Monday, July 02, 2012

A Visit to Farnum Hill Ciders (NH): Watching Art Being Made

How many superlatives can one heap on top of someone or something before the whole thing loses credibility? What is the tipping point at which one can make an absolute fool of himself? I ask these questions, because I had one of the most amazing visits yesterday to a farm, specifically an orchard. And I want to gush about it to tell you how important a discovery I made. And I want you to feel the same urgency and same euphoria I do. It’s the same as when you see an artist create a painting, or watch a dancer perform, or watch a musician create music out of thin air.

Last week, with my friend Mark Young (co-owner with his wife Lori Selden, of Mexican Radio restaurants), I visited Poverty Lane Orchards, the home of Farnum Hill Ciders. They do not have a tastingroom. This was a planned visit to interview Steven Wood and see the ciderworks.

It is hard to describe what Farnum Hill is….it is a first growth of ciders; it is to cider what Samuel Smith is to ale; it is cider making taken to a new level. It is care, and planning, and years of knowledge passed on. It is in its essence, the artistry of making cider taken to another level. It is the cider sommeliers recommend. They are the ciders other cidermakers want to be. They are the ciders other ciders makers drink….and watch. Even the major producer down the road, Woodchuck, has just released a more artisanal version, to compete with Farnum Hill. The packaging and selling point all speak of Farnum Hill’s influence over the industry in this part of the world.

Farmnum Hill is owned by Stephen M. Wood and Louisa D. Spencer.

Louisa D. Spencer (LDS) is Ma PovCorp, and has been trying to get Farnum Hill Ciders noticed since 2000 when we bravely came down the hill and started pouring and explaining real cider. Stephen M. Wood (SMW) is Pa PovCorp, a great apple grower, bug and fungus expert, cider fermenter, blender, and advocate to fellow-orchardists.

Farnum Hill is a team of people. It’s not just one person’s vision. But the person who most seems to set the tone is Steven. He works with the cider maker, sets the vision, and in his own way, wants to keep Farnum Hill true to its core (if you’ll excuse the pun). Farnum Hill truly has already exceeded the original goal of selling good ciders. They are now the finest cider maker on the entire east coast, and one of the best in the world. But when you see Steven and you see the labels and the packaging, you know that’s not Steven. That’s Louisa! And when you read the promotional materials and see and read the website, that’s Louisa. Their work, coupled with a great team, is what makes Farnum Hill.

First of all, Poverty Lane Orchards is a like a movie set. When we first arrive, it was a simple New England orchard, up and down a gravel drive, with some barns in various states, from pristine to various stages of disrepair. It’s like visiting the set from The Cider House Rules. It is a large but simple house with a series of well kept barracks for the field workers not far from it. Apple picking ladders lay in various spots. Tractor, old and new, parked right next to each other. This is a working farm with little pretense.

They are at their heart, and good old fashioned apple farm. They sell apples to stores, run a farm store, and make money off of growing apples. Farnum Hill is the cider works, and only one component of this solid, successful operating farm.
We were escorted by Brenda Bailey (there since the 1970s, runs the office, the retail stand, the raspberry field, monitors cider-cyber-space) down to a grey-ish barn, with some years on it. This apparently was the ciderworks. Inside, we found the workers in the middle of their busy day.

There we met Nicole LeGrand Leibon. Leibon was one of the first hired full-time at Farnum Hill/Poverty Lane here to specialize in cidermaking. Her extraordinary nose, palate, and imagination moved their ciders a long way in good directions. Two children later she has cut back her cider-room hours, but the Nicole Effect is as strong as ever.

We found Nicole dressed in a t-shirt, pair of pants, and flip flops (which she later traded in for a pair of work boots), hosing down the floors of the ciderworks, and fussing with her barrels. Those barrels, right there, are some of the things that separate Farnum Hill from most of their “competition.” I write it like that because with the style of cider they make, there’s actually little competition.

More like a winery than a ciderworks, Farnum Hill has as large a barrel room as a 7,500 case winery. 60 gallon barrels stacked five and six high, in an air-conditioned old apple room. The barrels, just like in a winery, are written on with chalk. But instead of Chardonnay, or Merlot, or Pinot noir, were written in shorthand, the names of cider apples….Wick (for Wickson), Dab (for Dabinett), or Spitz (for Esopus Spitzenburg), and on and on.

The oak barrels by this time are oft used and remain largely neutral, but obviously, the oak rounds out the ciders for their finest ciders. Nicole moves among the barrels the way a farmer moves among her livestock, with care, affection, precision, and demand. She will tell you straight out she doesn’t like this barrel or that. Or that this one is her crown jewel. Or that this one is the best, though it might not be her personal favorite. Though she talked in apples instead of grapes, there was no question, while the terminology and fruits had been interchanged, she talked just like a winemaker. She had a far better nose than I did, and an incredible working knowledge of her material. She was in love with it. You could see her enthusiasm for what she was doing, and the care with which she tasted the ciders, and rinsed out her glass. The way she replaced her bungs, or climbed the barrels. In short, she was amazing.

We did a barrel tasting of a half-dozen ciders. Each one was more impressive than the last. At one point, the cider was absolutely incredible, that we Mark and I were in shock. One barrel sampling smelled and tasted like a fine Riesling. To a certainty, at one point, I wondered if they were pouring us something just to see if we were paying attention or not. It had aromas of pineapple, tropical fruits, mango, star fruit all in the bright, straightforward, light white ….for lack of a better word….wine.

But she is also like a mother, proud of each baby in that room. She can tell you the hard work that went into each barrel, and what she’s thinking about for each cider. A barrel or two can change the entire taste of a whole production run. Only a certain amount ages for 9-10 months in oak. The results are dazzling.

“It’s about letting the fruit speak. Letting the nuances of the fruit come through,” says Steven. “Our goal is to interfere as little as possible, and let the subtleties come through.”

Half way through our tasting Steven has arrived. He’s been out taking his son to the airport. He is dressed casually, with a funky t-shirt and a baseball cap. He has a classic farmer’s skin, half tan, half dirt. It’s a good mixture. You know he gets his hands dirty. You know he’s in the thick of it. He’s authentic.

Only a portion of their cider is made in such a way. Another portion is kept in stainless steel to ensure its freshness and flavor. Their largest tank, in fact, is an old milk tanker truck trailer, which holds 6,000 gallons.

“We were looking for a large new tank. And one day Steven calls and told me what he found. He asked me what I thought, and I said, Yeah,” recalled Nicole.

“Don’t use the “the ‘W’ word. I’ll have to hit you,” says Steven with his hand cocked. “It’s Cider!” But that’s a problem for Farnum Hill. They make some of the finest ciders in the world. They are an anomaly. Many mass produced ciders are in beer cans, and at 5% to 6% are sold through beer distributors. They are inexpensive, usually sweet, and are meant to be slugged down like any other beverage. Sales in the stores of cider are up. Cider is becoming more and more popular around the world, especially in the US. Farnum Hill has been featured of dozens of magazines, including the New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, The Splendid Table, and many other places. Some of their ciders could easily be mistaken for wine. But therein lies the dilemma.

Farnum Hill is sold in large bottles, like a bottle of wine. They have corks, made from real cork, with wire cages like Champagne. It’s a fine, high-end product. You wouldn’t sell it in a beer can…ugh! And their ciders are considered so good, you can find them just as easily in a beer store as a wine shop. Actually, I’ve seen Farnum Hill Ciders in wine shops more than beer stores. Wine merchants are proud to present these ciders. They are elegant, excellent, and ageable.

“I don’t know if I can agree with you there,” says Steven, after I told him I had kept one of his ciders for 8 or 10 years. Steven doesn’t particularly like his ciders being aged. Not sure it’s the way to sell his product. “The flavors change, and I am not sure they are for the better.” I assure him his ciders have stood the test of time. It’s at this point he pulls out a 12 year old cider. It is in fact (forgive me Steven) like a fine wine. Honey and apricot come through on this cider. But there’s also some tomato in there, like in aging red wines.

“Exactly!” shouts Steven enthusiastically. “What most people don’t realize is that fine ciders have much more in common with red wines, because of their tannic structure, than white wines. People always say our ciders remind them of white wines because of the acidity, and the tropical fruits, but it’s the tannins in the cider that absolutely make it more like red wine. Those tannins are what help make our ciders so much more food friendly.” This is a man who has spent a lot of time with his product. This is an artisan.

It is exquisite. Incredible. Especially when one considers its 12 years old. How many cidermakers have the guts to open a 12 year old cider in front of you. Winemakers? Yes. Cidermakers? Not so much!

OK…now for some ciders….

Farmhouse – A fantastic cider. Slightly sparkling. Their lightest, most casual cider. Pale gold and bubbly. A hint of sweetness, but balanced, with the tart, bitter, and fruity elements that come through. Citrus, pineapple, bittersweet apple, and a trace of the barn all come through as promised.

Summer – Steve says, “quaffable.” And I quite heartily agree in the best sense of the word. This was a huge surprise for me. I’d never had this particular one. Golden and gently sparkling. A slightly sweeter style, but again blended with enough acidity and bitterness, to offset it. Light, quaffable, and absolutely aromatic with lots of lush citrusy smells like lemon, grapefruit, and some tropical notes as well. Says the copy…. good ciders make ideal summer “wines.” There’s nothing more to say, other than fantastic!

Semi-Dry - Golden, gently bubbly, with tropical fruits, citrus, and star fruit? Very aromatic. This cider is much less sweet than semi-dry champagnes. Fantastic.

Extra-Dry – Again, forgive me, but this could be a stand-in for champagne. Pale gold, bubbly…and bone dry. Mae mostly from late harvest apples, this is the kind of cider French champagne makers made back at the turn of the century, which caused scandals in France. Lushly aromatic. Apples, pears, honey, a hint of barnyard, a touch of yeast, a touch of vanilla even, make this an exquisite cider. You could pour this in a champagne glass and people wouldn’t understand the difference. Complex, but with enough acidity and backbone to pull the whole thing together.

I come away from my trip, even days later, still in awe. The ciders are incredible. These people are doing something incredibly special. It’s watching art being made in front of you. It is amazing. And best news is, you can take it home with you for a relatively inexpensive price. You can't take home the Mona Lisa when you see it. But you can take home this stuff. Fantastic!