“I’m an apple guy,” Brad informs me, as we talk across his kitchen table. “Grape people and apple people are different.” He mutters this under his breath and I sense his reluctance to elaborate. His voice falters and he hesitantly suggests that the “grape people” are perhaps more competitive. This is all he says on the matter, and he shifts into laughter. “I don’t want to talk too badly about those grape people. They’re good people, and we love them.” He leans his rounded-body back in his chair, scratches a grey beard, and runs his hands over his balding head.
Although apple and grape people may be different, Brad Koehler, the owner and operator of Windfall Orchards in Cornwall, VT, can’t ignore the connection between his products and wine. With the apples at the orchard, Brad makes a nationally awarded ice cider. His biggest problem is that the average person doesn’t know the first thing about his product. “I ask people ‘have you ever tasted ice cider?’ And the answer is of course no!” Brad lets out a hearty chuckle. He folds his arms across his stomach and takes a deep breath into his broad chest. “So I explain that ice cider is a sweet dessert wine made with apples similar to an ice wine. Both use the process of freezing to concentrate the sugars of the fruit.”
Brad draws on wine as a point of comparison because, as he explains it, there are two distinct segments of the cider industry: cider that is produced to compete with and be an analog to beer (think Woodchuck, Angry Orchard) and cider that is produced to be an analog to wine. Brad’s ciders fall into the latter category. It also helps that ice wine has been produced in Europe since the 18th century. Of the “ice” beverages on the market, ice wine is the product that a consumer might have a frame of reference for.
But that’s not to say that ice cider and ice wine are interchangeable. In a sense, they’re cousins. And much of the difference lies in the process. In order for a product to be labeled as ice wine, the grapes must be frozen on the vine. Left on the vine until the temperature falls below fifteen degrees, the grapes partially freeze, allowing frozen water to be removed from the grape juice so that winemakers are left with a high sugar concentration.
Ice cider is inspired by the same thought; however, only a few varieties of apples are able to remain attached to the branch. As a result, ice cider makers had to adapt the process used by ice wine makers. Instead of allowing the apples to freeze on the branch, orchardists pick the apples in the fall when they’re at their ripest. They’re prepped for ice cider production by being kept in cold storage until the weather is reliably cold. At this point, the apples are pressed and stored outside in tanks to freeze. This is crucial. According to the federal government, ice cider must be frozen outside rather than in a freezer. If the juice is not frozen outside, the product cannot legally be called ice cider. As is the case with ice wine, the freezing process allows producers to separate out concentrated sugary juice from the water stored inside the apple. This is because the more concentrated juice thaws more readily than the water. “Only about 20% of the juice is used in the making of ice cider,” Brad explained to me. “But that concentrated liquid is so full of flavor, it makes for a beautiful product.” That juice then fermented, bottled and aged to up to year to get Windfall Orchards’s ice cider.
While I enjoy a glass of cider as much as the next person, my knowledge of orchards and agriculture is limited to picking out produce from the local grocery store. Although I hail from Alabama, the perceived land of cotton, tobacco, and general backwardness, my hometown of Birmingham is a defunct industrial town; the cityscape lined with the pipes of vacant steel mills and blast furnaces, now converted into trendy concert venues and office buildings. Urban sprawl provided me with a quintessential suburban childhood characterized by country clubs rather than swimming holes; fine dining rather than home cooking; and working at a roadside lemonade stand rather than working the fields.
So when I decided to learn about ice cider for a class at Middlebury College, I can’t say I knew what to expect. As a drive to Brad’s orchard, I scan the sides of the highway for miles of twisted, snow covered apple trees, presumably with fruit on them, and a big sign reading “Windfall Orchards,” set in front of an colossal farmhouse. I imagine that workers litter the orchards, harvesting and conducting maintenance on the trees.
As I pull into Brad’s driveway, I realize the orchard is a far cry from my fantasy. Brad runs Windfall Orchards out of his home. It is a small white house, perched on a hillside overlooking purple hued mountains set against vast fields of snow. The only sign in the front yard is the house’s address, modestly posted next to the road in green and white. The surrounding homes boast small orchards in their yards in a deception that makes Brad’s appear to be the most unassuming residence on the street.
The modestness of it all speaks to Brad himself. When I walk into Brad’s kitchen, he greets me and returns to two white boxes, sitting atop a small wooden kitchen island. He reaches inside and pulls out a bottle that is barrel shaped on the bottom with a traditional beer bottle top attached. “We’re basically the only people using these. A lot of people buy our hard cider just for the bottle.” His supplies are lined up on the kitchen counter: a spool of lime green ribbon, a small paper cutter, and a hole punch. I watch as he takes a sheet of Windfall Orchards Hard Cider labels, cuts them apart one by one, and hole punches them. Then for each bottle, he cuts off a piece of green ribbon, runs it through the hole of the label and ties it around the neck of the bottle. This is small-scale production to the extreme. “This is our first year making the hard cider,” Brad tells me, looking up momentarily from tying the knots in the ribbon. “We made about 80 cases and, yeah, I just do the labels myself.” Brad glances repeatedly out his kitchen window as he talks about his work. The mountains in the distance are obscured by row after row of apple trees, beautifully dormant and newly pruned. Underneath at blue flannel, he sports a faded Windfall Orchards t-shirt. Brad means it when he says he’s an apple guy. Reminders of his work are scattered throughout his home and you get the sense that he likes it that way. “The orchard is almost mostly me,” he admits. “We’re micro-size compared to many.” His white terrier Misty brushes against my legs. Brad’s rounded face breaks into a smile and his grey Nike brand glasses shift against his cheekbones.
Brad pulls a bottle of ice cider out of his refrigerator and slides it to me. Wrapped around the bottle is a shiny, bluish label with a picture of a sprawling apple tree. “Would you like to taste some?” Yes is the only answer that comes to mind. He takes out two small cups from his kitchen cupboard—souvenirs from Middlebury Summerfest—and pours a small sample. “I would love to have you try the 2012 varietal. That, that was a really great year. And now it’s been aged for two years…This is the 2013 which is still very good.” Typically as ice cider ages, complex chemical reactions occur that alter the characteristics of the cider for the better. My shoulders drop momentarily. What I wouldn’t do to try some of the 2012. I reach down to the table and pull the glass to my lips. As I drink, the rich, round, citrus flavors spark and excite my tongue. It’s truly quite amazing. I have a hard time believing the 2012 could possibly top it.
He invites me to sit down at his kitchen table and we talk, exchanging ideas and stories, while he occasionally rises from his chair at the kitchen table to nurse a roast he has in the oven. Prior to owning the orchard, Brad spent most of his career as a chef. “My interests growing up were always gardening and landscaping so that was my first instinct of what to study when I went to college. But halfway through I realized my other passion was cooking.” He soon dropped out of college and enrolled in culinary school. After working at restaurants around the country, Brad took at job teaching at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier where he stayed until 2002. It was then that he accepted a job overseeing the residential dining program at Middlebury College. Based on his background, it’s no surprise that as I sit at his table, delicate, rich scents waft over my nose and make my stomach audibly growl.
Brad’s knowledge of the culinary world gives him a leg up in creating delicious and complex ice ciders. According to his colleagues, his products are particularly remarkable because he possesses an in depth understanding of the flavors present in his apples. “From a flavor and taste profile, my background as a chef helps with having a sense of what I want to achieve or what flavors I want to go for…” Brad pauses and throws his hands up into the air. “Really there’s an inner chef madness to it. There’s nothing written down, there’s no recipes. It’s all just in my head. I base it off of my knowledge of what the apples taste like and what flavors I want in there.” The way he describes it, it sounds like a given that anyone could put these flavor combinations together. He shrugs modestly and informs me that in terms of being a cider producer, his past as a chef is most useful for giving him “street cred” when it comes to selling his products to restaurants. “I can walk into the backdoor of any place and tell them about my ciders and not be laughed out the door. So that helps immensely. Maybe even more than my skills at tasting.” While his connections in the culinary world may make the sales side of the business easier, I can’t imagine anyone laughing Brad out of anywhere. He’s the kind of person you want to talk to. The kind of person that will keep the conversation flowing for hours with story after story, wisdom after wisdom.
While he underplays his skill in creating the ice cider, Brad does admit some knowledge in the world of brewing. “I used to brew beer in one of my classes with my students to teach them about process. Yeah, I used to brew a lot of beer right up until we moved to Middlebury.” He chuckles and tells me that he had to give up beer. Too many calories. “But when I started brewing beer, the microbrew industry was just starting to take off. At the point, if you wanted to drink decent beer, you had to brew it yourself.” Right now, something similar is occurring with hard cider. As the hard cider movement is gaining momentum, more and more people are creating their own home brews.
Brad began his business with ice cider, but last year, he released his first batch of Windfall Orchards hard cider. This excites Brad immensely. Not only because he knows a thing or two about brewing, but also because cider making is an integral part of Vermont’s culture. “Cider was the number one beverage in the country up until prohibition. It was a revolutionary era beverage that was popular. It wasn’t wine. It was like the Budweiser or Michelob of the time, something the working man would drink.” The volume of his voice raises and his hands start to wave enthusiastically in front of his face. “The number of varieties of apples grown pre-prohibition was hundreds and hundreds. It was a rural society and most people had apple trees or properties where they grew apples.” This all changed with the implementation of prohibition in the 1920s. Once making hard cider was illegal, the trees that contained cider fruits were cut down and replaced with edible, commercial fruits like Macintosh. “Pretty much the big twelve varieties that everyone knows from the grocery store. The loss of the diversity of apples because of prohibition is tragic. It’s absolutely tragic.”
By the time prohibition was repealed in 1933, virtually all the cider apple trees were cut down and the cider industry had disappeared. Hard cider producers turned to making beer because wheat and barely never stopped being grown. “The only people practicing active cider making for the most part were people in Vermont and a few around the rest of New England. A lot of old-timers in the area had apples on their homesteads. And they never stopped making hard cider. They would always put a tank down in the cellar because it was farm life in Vermont.” Through the continuous production of hard cider, these homesteaders preserved the apple varieties that had been lost in the rest of the country during prohibition. “This is Vermont’s beverage. It has been our beverage since the 1700s. Continuous production of this beverage has not stopped unlike anywhere else in this country.” These are the varieties that not only go into producing Brad’s hard cider today but also make the production of his ice cider, containing a blend of over thirty kinds of apples, possible. “We need to make sure that Vermont is seen as the home of cider. By all rights this is our mantle. The cider makers in Vermont can make it the destination in the same way that the beer industry has.”
With the recent boom in the cider industry, taking advantage of Vermont’s history is advantageous for cider makers like Brad, who rely products like Woodchuck to be a gateway into the cider world. “No one starts off drinking Windfall Orchard’s cider. For me, the big boys like Woodchuck and Angry Orchard are not a threat; they’re an entry point.” He takes his glasses off and spins them around in his hand. He glances down at the floor and a big smile comes across his face. “In the fall, when Woodchuck was opening up their new factory, they had a nationwide contest for tickets to the grand opening. A few days before the opening, I was in the Middlebury co-op and I started to talking to this young couple and telling them about my cider, giving them samples. And I got around to asking them what they were doing in Vermont, because you know at this point it’s pretty obvious to me who’s not a Vermonter, and they told me they were the winner of the tickets to the Woodchuck opening. They leaned in close to me and said, don’t tell anyone this but we like your cider so much better.” Brad breaks out into a jovial fit of laughter. He let’s out a deep breath and once again explains why products like Woodchuck are so important to him. That’s the thing about Brad. He’s not afraid to be honest. To tell you what he thinks about his product, or somebody else’s. But he’s never callous.
As we talk about his ice cider, his gratitude for Vermont’s landscape and climate seems to stay at the forefront of his mind. Brad runs his hands over the table, creating a whoosh-ing sound against the wood as he pauses, as if looking for just the right words. He tells me that to be able make ice cider, apples have to be able to grow and the weather must get consistently freezing in the winter. “If you look geographically on the map, there’s very few places in the country where both of those conditions exist” he informs me. I can tell he’s thought extensively about this. The landscape of Vermont seems to provide a special opportunity for cider makers.
In his free time, Brad forages on his land for mushrooms, fiddleheads and ramps. He hires local college students to assist him in the management of his orchard. He uses an integrated pest management approach to protect his crops, spraying roughly half of what conventional orchards would spray. His life and his orchard are intrinsically tied to the land. When I bring up the issue of climate change, Brad becomes visibly agitated. He taps the table nervously and shakes his head. “It’s a problem obviously when you’re trying to make ice products.” Since he began his orchard, his harvest has moved back a full week. But this is a minor concern compared to what might lay ahead. “The concern is in thirty years could we be a place where it doesn’t freeze?” As I listen to him speak on this subject, on the importance of Vermont’s weather not only to ice cider but to apples in general, I realize how volatile this business is and how dependent Brad is on elements outside his control. I change the subject and let Brad go back to talking about his ciders. His shoulders relax and he rests his hands on the table.
I look across the table at Brad and can’t help but be taken aback by the passion that flows out of him. So I ask him, what is it about making cider that excites you? His hand flies upwards and his eyes shift around his kitchen. “Look at this. How could you not be excited? I get to wake up everyday and do this work and make these products. Why wouldn’t I? I love doing it. It’s a good life.”
When Brad and his wife bought the property in 2002, they never intended to produce cider. “When we moved here, it was important to both of us that we start some kind of light agricultural business. That was important to us in terms of who we are and what we wanted to do.” The couple settled on growing apples and bought the property from a local doctor who had owned it since 1956. The family got to work, restoring the farm and preparing it to produce fruit. “Restoration was a long process. If you can imagine, most of these trees would be about two scaffoldings higher so about 10-20 feet.” He gestures out the window at the rows of neatly pruned fifteen feet tall trees. “The trees were overgrown by seven or eight years. So I was cutting off branches bigger than my arm.” The orchard on the property is now three acres, with a hundred different varieties of apples and in the past twelve years, he has made apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and since, 2009, ice cider.
It was thanks to a woman named Eleanor Leger that Brad’s ice cider production began. Back in 2007, Eden Ice Cider in Newport, VT, was started by Eleanor Leger and her husband, Albert. On a trip to Montreal eight years ago, the pair tried ice cider for the first time. Albert, a former chemistry teacher, and Eleanor, a former corporate marketer, had recently bought a farmhouse and were looking for a product to make on their land. “We knew we didn’t want to farm animals or vegetables because we didn’t know anything about them. But we had always loved apples.” And when they discovered that ice cider had never been produced in the Untied States, they knew they had found their product. There was just one problem. In order to have a successful product, at least two things have to be in place. First, people have to have a frame of reference for what the product is. And second, retailers have to have a logical place on their shelves to stock it. Unfortunately, for Eden Ice Cider, those two things only come into being with competition.
Brad and Eleanor had been friends for years, habitually crossing paths at functions for apple producers in the state. When she first approached Brad about producing ice cider, he was far from convinced. A year later, he reconsidered. “They basically made me an offer I couldn’t refuse:” Start your own label. Grow great apples. And Eden would take care of producing the ice cider.
In the years since Brad began his ice cider brand, Windfall Orchards and Eden Ice Cider have gone from being competitors to partners. Albert and Eleanor still make Brad’s ice cider for him and now contribute to the distribution of his products. And Brad wouldn’t trust it to anyone else. “It’s not easy to make. You need a chemistry degree. That’s why Albert does it and I don’t.” His boisterous laugh fills the room. “I wouldn’t have anyone else other than Albert make my ice cider. Ever. Ever. Ever.” While Brad is the keeper of a significant amount of knowledge on apples, orchards, and cider in general, if I want to see the process of making ice cider, Newport, VT, is the place to go.
I walk down the stairs to the basement of the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, each of which is covered in a mosaic of tiles and I narrowly avoid slipping all the way down. The noisy hum of the machinery begins to creep into my ears. On an awning above the staircase, the words “Eden Ice Cider” appear in dark green. At the bottom of the staircase is a short hallway lit by fluorescent lighting. To my left is a glass door. I follow Eleanor and Albert through it into a room filled with wooden barrels and shiny silver tanks. This is where the fermentation takes place. Inside the opaque silver tanks lined one after another against the back wall of the basement. Albert presses and freezes the cider at his home in West Charleston, VT. Once the concentrated liquid is extracted, he brings it over the to the tasting center where it ferments. “During fermentation, the sugars change to alcohol and at some point when you have the right balance of sweetness, acidity and alcohol you have to stop the fermentation because there’s still plenty of sugar,” he tells me as he gestures around the basement. In order to be sold as ice cider, the fermented product needs to retain at least thirteen percent residual sugar. As a result, Albert kills the yeasts to prevent further fermentation from taking place. “All of our tanks are hooked up to a glycol chiller on the roof of the building. When I get the right balance of flavors, I turn it on and it cools the cider. The yeast can’t take the cold, so the yeast die and it stops the fermentation.” Listening to Albert talk, it’s easy to see why being a former chemistry teacher has made him successful in making cider.
As amazing as it is to imagine the process that takes place in this room, I quickly come to the realization that there’s not much to see. Albert tinkers with a machine he uses to filter the cider, which appears to be on the fritz. Cider quietly ferments in tanks and ages in barrels and bottles. The remarkable part of their production of ice cider doesn’t happen a sterile basement. It happens in a place that doesn’t look significantly different from the little white house that I left to come to Newport.
Compared to ice wine, which is thought to have its origins in Roman times, ice cider is in its infancy. It’s also a definitively new world product. Traditionally, southeastern Quebec has been the apple belt of eastern Canada, much in the same way that Vermont and New York have been for the eastern United States. However, in the early 1980s, the market for apples began to expand globally. As this occurred, new competition emerged, breeding apples for their storage quality and shipping quality rather than for taste. As a result, many apple growers in southeastern Quebec fell into economic despair.
Out of great necessity came the innovation of ice cider. Looking for a new use for their apple products, the Quebecois took notice of the success of Ontario’s ice wine industry. They figured, why can’t something similar be done with apples? Twenty-five years later, ice cider production has swept across Quebec, with dozens of individuals producing.
Eleanor and Albert were the first to bring ice cider to America and they continue to be the largest producer in the country. Half of that production takes place down a dead end dirt road in West Charleston, VT, twenty minutes outside of Newport and the couple’s permanent home. It’s a white farmhouse with slatted wood paneling and two barns on either side of it, one green and one red. Albert and I stand in his living room. He points out the back window and I lean over a chair to see what looked like fifty, three hundred gallon plastic store containers, stacked three high and eight across. “That’s the most ice cider being made in the United States. Right there in our backyard.” Albert keeps a small forklift inside the green barn which he uses to individually haul each of the plastic totes outside to freeze and inside to thaw.
Albert Leger hails from a small town in New Brunswick called Caraquet. As he speaks, his words flow from his mouth in a low-pitched French Canadian accent. His short grey hair is neatly combed and thin wire framed glasses rest upon his face. With him standing at over six feet, he towers over me and I notice his angular brow and jaw lines as well as a strong nose. Eleanor walks over to us and points to the green barn standing beside their home. “After the cider is frozen outside, we put it in that barn to thaw so that we can extract the juice.” Her round face exudes warm and her dark grey hair falls to her shoulders where it meets a black sweater. She then gestures to her small kitchen and says, “Can you believe that when we first started, our tasting room was in our kitchen?” She lets out a quick, sharp laugh. “We would get calls at ten A.M. on Sunday morning and it was like, ugh, I have to clean the kitchen, I have to get dressed…” She laughs again with a subtle radiance. “But it was really amazing that people would drive all the way here to visit us. Just truly amazing.” Eleanor shakes her head slightly as if in disbelief at her own success. “That’s one of the reasons we decided to open the tasting center in downtown Newport.”
In August 2013, Albert and Eleanor opened the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center on Main Street. Newport is a town divided. On side of Main Street, empty storefronts colored with childish blue and pink graffiti and dilapidated signs lie below abandoned apartments. The tenants of this block were evicted from their stores and homes with the promise of its reconstruction, all in an effort to revive the economically depressed Newport. As of now, the block still stands and the stores are still vacant. On the other side of the street, hints of the promise of economic stability have come to fruition in the form of art galleries, restaurants, and largely, Eleanor and Albert’s Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center.
The three us of spend the morning tromping around their small orchard of one thousand trees. Albert steps off the dirt road that runs alongside his property, digging his foot down into the snow. His puffy red coat squeaks softly as he moves his body and his glasses appear opaque in the harsh sunlight. Atop his head is a fur lined leather hat with earflaps. He takes each step carefully, stopping to let his heavy boots sink through to the earth. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Each step sings out over the still landscape.
Eleanor follows closely behind. While I step gingerly in each of Albert’s footprints, Eleanor forges her own path, tromping alongside the couple’s two border collies, Roxy and Monty. As she picks up her pace, the dogs take off into a sprint, past me, past Albert, to the wire fence that surrounds one of Albert and Eleanor’s apple orchards.
Albert yells something to Eleanor and his thick French Canadian accent echoes in the air. He came to the United States to study at Harvard, which is where he met Eleanor. And after a long union, with many homes, careers and two grown kids, Albert and Eleanor Leger now make ice cider full time.
In the midst of the brown and white orchard, a small orange globe catches my eye. Eleanor and her dog Monty walk towards it as I follow slowly behind, tripping along as snow rises up over my boots. On a singular branch of a singular tree hangs a shriveled, auburn colored apple. On an ice cider orchard, it’s rare to see fruit in January. While a select number of ice cider makers can leave their fruit on the branch, Eleanor and Albert make theirs the more traditional way by harvesting their apples in the fall. Eleanor grazes fingers over the apple. “So you can see that, even though it’s a bit wrinkled, this would basically be the shape of the apple…Luckily we don’t need beautiful looking fruit because it’s all going to go into the cider press.” Because their apples are used for the juice, cider producers can focus more on flavor than traditional dessert apple growers. “We don’t pick the way people pick for dessert fruit. We’re not trying to get something that’s really crunchy or that’s aesthetically pleasing. We’re looking for flavor.” In fact, many of the cider varieties grown by the Leger’s and other ice cider makers are inedible.
Eleanor drops her hand from the shriveled apple and looks toward her husband. They break eye contact and simultaneous gaze out over their orchard. The mountains of the northeast kingdom rise up into the distant sky and there’s not another house in sight. Looking at this piece of land, Eleanor and Albert, these apples, I’m not surprised people call ice cider “the nectar of the gods.” It’s a little patch of paradise.