The Cider House Rules

Ian Merwin, Cornell University professor emeritus of horticulture and co-owner of Black Diamond Cider in Trumansburg, offers a tasting of his recently-released Shin Hollow Cider to Cider House visitors Benjamin Andrysick and Margaret Lynch, both of Ithaca. “It was a pleasant surprise,” Andrysick said. “I had never experienced cider in that way with so many varieties and in such a nice setting.”

When Margaret Lynch and Ben Andrysick stopped by the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken after having visited nearby Taughannock Park, they were taking a chance on a new drinking and dining experience. They weren’t disappointed. Ian Merwin, co-owner of Black Diamond Cider in Trumansburg, one of the Cider House’s five collaborative hard cider makers, was introducing his new Shin Hollow cider with tastings for visitors in the popular bar and dining room. “It was a pleasant surprise,” Andrysick said. “I had never experienced cider that way with so many varieties and in such a nice setting. It was a whole new world for me.”

Lynch said she had tried hard cider in France. “I loved it there, and I’m really excited that it’s taking off around this area and it tastes as good or better than it did in Europe.” She said she “really enjoyed Ian’s cider,” noting: “I personally like the drier ciders with not too much sugar so this was great and definitely a change from others I’ve tried. It had an interesting combination of flavors with that little bit of vanilla and citrus coming together. It’s more refreshing and easier to drink if you don’t have the sugar.”

Lynch said she was also impressed by the Cider House itself. “I think they did a really gorgeous job with the tasting room and the setting,” she noted. “I like that it’s on their farm and you’re not just in a sterile room, and there are a lot of things going on around you.” Lynch said she enjoyed some of the farm’s products when she ordered one of the Cider House’s seasonal plates at the tasting bar. The dish included asparagus grown on the farm in the rows between approximately 1,200 cider apple trees.

Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller bought the 69-acre corn and soybean farm in 2008. The couple proceeded to rework the crop land and wood lot into an eco-friendly unit producing certified organic fruit and fresh vegetables, meat and poultry. They named it “Good Life Farm.” In 2012 they decided to add cider production to their list of endeavors and began planting 300 cider apple trees annually; they now have 38 varieties of American heirloom, English and European cider apples in their orchard. In 2014, Garrett, along with his brother, Jimmy, and a few friends, began transforming a barn into the undeniably impressive Cider House. The new facility opened in the spring of last year with a spacious tasting room and bar and a lower level equipped with a kitchen and cider-processing facilities.

In addition to Good Life Farm’s own cider, the Cider House features ciders from Black Diamond Cider in Trumansburg, Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, Redbyrd Orchard Cider in Burdett and South Hill Cider in Ithaca. Melissa Madden explains: “A tasting room was part of the idea for this farm for a long time. When we first started growing apples we had cider in mind, and when we made the switch in 2012 to planting only cider apples we knew we wanted to have a cider room for it.

“We’ve been working on it since 2011 or 2012 and developing the relationships with the other cider makers,” Madden said. “They make high-quality cider with a great amount of integrity –there are no tricks, no flavor additives. They do their best to highlight the types and variety of apples they’re using, and they have a deep understanding of the production of quality cider—just like quality winemakers.”

Redbyrd Orchard Cider, one of the four cider makers collaborating with the Cider House and Good Life Farm, sells its ciders at area farmers markets and has a distributor handling sales to restaurants and wine shops in New York City, but 50 percent of their cider is marketed by the Cider House, according to Redbyrd co-owner Eric Shatt, who also manages Cornell University’s orchards and research farms. “It’s incredibly beneficial to a small producer like us because we’re slowly growing and the Cider House gives us a great opportunity to really highlight our cider to a big crowd. It’s important as a place to communicate to the public about what we’re doing.”

Jackie Merwin, co-owner of Black Diamond Cider in Trumansburg, made the point that “a lot of people who go into cider-making or wine-making feel they also have to build and operate a tasting room, but that’s not where our priorities are. We like growing the fruit and making the cider but having a retail tasting room was something we couldn’t contemplate doing. So a couple of years ago when Melissa and Garrett said they were going to build a tasting facility and asked if we’d like to be one of the cideries participating, we said: ‘Hell, yeah—yes, we would.’

“Ian said: ‘Thank the Lord we don’t have to build a tasting room now,’” Jackie related. “The Cider House has been an important part of our selling, and I really enjoy the release parties and just going up there and hanging out. I think they’re running a great operation.”

Steve Selin, owner of South Hill Cider on the Ithaca-Danby border, has a recently-planted orchard of 1,400 cider-apple trees but still buys apples from a number of Ithaca-area orchards and scours the countryside around the Finger Lakes in search of old, forgotten orchards and roadside hedgerow apple trees. Not long ago he found an old stand of trees southeast of Ithaca in Caroline and, after obtaining permission from the landowner, harvested 100 or more bushels of apples. That left him with the problem of getting the fruit out: “These hidden trees were far enough off the dirt road that we could only retrieve the fruit by hauling it out on our backs. Hence the name ‘Packbasket.’”

Among the guests at a Cider House release party for Selin’s Packbasket cider was a group of young women from Syracuse. They sampled the new cider, described by Selin as bone dry, complex and fruity, and tasted slices of the apples and pears that went into its making. Emily Doucet, who arranged the excursion with her friends, said she thought “the cider was amazing, and I loved how he brought the wild apples and pears for us to try and how he walked in the woods to find the trees and had to pack the apples out on his back.” She bought a bottle of the Packbasket and another five varieties for a party she was planning. “Everyone really enjoyed the selection,” she said, adding that she provided tasting notes for each variety.

Doucet returned to the Cider House for another visit recently and found it to be “really busy—it was packed. I think it used to be a well-kept secret but not anymore.”

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story and photos by Bill Wingell

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