“The press casts a spell. Once the juice starts flowing, you’ll see what I mean,” said Michael Guidice, crouching low beside his old rack-and-cloth cider press, blue eyes bright, bits of crushed apple in his hair and stuck to the sleeves of his coveralls.
Wednesday was the first time the 35-year-old pressed enough apples to fill his new 125-gallon fermenting tank — the first step in creating a batch of hard cider.
Guidice is working his way into the New York state hard cider industry, which has seen enormous growth in the past several years.
“Four years ago there was a handful [of cideries], and today there are hundreds of them. It’s really rapidly expanding,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. “It’s following the same craze as the craft brewery industry in New York, which followed the wine industry. This generation is really big into locally produced, homegrown, anything with the word ‘craft.’ The Millennials love it, which is very exciting.”
The hard cider boom has been spurred in part by the Farm Cidery bill, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the fall of 2013. The law makes it easier for on-farm hard-cider operations to get licensed and go into business.
Currently working through the licensing process, Guidice is using this season for research and development.
He and his family moved to their 25-acre Sharon Springs farm in early 2014 and he began planting old-fashioned cider-apple trees, intent on preserving a dry American cider heritage that goes back centuries. A transplant from Albany, he’s reluctant to call himself a farmer just yet, despite the fact that he works full time on the farm, which is now called Brickhouse Farm and Orchard.
He brewed cider as a hobby before deciding to start his own cidery.
With help from local craftsmen, Guidice renovated a Dutch barn on the property and built a pressing room for his 1970s-era cider press. A separate fermentation space holds rustic-looking wooden barrels and shining stainless steel tanks.
The names of antique apples roll off of his tongue like poetry: Alexanders, Cox’s Orange Pippins, Baldwins, Northern Spies.
A handful of mature cider-apple trees on his property are providing fodder for this year’s cider batch, along with antique-variety apples from local farms. Guidice also scours the woods with a pack on his back, searching for wild crabapples to add to the mix.
“I’m not trying to cater to a particular market. I’m not trying to make a million dollars. The real idea for us here is to give ourselves the freedom to experiment in small batches, with traditional methods and a variety of different apples, and from the orchard perspective of things, really care about the variety and [growing conditions] of the fruit that we’re using,” he said.
The hard cider industry has opened up a whole new way to market apples, in particular, heirloom varieties that haven’t been grown in the United States for decades, Allen said.
“We’re seeing a re-emergence in those varieties,” he said. “Nurseries are starting to sell those varieties because we really feel this industry is going to continue to grow.”
The apples that went into Wednesday’s cider were a mix of red and green, large and small, spotted and pristine, some with not-often-heard names like Gravenstein, some not identifiable by name. Scooped with a black laundry basket from a large stainless steel wash tub, they were deposited into a hopper and traveled by conveyor belt to a grinder. The force of its blades flung bits of apple into the air, their sweet aroma perfuming the room.
The apple mash was pressed in layers between cloth and wooden racks. The resulting caramel-colored juice flowed into a kitchen sauce pot, a white colander positioned above it as a strainer. Once full, the pot of juice was dumped into the fermenting tank.
Guidice caught some of the juice in paper cups and handed out samples. It tasted both sweet and tart, dry and wild.
A year from now, he said, he hopes to be selling his hard cider at farmers’ markets and maybe at local wine stores. By then, he’ll have more apple trees in the ground, and in a few years they’ll begin to bear fruit. He pointed out some spindly seedlings.
“I got apples on all of them this year, but like one apple each,” he said with a grin.
“Attrition is my new strategy. I used to go from looking at my trees as like my babies and singing to them, and now I kind of walk around grumpy in the twilight, yelling at them like they were soldiers, like, ‘You’d better grow more because you’re not gonna last through winter.’ ”
He plans to spread the pomace mash from this year’s cider pressing in a three-acre field to see what sprouts from it. It doesn’t bother him that those trees won’t mature for many years.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “There’s antique orchards I can work with, and I get to watch trees grow.”