The apple trees Michael Guidice planted are barely more than twigs sprouting mint-green leaves, but when he looks at them, he sees history.
He and his family moved from downtown Albany to their 25-acre Sharon Springs farm three months ago with a dream of growing heirloom apples and using them to make hard cider — a drink once familiar to the American dinner table.
“Our presidents, the first 10 of them, were all cidermakers. I can go to the Hudson Valley and go to Martin Van Buren’s house — there’s an orchard there,” said Guidice.
He explained that cider was once known as “America’s table wine,” but over the years it fell out of favor. Cider apple orchards were cut down during prohibition, and once German immigrants started coming to America, beermaking became a more popular practice than cidermaking.
Now, Guidice sees an American cider revival on the horizon and wants to be a part of it.
The cider he makes is nothing like the sugary kind sold by the jug in fall,
and it doesn’t taste like the mainstream hard ciders found in local beverage centers. Pressed between layers of straw and fermented in wooden barrels, Guidice’s cider has roots that stretch back to Colonial times. He’s been making it for several years as a hobby, but didn’t have any of his own stock to share Tuesday. Instead, he served a sample of Oliver’s Traditional Cider from England, a brand he said has inspired him.
Made from heirloom cider apples, it’s amber-colored, dry, noncarbonated and takes the palette by surprise. It offers a faint flavor of straw, the tang of crabapple and an undertone of fermented fruit.
“At some point, the producers of these big cider companies have steered the American palate toward sweet and sugary, kind of more like a wine cooler type of drink, and traditionally, it was much more like this,” Guidice’s wife, Jen, said of the English cider.
Hard cider is not a beer or wine alternative, but a “third thing,” Guidice added.
“There’s just this whole taste profile with it that is different, and our American palates don’t necessarily have an appreciation for it, but we’re beginning to,” he said.
The couple plan to produce a range of ciders, from a dry, still variety to a bright, bubbly one reminiscent of champagne. They possess a wealth of knowledge about cider and how it’s made and have formulated a detailed business plan, but are lacking in farming experience.
“I do not know what I’m doing,” Guidice readily admitted.
The former vice president of the Historic Albany Foundation, he is best known for his work preserving buildings in the city. His wife runs a successful dog-walking business in Albany that helps fund the farm.
They learned their apple tree-planting techniques from YouTube and are keeping their fingers crossed as they watch their first 100 saplings leaf out.
Planted in a rocky, dandelion-dotted field, the trees are antique American varieties. There are golden russets, which Guidice said will give cider a nice, neutral base; baldwins, once widely used in American cider making; and Esopus Spitzenburg.
“People say what a cranky apple it is to grow, really arduous and not well-suited for commercial growing. The point of what we’re doing here is retaining the variety of apple,” he said of the Esopus Spitzenburg.
Next spring, about 350 heirloom cider apple tree buds, grafted onto English traditional rootstocks, will join the trees already in the orchard. If all goes well, they’ll eventually grow to 20 or 30 feet in height.
Guidice estimated that it will take about five years for the trees he planted this year to begin producing, but he hopes to start making cider in quantity next season, using heirloom apples from local farms and from the handful of old apple trees that grow on his property.
“There’s this old saying that the best time to plant an orchard was 20 years ago and the second best time is right now. So, I think that’s kind of where we’re at,” he said with a laugh.
Dressed Tuesday in rubber workboots, ripped khakis and a long-sleeve, blue, button-down dress shirt with pens and a notebook in the pocket, Guidice looked like a city guy grafted onto farming rootstock. He wears a long, brown bushy beard, and his blue eyes ignite when he speaks of his plans to recapture the nearly lost art of traditional cidermaking.
It would be easy to dismiss him as a dreamer, but he’s not phased by that: He heard similar comments back when he was rehabbing dilapidated historic buildings in Albany.
“People would walk through them and say, ‘Wow, kid, you’ve got an imagination to think this is ever going to be,’ and meanwhile, it worked out,” he recalled.
Standing amid apple trees not even close to his height, Guidice admitted that his family’s quick transition to farming has been kind of like a dream.
“Coming from the city and all of a sudden now, here I am in an agricultural piece of land, growing apples, it is all kind of mystifying and magic in a way,” he said.
The couple has visions of hosting wassails, cider-and-food pairings and weddings on their farm. They also hope to inspire others to try making traditional cider.
Their cidermaking equipment will be housed in a huge, English horse barn that has seen better days. Light shows through a myriad of gaps in the weathered siding, but Guidice said the structure has great potential.
“I hope to bring the same energy that I brought to Albany to this barn. It’s an enormous project, but I’m not daunted by it. Day after day, you put one foot in front of the other and just plod along, and before you know it, we’re throwing weddings and pressing cider. It’ll happen.”