When Kyle Scherrer and his father founded MillStone Cellars in Monkton, Maryland, five years ago, they assumed, as many small cidermakers do, that wine drinkers would be their primary customers.
“When I was creating the product, I thought we’d go more for a wine market, but as we started getting out there, it turned out the sour beer drinker was really the one into it,” Scherrer says.
That’s because Scherrer (and a select few other American cidermakers) produce what they refer to as wild- or naturally fermented cider, using the wild yeast and bacteria that live on apples’ or other fruits’ skins to ferment their juice. Their fermentation techniques can produce funky, tart and dry flavors that overlap with sour beer and certain types of traditional European cider, while staying miles away from what fans of sweeter cider would expect.
“I think the rise of sour beer popularity here on the East Coast has really lent us a gateway to respect within the beer community for cider⏤that it can be more than a sweet palate cleanser or like a wine,” says Troy Lehman, co-owner of Big Hill Ciderworks in Adams County, Pennsylvania. “Wild ciders have all the complexities of a sour beer. You can drink a wild cider and be confused as to whether it’s maybe a lambic. Unintentionally, it’s been a way of garnering respect for cider from the beer world.”
Since founding MillStone, Scherrer has stepped back from daily operations there to launch Graft Cider in Newburgh, New York, where he intentionally markets his ciders to discerning beer drinkers. Graft makes three main ciders: a Brettanomyces-fermented Rustic Cider, a Gose Cider and a Hop Cider. Within the Gose and Hop ciders, the recipes change monthly, highlighting new fruits and hops (“to keep in line with what the craft beer drinker expects” Scherrer says).
“The concept is framing it that so it would catch the eye of the craft beer consumer,” he says. “A lot of brewers of goses and Berliner weisses are trying to add fruit-forward flavors. What we’re doing is producing sour flavors, but starting with the fruit.”
His primary Brettanomyces strain is developed from yeast Scherrer captured on a tree in New Paltz, New York; a lab in Virginia helped him isolate and propagate it. But his fruited ciders also ferment on actual fruit skins, which are usually crawling with other microflora. For his Book of Nomad series of fruited sour ciders, Scherrer follows a cider’s primary Brett fermentation with a secondary fermentation on fruit; he leaves the lees, or residual yeast from the primary fermentation, and pumps fresh cider on top of it. The bacteria count can get high, leading to some very tart flavors, so he often blends this aged, fruited cider with a portion of Brett-fermentation fresh cider for balance.
Does the blending of sour, fruited creations sound like it’s out of a wild ale brewer’s playbook? Graft’s borrowed a few other moves as well, including the introduction of cans, which should debut in early February. (A collaboration foeder-aged cider, a partnership with Brooklyn brewery Other Half, is also in the works.)
For its part, Big Hill is looking to expand the portion of its ciders that are wild-fermented, which Lehman puts at about 20 percent currently.
“What I like about the actual, real wild fermentation is it goes hand-in-hand with why I bought my farm; I want people to taste our region in the bottle,” he says. “When you’re doing commercial pitches of saccharomyces yeast or Brett yeast or bacteria, it’s not really an accurate representation of your terroir.”
Lehman references wild ale breweries that ferment their beers in similar ways through coolships, spontaneous fermentation and the like. Adams County, home to Big Hill, boasts more acres per capita of apple production than anywhere else in the country, Lehman says, so why not employ the fruit-tree microflora in his ciders?
For a taste of what Lehman’s describing, look for (coming-soon) bottles and kegs of Cherry Kriek Cider, a blend of fermented cherry juice (fermented with cherry skins similar to the method used for red wine grapes) and wild-fermented apple cider. Or try Marmalade, a blend of fermented juice from whole, depitted peaches (again, fermented with the peach skins) and wild-fermented apple cider that then rests on orange zest for a few days before bottling.
Seasoned American wild ale drinkers will be able to pick out some tropical fruit Brettanomyces character or some lactic tartness or even very delicate barnyard funk in Big Hill’s wild ciders, Lehman says.
“Your heart has to be in your craft to make wild ciders,” he adds. “The process is more involved than when we make a clean, semisweet one, but I enjoy it even though it’s harder. Cultivating wild yeast and bacteria off the skin of the fruit to actually create those wild ciders, it brings it back to the reason I bought my farm.”
But not all cider makers own farms. Those who own orchards have the option to cultivate, over years and decades, the specific apples whose juices produce the flavors, aromas, tannins and sugars ideal for that cidermaker’s styles. If a cider producer doesn’t have access to cider apples, he or she must find ways to add flavor and structure to the juice of culinary or dessert apples. (Culinary or dessert apples are the kinds we snack on, which generally aren’t prized for their cidermaking properties.)
“For me, I started doing experiments with what you could get in abundance—dessert varietals—and asking how can we get more interesting flavor profiles through yeast,” says Graft Cider’s Scherrer. “Right now, America doesn’t have the tradition of having cider apple varietals; they’re extremely limited. So how can we present this funky, dry cider style to Americans?”
This method relies on fermentation to, in part, introduce flavors that aren’t inherent in the apples themselves. Other cidermakers say the job of the yeast is to convert sugars to alcohol and otherwise stay out of the way.
At E.Z. Orchards Cidre, a farm and cider house in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, orchardist and cidre maker Kevin Zielinski isn’t aiming for tart or sour flavors, or any obtrusive fermentation character at all. He refers to his ciders as “uninocculated,” meaning he principally relies on microflora on or in the fruit (as well as unnamable ambient microflora from the agriculturally rich Willamette Valley) to slowly, over the course of months or years, ferment his nuanced ciders.
“I look at fermentation as a method to transform the [apples’] sugar that leaves the fruit as unadulterated as possible,” Zielinski says. “I consider our method to be less effective for aspects of the fruit, to allow the fruit to express itself in a way that’s more suitable. But that’s very contingent upon certain elements of what the fruit are. You can’t just do this with any fruit … you have to have good cider apples. The whole conversation around wild or uninocculated yeast is so much more than whether you pitch [yeast] or not.”
And that, the question of what is truly “wild,” spontaneous, native or any other fermentation-related word, is a semantic struggle any sour beer drinker should know well.