper tasting than their cooler-climate counterparts, and I was wondering if this was also true of Californian ciders? 

Brendan: We’re still tweaking and experimenting, so I’m hesitant to say as a rule. But I do think that aromas tend to be enhanced, especially with the dry farmed fruit. It has more sugar, but also a lot more aroma. I think that our acid levels tend to suffer a little bit because of the heat, so one of the things that I’m doing is growing some varieties that are known for being incredibly acidic. I think that in our climate, we will be able to make them into single-variety ciders, rather than diluting them into other ciders, because I think that we’ll see a 20 or 30% reduction in acidity levels compared to if they were grown in a temperate region, but with enhanced aromas and sugars. And I think that the shift from using them as blending apples to making single-variety ciders with them might be really fun. 

CR: It sounds like you need some Foxwhelp! 

Brendan: I know, I’m itching for it. It’s currently still in upstate New York, in quarantine! It’s the true Foxwhelp, which you probably know. As far as tannin is concerned, I would say that our levels are probably pretty even with those found in temperate climates. Probably 20% or 30% of our home orchard is composed of crab apples, which we mostly use for blending. We’ve got some very high acid varieties that I’m looking forward to using when they fruit. And then we’ve got some tannin-rich ones that seem to be a little bit sweeter. 

CR: Could you tell us a little about your current product range and what makes it unique? 

Brendan: Every single tank that I make is different from the last. We’re taking this fruit-based approach and most of the batches are fairly small.  During the production season, we’re filling about a tank per week, from whatever we happen to be harvesting from two or three dozen local abandoned orchards, feral trees, and some commercial orchard seconds.  We’re blending all of that together and using various different yeasts. I do some wild ferments and I produce some batches that are more of a mixed fermentation, in which I let the wild yeast run for maybe the first 20% of the fermentation and then follow it up with a cultivated yeast. So every single barrel that we produce is totally unique, which is really fun for me because it gives us this huge variety, totally naturally. We’re not adding  artificial flavours, sweetening the ciders and making them taste a certain way. We’re just selecting different fruit each week. Right now, I think that we’ve got eight different ciders that are available to buy. We’ve got maybe eight more that are ageing. We’ve got some Spanish style Sidra, which is really bright, acidic stuff. We’ve got some wood-aged cider in more of a classic Normandy style, but that we let go fully dry. It’s got the same kind of phenolic character as a keeved Normandy cider and a very nice medium oak to it, but it’s 8.4% ABV because we didn’t keeve it. We have some ciders that are about 50% crab apples, which have this lovely velvety tannic depth to them. And I made a single-variety still crab apple dessert cider, which is honestly one of my favourite things that we made last year. It’s just an unnamed single variety of crab apple that has incredible sugar levels. It has a mind-blowing acidity, paired with these very velvety tannins. That one actually did naturally keeve due to all the pectin that’s in the crab apples. Instead of fermenting it to about 14%, we finished at 10.8% and bottled it still. It’s got this tart, golden, dried currant, dried fig kind of a feel. People ask me how long we oak aged it for and I get to tell them that we didn’t! It has no oak at all, it’s just pure crab apple. We’re making cider from whatever we can find and thinking about how we can highlight the character of the fruit that we’re working with, and so far it has worked really well. We’ve made some really fun stuff. 

CR: Could you tell us about how you implement the principles of silvopasture and regenerative agriculture in your cider production? 

Brendan: Low intervention is a tricky balancing act, in the sense that the absolute minimum of intervention is not doing anything at all. The most faithful representation of our terroir is doing nothing, because there weren’t originally apples growing here, so a little bit of massaging of the environment is inevitably necessary to make things work!  Regenerative agriculture is definitely a part of that. We add a lot of carbon to the soil. Last year, we added around 13 tons of wood chips, biochar, livestock manure, straw, animal bedding, just everything that we could get out there. And the aim is to build up our soil carbon, primarily to help retain moisture. Dry farming is the goal, but that doesn’t mean that I want the trees to grow in a desert and die in a month. It rather means that I want to avoid depleting my aquifer, and that’s really where the intervention starts to come in. We’re definitely altering the environment to make it a little bit more hospitable for a lower input style of growing. So there’s a little bit of massaging, but with the goal of our ciders reflecting the place more honestly after that. We’ve got about ten sheep, two cows and three mini horses that constitute our flock. And we’ve got a system of pastures that leads out to the orchard. This last spring, I finally got the orchard perimeter fence finished and we got the last pasture finished on the way out to the orchard. Now we can take the animals, move them around the entire property and allow them to graze the orchard, which I’m sure in a European context is not particularly surprising. I don’t think that has disappeared in Europe in the same way that it has in the US. But it is a return to tradition in a lot of ways. There’s a long history of that kind of cyclic withdrawal and return of nutrients, the carbon cycling that goes through the orchards. We are trying to recreate that in a sense, but we’re also doing it in a much more unconventional landscape. It’s a different growing environment for sure, and that has a huge impact on the fruit.

CR: What are your hopes for the future of Posterity Ciderworks?

Brendan: I’m really excited about where things are going in terms of creating a fully unique style of cider from this environment. For example, I went out in the orchard yesterday and tested my apples. The Gravensteins were coming in at over 12% potential ABV, which is a completely unheard-of figure for Gravenstein. We’re about 45% past the standard sugar level at that point. And it’s not all about the alcohol. You aren’t just concentrating sugars, you’re concentrating everything else. 

I’m really looking forward to when our test orchard starts cropping in a meaningful way in a couple more years. We can then start to make some true estate blends that are very different from what people might expect from any kind of site around the world, let alone an American site. It’s a complete experiment. There really aren’t too many people doing this, so there’s nowhere to look for inspiration or guidance. We’re just doing our own thing and finding out where it takes us. What I am beginning to see as the trees start cropping is that they’re intermittently producing about 2 lb of apples per tree. They’re still very young. But different varieties are responding to the climate in different ways. For example, Golden Russet (which is a classic cider apple here in the States) doesn’t seem to change too much. It looks like it will be finishing a little sweeter than normal, maybe 1.650 to 1.700, which is relatively standard for that variety, or at least on the outer side of typical. And then we have other varieties that are just going crazy in terms of their sugar levels. It’s really interesting to see that varietal effect and that’s why I consider this orchard to be a test bed. We have planted 80 varieties specifically to start getting that kind of information, and to establish what the next generation of planting will look like.

CR: I’m sure that a lot of our readers in the UK and Europe would love to try your ciders (I know that I would!) Do you have any plans to export them in the future?

Brendan: We’d love to, but we haven’t even begun to dig into what that would require on the regulatory side. We’ve only opened our doors recently. We bought our building in August of last year and we opened the doors for tastings and bottle sales this April, so we’re still very, very new. But I do want to send some of our ciders to competitions in the UK and in Spain, because I’d love to hear the European take on what we’re doing. It is such a different perspective from what is found here. So much of the cider culture in the US is very heavily beer influenced. When you see some of the competition guidelines, they want pretty much everything to be sessionable. The expectation is for a little bit of sweetness too, but almost everything that I produce is essentially dry. We’re not backsweetening anything. Most of our final gravities are between 1.000 and maybe 1.006. 

Unfortunately, the recording cut out at this point, but we went on to discuss Brendan’s fermentation process, the Californian craft cider scene and his advice to craft cider makers facing rising temperatures and droughts.

Brendan explained that he presses his apples very soon after picking them, because they would not keep for long in his climate without a cooled facility, which would be expensive and energy inefficient. He uses a medley of yeasts that ferment successfully at high temperatures, including Saison yeasts, as well as wild yeasts that have adapted to thrive in hot and arid microclimates. When I asked him about the current state of the Californian cider scene, he replied that there are maybe four other small producers and a few amateur cider makers making relatively natural ciders, but that most cideries adopt more interventionist approaches and irrigate heavily. The craft cider scene in California is still in its infancy, but he hopes that it will gradually develop in a more natural direction and that other producers will join him in experimenting with dry farming a range of different varieties. 

When I asked Brendan if he had any further advice for cider producers facing increasingly frequent heatwaves and droughts, he stressed the importance of experimentation and adaptability. Cider makers should be prepared for more vintage variation and consequent fluctuations in productivity, and they need to build this variability into their business models. Brendan thinks that this will probably be easier for small artisanal producers than for medium-sized businesses. He argued that we will be better able to adapt to global warming if we are not too heavily weighed down by tradition, and demonstrate a willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things. Finally, he reaffirmed that in his experience, large trees on seedling rootstocks are best suited to surviving drought, and many apple varieties that originate from temperate regions are significantly more adaptable to hot and arid conditions than we might initially expect. 

Many thanks to Brendan for taking the time to speak with me. I plan to check in with him again in the future to find out how his orchard is progressing, and I very much hope to one day have the opportunity to taste his ciders! If you are interested in learning more about Posterity Ciderworks or would like to buy their ciders (which are only available to US customers at present), then please check out their website.  

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Chris Russell-Smith is an avid wine and cider enthusiast. When he isn’t busy writing his PhD in philosophy or tasting wine and cider, he likes to experiment with home brewing. None of his fermented beverages deserves to be reviewed, but he is nonetheless occasionally proud of them.

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