With 36 varieties of apples on a 120-acre orchard, going into the hard cider business was a no-brainer for Dietrich Gehring. But he took things one step further and launched a craft brewing business at the same time, now operating a cidery and brewery in conjunction with his family’s fully-operational 340-acre farm in Altamont.
“Apples and hops are amazingly similar in terms of their care, the staggered arrival and harvest times,” Gehring said. The pair of adult beverage operations provide a value-add to the broader multi-generational family business, while diversifying Indian Ladder Farms at the same time. It doesn’t hurt that craft brewing is big these days, either.
“Simply put, demand is huge, and it’s not like we’re fighting for customers,” he said, crediting the 2016 New York State Farm Brewery Amendment with helping to spur the craft brewery and spirit business locally. But that’s only half the story. Public preference for microbrews and what Gehring called neighborhood operations have truly helped the industry take off.
“Cider is having a huge comeback,” Gehring said, before adding that it was a traditional favorite during colonial times. He likes to tell a tale of Johnny Appleseed that differs from the one included in most children’s history books, wherein Johnny was out planting apple trees in the interest of cider, not for the sake of ensuring kiddies had access to healthy fruit: “He had a bit of a reputation, if you know what I mean.”
At any given time, Gehring has six ciders and six beers on tap, as opposed to traditional breweries which might have only one or two ciders for those who aren’t much for beer. In terms of flavors, the possibilities are endless and change seasonally to include fruit blends like blueberry cider or strawberry rhubarb beer. He sells take-home cans, and anything on tap can be purchased in growlers or crowlers — giant cans that are half the size of a traditional growler. He sells out regularly, and can’t seem to keep most items in stock.
“We started the whole process about six years ago,” Gehring said, beginning first with the cider for obvious reasons, as the hops plants needed time to grow. Now, he grows nine varieties of hops on property, with 18-foot bines—which are not to be confused with vines, as hops use stiff hairs to push upward, as opposed to tendrils. “Eighteen feet is the standard for most hop yards, but they can grow up to 30 feet.”
Gehring married into the Indian Ladder Farms family decades ago, a farm his wife’s great- greatgrandfather built in 1916 from five existing farms. There’s a lot of history to the property, which initially was a dairy farm. “But the Ten Eycks have been here for 300 years,” he said.
He and his wife, Laura, are completely self-taught, hobbyist home brewers who like to experiment. Today, they grow mostly modern hops, like Nugget, Crystal and Brewer’s Gold, but he does have a heritage hop in the mix, courtesy of Dan Driscoll, a local who inherited some bines from another local who used to grow them in the ’50s. When Driscoll heard about Gehring’s hop effort in the news, he brought him eight bines, which Gehring now refers to as his Helderberg Hops. When mature, they have a scent reminiscent of a pineapple, he said. “We make our Dan Driscoll beer once a year now.”
Gehring processes the hops onsite with a German-made machine he affectionately refers to as Heidi, which can clear 140 bines an hour. “Whereas if I picked it by hand I could only do one every hour,” he said. Gehring estimates that he has about 2,000 hop bines on the farm.
Whether he faced any uncertainty from his family when he chose to add two new businesses, Gehring said of course: “Whenever you start something new people will be skeptical.”
“When we decided to grow hops originally, we thought we would sell them as a commodity,” he said. But he soon realized that to grow the kind of quality he wanted would take both time and skill, and so at that point, it made sense to craft his own beer at the same time.
Each of his hops lends a distinct scent and taste, courtesy of the lupulin, the active ingredient which resembles a fine yellow pollen accessible by crushing the cone. Nugget offers a fruity odor, while Gehring suggests that Crystal is much more “pine-y.” Columbus is fruity with an “onion-y” quality to it. The oil content changes over time, so there’s a difference between a 20-year-old plant and a six-year-old one as well.
But one thing has remained true since the get-go: “We’re a hop farm, but we don’t like bitter beer.”
A row of hop bines that stand up to 18 feet tall.
The secret to brewing comes from the blending, marrying different hops together to create new flavor profiles, Gehring explained. The barley and oats he uses are all grown on site, but since his brewing space is on the smaller side, he partners with other breweries on blends and collaborations. He said he hopes to have a designated space that’s large enough to accommodate future operations of a grander scale by the fall of 2018. All of his beers are fermented on premises in large tanks, kegs or barrels. In a single year, he’ll make 50 barrels of beer, brewing once or twice a week.
As for his cider, it’s all made on premises, and when the season is a good one, mainly made from Indian Ladder’s apples.
“My father-in-law, Peter Ten Eyck, is in charge of the apples,” he said, the majority of which are sold straight out of their retail store, including varieties like Kendall, Empire and Jonamac. The farm is part of the Northeast Eco Apple Project, which observes self-imposed standards related to pesticide use and apple care, including integrated pesticide management.
As for which apples he’ll use, just about any and all will work. “Cider fruit is fruit that is blemished or bruised, or doesn’t meet size standards,” Gehring said. “There’s nothing wrong with it but we can’t sell it even as our No. 2 upstairs.” He also uses some Bittersharps, which have more tannins and a higher sugar content, making them great for cider.
Gehring explained that as is the case with winemaking, it’s all about blending and sampling.
Out in the orchard at Indian Ladder Farms.
Each blend will look and taste a bit different then the next. Different varieties are harvested and pressed at different times over the course of apple season, with earlier varieties often yielding thinner, lighter cider. “Today’s cider will be different than the one we make in November,” Gehring explained.
With regard to the process, he uses a traditional rack and cloth cider press through which apples are milled into pomace, then squeezed between cloth before the cider is pumped into tanks. Then it’s treated with ultraviolet light which Gehring said kills 99 percent of the “bad stuff,” including patulin. It’s a smart decision his father-in-law made years ago, and something he stands by: “When you pasteurize you add heat, and when you heat cider you lose some of the range and yeast, as well as the flavor.” That dimensionality is integral to making great hard cider, he said. His cider will stay in a fermentation tank for as long as 18 months, becoming mellower and less sweet as the alcohol ferments.
“All of our ciders are very dry,” he said. “But that’s on purpose — we want to be a dry cider place.” There are plenty of sweet ciders out there, but Gehring wants his to be more complex, he said, almost like a prosecco or a carbonated white wine made with apples.
Since this is an eco-minded farm, the apple pulp is then composted and used to feed other agricultural products on the farm, including the hops.
The brewery and cidery employs nine people, and the farm itself has 12 year-round employees, and upwards of 80 during apple season. Everyone from retired persons to moms and students help keep the farm going during peak times.
If you’re looking to imbibe, there are two tasting rooms on site and a full-service restaurant so you can plan to stay awhile. A flight of four five-ounce pours will run you $10, and you can choose whichever four you’d like. Located less than 30 minutes from Schenectady or Albany, it’s an easy drive.
In terms of top sellers, Gehring said his IPAs are always popular. He also has a Perzikboom, which is a cider aged in peach brandy barrels, and a Peerenboom, a cider blended with pear juice and aged in pear brandy barrels. His Brewer’s Gold, a hopped cider which is made like an infusion, is also a fan favorite, especially for those hoping to avoid choosing between beer and cider.
342 Altamont Road, Altamont, 12009
Weds-Fri 4 pm-9 pm, Sat 11 am-9 pm, Sun 11 am-7 pm
Tel. (518) 765-2956
Pick-Your-Own Hotline: (866) 640-PICK
All photos by Mary Cirincione/For The Daily Gazette