It is not quite news that there is a resurgence of interest in cider in the US, and that new cideries are opening up by the dozens all across the country. But frankly not every cider maker can make a complex cider right out of the gate, even when he/she started out as a home brewer, since it’s such a different process with different standards. Australian native Jahil Maplestone of Descendant Cider is one of the exceptions.
To be fair, Jahil didn’t jump straight from beer brewing to cider making. But his wife Alexandria doesn’t much care for beer, and as she’s originally from the UK cider must have seemed like the best alternative. They liked what he made, and their friends did, too. And he began to wonder, why aren’t there more interesting ciders available at my neighborhood store? And why aren’t there a bunch of unique small craft cideries around like there are small craft breweries, someplace he could go and visit and connect with the people doing the making? Bear in mind that the couple lives in Brooklyn, home to a veritable explosion of artisianal producers of all manner of edible and drinkable things. So when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new law in October 2013 easing some restrictions on cider made by small producers exclusively from New York apples, they took the leap and became the first licensed cidery in metropolitan New York City. Their first releases became available just in time for New York Cider Week in October 2014.
There are many ideas about just what cider is. Some believe that real cider consists of only juice from apples (or perhaps pears) and yeast (native or cultured). The branch-to-bottle adherants believe that a cider maker should have his/her own orchard to make the cider “real”. On the other end of the spectrum are the grand experimentalists who are willing to try out anything and everything (honeydew melon/coconut/chili pepper? mango/peanut butter/wasabi?). Some of these grand experiments will find their market, and some won’t. But what will keep cider an interesting and vibrant drink is, perhaps, the idea that the true goal is making an authentic, well balanced, engaging beverage that people will embrace for the long term. (For a thought-provoking take by noted beer/cider writer Pete Brown on what can happen when rules get a bit too tight see his article here).
Jahil clearly has his own ideas about what cider can be, notions reflected in the company’s name, which arose from the concept of today’s cider decending from but not repeating the past. Not one to be bounded by tradition or to go too far out into the land of experimentation, he conceives of a very specific flavor profile and sets out to find the ingredients that will give him what he wants whether they be apple varieties, yeast strains, or something else. It seems he’s trained his palette well, and when spending a bit of time discussing his ciders it becomes clear just how intentional each component is.
Pom Pom is a case in point. With the goal of fashioning a dry, crisp, sparkling drink that has the warm look of a good bourbon, he starts with a base of several apples he particularly likes – Macintosh, Empire, and a handful of others – fermenting them with a strain of Champagne yeast that he values for the crisp edge it gives. Once the ferment has finished he adds a touch of pomegranate juice for color, additional fruit notes, and little tannin. To create a more complex nose he adds distilled hibiscus flowers (the clear distillate doesn’t affect the color of the cider). The result is a cider with a deep golden/pink glow and a plummy nose that starts with a bang of tartness followed by flavors of honeyed raisin which grow as it warms a bit. Although technically a semi-sweet cider based on the amount of residual sugar, the mildly astringent tannins give the drinker a perception of dryness. Pom Pom was conceived as a cider that one would have with a meal, and it fits that bill admirably. What’s more it complements a whole range of foods quite nicely from fresh oysters with a mignonette to peppery fried chicken to rich roast lamb.
Sucession, on the other hand, is meant as an easy beverage to be consumed in a pub setting with a group of friends, lightly sparkling, lower in alcohol (5.5% ABV) and an accessable semi-dry. The nose is full of floral apple, and so is the taste, much like biting into a ripe Gravenstein, crisp and sweet tart. It has a pleasant body, which Jahil says comes from the strain of beer yeast he uses, although there is no obvious taste of beer about it. Beautifully balanced it seems to handle just about anything one puts with it whether spicy, funky, buttery, or rich.
Working in a mere 600 square feet on the second floor of a converted factory building in Queens, Jahil has to be as creative in his use of space as he is in his ciders. There he does some of his pressing (with the rest done at a few of the orchards from which he sources his apples), all the fermation, barrel-aging (for some seasonal releases), and bottling. Meanwhile he dreams of a larger space with a tasting room, a place where someday he can connect with people who share his passion for good cider made by a unique small craft cidery.