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Chicagoist's Cider Of The Month: Farnum Hill Dooryard Cider

By Staff in Food on May 29, 2014 4:30PM

Farnum Hill Ciders from Poverty Lane Orchards in New Hampshire have roots in traditional, heirloom fruit, but they look to modern fermentation techniques and equipment to create a uniquely American cider. Farnum Hill Dooryard Cider, with its unique riff on old American traditions, might just be the Neil Young of cider.

In Colonial America, cider was the drink of choice and American orchards maintained a wide variety of apples for making excellent ciders. Every farm had an apple orchard specifically to make cider. Beer production was mainly located along the East Coast and confined to the cities, as it was expensive to import and difficult to transport.

Flash forward a few hundred years to the late 1800s, when German immigrants brought with them a popular new beer style that was sweeping the country: pilsner. From their urban centers in the Midwest, refrigerated railroad cars brought this new lighter beer craze throughout the land. Cider was slowly forgotten.

By the time of Prohibition in the early 1900s, cider's fate was sealed. Orchards full of tannic fruit were cut down and replaced with sweet dessert apple varieties that dominate the grocery store aisles today. America lost the heirloom cider heritage we had held so dear.

Like most apple growers, Steve Wood of Farnum Hill once grew apples for snacking and baking, like McIntosh, but he began to envision a time when Americans might rediscover their roots and embrace cider made from traditional cider apple varieties once again. Some growers refer to these heritage apples as spitters, due to their intense bitterness and odd flesh. He began grafting these onto the trees in his orchard. Soon, these trees began producing fruit of a bygone era—heirloom apple varieties loaded with tannins, which blended perfectly with sharp apple varieties that were blessed with crisp acidity.

In the eyes of many US cider makers, Farnum Hill sets the standard for traditional approach due to the diversity of historical fruit they harvest today. Once the craft beer phenomenon was in full swing, the stage was set for a major revival of a new American cider tradition. While some cider-makers have tried to make apples meant for eating out of hand into passable cider, Farnum Hill has had the advantage of having true cider apples to work with.

Farnum Hill Cider has only recently become available here in Chicago. The folks at Artisanal Imports, along with Windy City Distribution, began shipping throughout the city over the winter. You can already see bottles appearing at places like Fountainhead, Bangers & Lace and The Publican (and Binny's of course). Speaking of bottles, they are only served in 750ml bottles like wine, and occasionally on draft at select locations.

These ciders with their champagne corks are meant to be savored and are presented in a much more sophisticated format. In recognition of his achievements, Steve Wood is a James Beard Award Semifinalist for 2014. So, when ordering Farnum Hill, you know it is among the most highly regarded ciders available in America.

Beyond all the history and craft that Farnum Hill is known for, what does this cider actually taste like? For this cider of the month, I chose Farnum Hill Dooryard Cider. The name "Dooryard" refers to the large central courtyard at their orchard in New Hampshire, where local customers gather to taste through the different blends. Sometimes they find a small batch that folks love, but it just doesn't fit into one of their standard label offerings. So, they created a new label for these one-time, small batch releases.

You see, the thing about Dooryard is that it changes. When shopping for a bottle, look on the back label; there you will find a small sticker with a number printed on it. The bottle I am reviewing is batch #1310 (which is currently available at Whole Foods on Kingsbury). Each batch uses a different amount of specific apple varieties in the blend, which greatly impacts flavor. Furthermore, the methods might change from time to time, based on the properties of the blend, the seasonal schedule and other variables.

This makes each tasting a unique experience. Serving at cellar temp is fine, although you can cool it down more if desired. As cider fills the glass, a small step of bubbles climbs to the top, but quickly cascades down (Ciders do not retain a foamy head, as there are no gluten proteins to maintain the structure). The color is a straw hued gold, the clarity is brilliant and the bubbles subside to a steady rhythm. The aroma is a bright floral bouquet, with a touch of fresh hay alongside strong apple and pear notes. Yet there is something deeper happening as well. An almost earthy, mushroom quality hits the nose along with a salty, saline effect found in some seaside Islay Scotches.

The drink is dry - very dry, with crisp acidity. There is a bright minerality, combined with the flavors of ripe fruit growing next to a garden of thyme, fennel and lavender. It’s a bit tannic, but not overpowering or too astringent. A well built body accompanies the alcohol (7.5% ABV), which is warm and pleasing from start to finish. Another sip confirms that Dooryard is a very well balanced, but deep and complex beverage that can pair well with rich cheeses, salted nuts and fatty meats. Or, it could just as easily stand on its own during a warm summer's day.

So then, how is Farnum Hill like musician Neil Young? Neil Young's music is not for everybody. He uses the vocabulary of tradition (folk & country music), but often performs in a new and different format (sonic assault). He changes styles according to his artistic vision. Like Neil, Steve Wood at Farnum Hill uses the raw ingredients of tradition through heirloom apple varieties, but creates a beverage that is uniquely American, embracing modern tools and techniques. He is not bound by tradition, he is inspired by it - yet he has no problem changing and innovating. Neil Young and Steve Wood. Just when you think you have these guys figured out, they completely change course. Confounding to some; but a surprise and delight to many others.

Author Brian Rutzen is a broker for several cider brands, including Uncle John's. He also will be serving as Cider Director at The Northman, Chicago's first cider bar (coming this autumn).