Monday, October 21, 2013

Mrs. Appleseed - Sara Grady Trumpets the Revival of Hard Cider

John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 11, 1845), often called Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, including the northern counties of present day West Virginia. He became an American legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples.

The popular image is of Johnny Appleseed spreading apple seeds randomly, everywhere he went. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who sold trees on shares, and returned every year or two to tend the nursery. Although apples grown from seed are rarely sweet or tasty, apple orchards with sour apples were popular among the settlers because apples were mainly used for producing hard cider and apple jack.

Cider became very popular in colonial America for two reasons – firstly because it tasted good, and secondly, potable water wasn’t always so easy to secure, so low alcohol hard cider and sweet cider were good alternatives. The Hudson Valley is among the biggest apple producing regions on the east coast (though it is well shy of its prowess from a hundred years ago). Cider’s popularity declined with the influx of German, Irish, and central European who gave rise to the beer industry.

Enter Sara Grady. Sara is not the first of the cider pioneers. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, wrote one of the best books on cider 20 years ago, and it is still considered a classic. Steve Wood at Farnum Hill, Dan Wilson at Slyboro, and Jason Grizzanti at Warwick Valley have been beating the cider drum for years. They gave the movement strength.

But Sara made the movement “happen.” Sara coalesced it. She took a group of disparate produces, and gave them a common ground. Brought them together. She established a community of them, and got them talking to one another. She established a conversation. And she established Cider Week.

“I created Cider Week,” she told Sara Forrest of last year, “as part of the work I’m doing to support the viability of orchards, and to establish hard cider and apple spirits as signature Hudson Valley apple products. Actually, Cider Week has grown beyond just Hudson Valley cider and now involves a group of craft cider producers from throughout New York and New England – all of whom have a shared goal to build appreciation for and awareness of (real) hard cider.”

Ann Monroe wrote in Edible Manhattan, “Cider Week, mounted as part of a much bigger Apple Project run by the upstate agricultural not-for-profit Glynwood Center, is a celebration of apple alcohol and all the benefits it can bring to local orchards and drinkers alike. Sara Grady, Glynwood’s special projects director and Cider Week mastermind, has arranged an exchange between nascent Northeast cider makers and their storied French counterparts, who’ll be here in October, and is developing a Hudson Valley Cider Route, inspired by similar trails in Europe.” 
When asked how she got involved with Glennwood, Sara told, “I got deeply interested in food and agriculture because it’s where all my interests in culture, history, nature, art, and science intersect. I used to produce educational and doc-style media for television and exhibitions… but it felt like commentary and I wanted to feel like I was making things happen. So I started doing video work about farms and food projects, one of which was Glynwood. I was just in the right place at the right time! I got a job there as a program director, and now I create programs to support regional food production. It’s creative, I get to help people who are passionate about what they do, and I am always learning! I love it.”

“Orchards were razed in the name of sobriety, and apples were recast as a fruit for healthy eating. Today America is home to only a quarter of the 20 million apple trees we grew in 1900, and our apple diversity has been pared back to just a few varieties. Most of the apples we consume are drunk as juice reconstituted from concentrate, 82 percent of it imported, mostly from China,” Sara told Edible Manhattan.

“New York is the second largest grower of apples in the nation,” Sara has said, “acreage in apples in the Hudson Valley declined by 14 percent and the number of orchards went down by 25 percent.”

Sara went on to explain the value of cider to farmers and farming, saying, “Apple growers in the Hudson Valley, like many farmers, have been challenged in recent years by rising costs of production, changing weather patterns, and development pressures. Hard cider and apple spirits are higher value products that allow farms to diversify, add value to the crop, even out the growing season – and therefore can bring higher profits and a steadier income.”

“Also, apples sold for fresh eating are expected to be perfect-looking and unblemished – so any fruit that is not cosmetically perfect can’t be sold fresh. But when you’re just going to crush the fruit and ferment the juice, beauty is irrelevant. So it’s a great way for a grower to reclaim the value on fruit that might be rejected for supermarket shelves – maybe it got hit by hail or is otherwise marred, but it’s still perfectly delicious! Incidentally, growers who specialize in hard cider apples may be able to spray fewer chemicals since a lot of that is just to ensure perfect-looking fruit,” Sara told Forrest.

“The biggest challenge is making people understand what cider is, that it’s not this sweet fizzy stuff you get in a deli or as a beer alternative,” Grady told “Having a sense of place through food is very powerful,” she says. “The idea that there is something that was very American, very much a part of American culture and American history that is also tied to that sense of place. … People feel connected to that idea, that this is something that was a part of our history and can be again a part of our culture.”

And that is the special gift of Sara Grady. She is Mrs. Appleseed. She is the second coming of Mr. Chapman. She may not be out there planting trees, but she mind as well be. She has synthesized the message and is the foghorn for it. In the mist of beers, and wine, and spirits, she is the siren singing the song of cider, calling out for people not to forget where they came from. Calling them home to an earlier, simpler, more healthy time. Healthier for the land especially.

In Cider Week, Grady has created a maelstrom of good press for cidermakers all over the east coast, but especially in the Hudson Valley. Not only did she create the Cider Trail, but in 2013 her organization helped create dozens of stories in the media celebrating cider, and coordinated more than 55 events from New York City to Albany with tastings, dinners, and food pairings. She is determined and single-minded. She has done an excellent job. And luckily for us, she's been a success.
To read more about Sara: