SCHOHARIE COUNTY – When Ryan McGiver discovered wild apple trees in the ash forest on Fulton Hill, he knew it would be a good spot for an orchard.
“They were shaded by ash trees but still bearing fruit,” McGiver recalled during a break from planting apple trees on the land.
McGiver grows more than 30 varieties of cider apples with an emphasis on traditional French, English and heirloom American apples.
He uses the apples to make cider in the pre-Civil War cottage he converted into a small craft cidery, called the Scrumpy Ewe, in the tiny Schoharie County hamlet of West Fulton.
The hope is that one day he’ll be able to grow all of the apples for his award-winning cider himself.
For now, he uses some of his own apples and sources the rest from New York growers.
A Schoharie County native, McGiver, 40, spent much of his adult life overseas, living in Ireland and working as a stonemason and touring musician who played 200 shows a year.
During that time he acquired a taste for the dry, unfiltered ciders of Europe.
“We toured in big cider countries like England and France,” McGiver said. “I tried ciders, and I became interested in what made them different from [American ciders].”
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”16″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]He visited small “wine shacks” in Austria — where locally made wine was served and people could lodge overnight — and spent lots of time in small Irish pubs.
When McGiver returned home to Schoharie County seven years ago, he set about creating his own version of these experiences, making ciders that taste more like wine than the sweet-tasting versions Americans are more accustomed to, and modeling his cozy “cider shack” after the wine shacks and pubs he frequented while living in Europe.
“I wanted a small place where you could meet different types of people,” McGiver said.
The Scrumpy Ewe is exactly that — rustic and simple, with picnic tables outside overlooking the hills and an appealing, intimate indoor space. Scrumpy, it’s worth noting, refers to the dry, rough ciders that originate in the west of England.
In America, commercial ciders are typically made with eating apples and sweetened with sugar or juice. The result is a beverage that tastes like alcoholic apple juice.
McGiver’s ciders are different because they’re made with tannic, often astringent apple varieties with quirky names like Porter’s Perfection and Harry Masters Jersey. Each batch of cider is pressed, fermented in stainless-steel barrels, blended, aged and then bottled — a process that occurs once a year when the apples are ready.
“You’re tasting the fruit, not masking a product with sugar,” McGiver said.
McGiver’s Schoharie County roots run deep.
His mother’s ancestors, the Von Lindens, began farming in the Schoharie Valley in the early 19th century.
In the 1950s, his grandparents purchased an old Baptist church in downtown West Fulton, which is where his father and 10 siblings grew up.
McGiver was raised in nearby Cobleskill, and used to sneak into the cottage that’s now home to the Scrumpy Ewe and drink there. He attended Cobleskill High School, moving to Ireland the day after he graduated.
About 10 years ago, McGiver began planting apple trees on his brother’s property outside Cobleskill. Today there are about 150 trees, and the plan is to plant 800 more at the newer orchard up the road from the Scrumpy Ewe on Sawyer Hollow Road.
“The trees struggle a bit more here,” McGiver observed while showing off his orchard in the foothills of the northern Catskills.
That’s OK, because the trees bear good fruit.
“You have low yields, but you get high-quality cider apples,” McGiver said.
The Scrumpy Ewe has been closed for winter and will reopen in May.