Andy Brennan: Aaron Burr Cidery

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

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Editor’s Note: One day last fall we were at Hudson Wine Merchants and were very pleasantly surprised to discover the cider from Aaron Burr Cidery. Since then we have made sure to have a few bottles on hand because it’s so good! Pairing their cider with food is a delicious no-brainer.

We recently spoke with Andy Brennan about his Aaron Burr Cidery and here’s what he he had to say.

Your Aaron Burr Cidery has blasted off like a rocket. I’m sure you knew you were producing something special, but did you expect the overwhelmingly positive reaction your ciders have received. How does that feel?

Andy Brennan: I definitely was not expecting a big reaction. In fact, I continue to be self-conscious about releasing ciders just as I was nervous about showing my work as a painter. But I recognize that I’m working with something special in uncultivated apples. They are different in so many ways, and frankly, it’s shocking that the pomology community, orchardists and cider makers, have overlooked them. It makes me feel like I’m representing an underdog. So long as I remind myself that I represent those forgotten apples and not myself, then I can find the courage to release the ciders despite my fears.  

As a painter, an architect and now a ciderist, it’s pretty clear you are interested in process. Tell us about the process you use to produce your delicious ciders.

AB: In theory the process is so simple–it ferments by itself–but making cider requires a lot of attention, intuition and patience. Cider offers somebody devoted to craft a wide scope for refinement. But more importantly, cider offers companionship and wonder: truly fine cider is a collaboration with the life cycle of apples and their juice. We experience the growing season together and we enter the dormancy of winter together with the yeasts. A good cider maker is a shepherd. This is life we’re talking about, it takes more than craftsmanship, it takes sympathy. With cider, as with any living being, one must be able to accept, adjust, and envision other outcomes.

I said what I think is important, but I will narrate a typical batch. After pressing the juice I will collect and ferment it in open barrels. As the fermentation cools I then rack it off its lees (siphon the juice away from the sediment) when the specific gravity is around 1.015 (that means the sugars are about 75% converted to alcohol.) The racking slows the rest of the fermentation, and if it gets going again in warm weather I rack again to limit the yeast frenzy. I want it to crawl along at a snail’s pace all winter. In long winters (like this one) I can bottle in spring knowing the fermentation will continue in the glass to produce more yeast sediment and mineral layers. That’s my secret ingredient, although it’s not so secret to the champagne industry: The longer the liquid sits on that lees layer the more the sediment infuses its essence back into the drink.

You (and your wife) moved to upstate New York searching for your ‘ghost orchard’. Tell us the story of the orchard you ‘loved and lost’ and about how it affects what you do today.

AB: I don’t necessarily believe in physical ghosts but I believe we have feelings from time to time which connect us to another era or another life. For me, I have nostalgia for rural culture and “the simple life” despite the fact I grew up completely removed from it in suburban Washington, D.C. 

In my twenties a friend and I moved to an abandoned cottage on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Surrounding the cottage on three sides was 40 acres of abandoned orchard and while my friend was interested in fishing, I was interested in the orchard. I felt transformed in it as though I had been teleported to a by-gone era. But the suburbs tracked me down. The abandoned farm land was sold to a developer who in two days time razed the orchard. Without the presence and protection of the orchard I felt exposed and without culture. I began looking for land where I can build this memory of this orchard again. 

That memory fueled my resistance to conventional apple growing, the most sprayed crop in America. Recognizing that apple trees left to their own devises produce different fruit than cultivated orchards, I was free to also develop my cider methodology in a vacuum. The wisdom of my cider elders did not fully extend to me because my base material was so different. I had the good fortune of sailing uncharted waters and re-discovering a lost continent. 

The big thing that stands out for me is your love of your land and the sustainable ideas inherent in what you’re doing with your wild, foraged, noncommercial apples. You said this, “One needs to ask nature what to do, not the other way around.” Talk about that.

AB: My “non-approach” to growing apples (and cider is an extension of this) is fueled by negative feelings for what agriculture has become. I romanticize that the pre-industrial people had a better understanding of living per scale with what they needed. I think their cider reflected that, both on the growing end and in fermenting technique. We can’t sample their cider now but I’m certain it was more advanced than what we are capable of producing today. To get back to great cider we need the land healthy and we need to scale down orchard and cider producer sizes so we can focus is on doing things right. 

Nature will produce healthy food if we let it. Instead, we ask the land to overextend itself. Rather than focusing on quality and nutrition, agricultural science is entirely focused on keeping pace with human population growth. I believe our focus is selfish and we are pushing nature out of balance with us. 

We have no soul connection with the land anymore. Working 9-to-5 regardless of the sunlight changes, washing our hands when they get dirty, or not knowing where the animals we eat come from–these are all signs of our large-scale disconnect from the earth. Without an intimate connection to the soil, seasons and the other creatures on earth much of our scientific wisdom lacks ground for application. Amending the soil, irrigation, fertilization … they are the same as adding SO2, sterile filtration or sugar to wine. These are signs of the disconnect in wine and apple growing. They ask the wrong questions. I want to know what nature is saying. 

Let’s go down to your cool, dark cellar. Tell us about that eureka moment when you realized you had the opportunity to continue a great tradition with apples picked from 200-year-old trees on your very own piece of land.

AB: It was again a ghost experience that confirmed my identity as a cider maker. Years ago, one evening in late January, I put my boots on to go outside and around the house to the cellar door. Brushing off the snow from the hatch I went down the steps to the five-foot high stone cellar where I made and stored the cider. I picked out a growler and headed back upstairs for dinner. At the top of the steps I looked out over the snow covered orchard and realized I must have been here before. Not in this lifetime, but another. It was like déjà vu, unexplainable, but powerful. That’s when I realized I was part of a tradition, a feeling I had never experienced before, not even with art.

You make cider from heirloom varieties of apples using vintage methods, yet somehow you’re “nonconformist” and using a “controversial approach”. Those descriptions seem like a disconnect to me. Can you talk about that?

AB: Disconnected is exactly how I would describe modern enology and pomology. A fear of nature fuels growers and commercial wine and cider makers. When on the home front, the best drink in the land is being done by people without access to advanced fruit school, sprayed commercial fruit, or sterilizing equipment and chemicals. Amateurs are free to explore, they are not ruled by fear of failure or the need for profitability.

I first started consulting with Cornell University eight years ago. They are nationally recognized as the leader in pomology. But when I showed them my soil maps and soil nutrient samples they all but laughed in my face. “Forget it,” was the message I came home with. They said the money and time it would take to “correct” my soil for apple growing was not worth the effort. But upon returning home the first thing I saw when pulling into my driveway is an apple tree. Despite the vision of a perfect orchard apple trees do grow well here, and it’s in defiance that I decided to continue.   

The exact same dogma is rampant in wine and now cider production, too. The industry thinks there is a how-to manual for making great wine. Wine producers picture a perfect scenario (a perfect season, perfect soil, a perfect blend, etc., etc.) and they correct the juice as needed. But there is no path toward perfection, there is only a path to discovery.

In the end, I think you can’t discount scientific wisdom, but they usually are not seeing the bigger picture. Looking at the whole picture is a talent many people do not possess, or are not trained to trust. Whatever the case, I think having an art background and not a science background is advantageous for cider making.

You’re located in the Hudson Valley and you have rightly said that it’s ‘dead-center of the Western Hemisphere’s apple belt’. Your quote made me think of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. In that book he explains the ancient Asian origins of the apple. Talk about your love and respect for the mighty apple.

AB: The apples we know probably originated in Central Asia. Today there still stands forests of these wild apple trees. Via animal and human migration this apple (larger and sweeter than other types of apples) made their way west. The Dutch, French, and English then brought the apples to the new world and just like western man; Malus domestica became a transplant to the Americas (though there were crab apples here already.) Unlike in England and France though, the apple found a more suitable home in our colder climate, shallow soil, and hilly terrain. The domestic apple found a land more like its home in Central Asia.

That much I recall from my readings but my observations support the fact that apple trees are healthier grown from seed and integrated with the forest. Everyone agrees that the apple responds to the surrounding conditions–that includes the soil, competing vegetation, and even the animals which cohabitate the orchard. This is especially true with uncultivated location as with wild apples. 

I am very interested in this because as a cider maker I want to represent all of nature, and the apples I forage better represent that compared to apples grown in monoculture orchards. It’s not just about variety. These wild apples must compete for light, compete for water and rely on the other trees around them for protection. Non-native, they are the Zeligs of the forest.

There is a lot more to be said about this, especially as it pertains to cider, and I’m trying to write it all down. Hopefully a book comes of it. But one last thing I’ll say is that it’s interesting how wild apples (or at least the ones that survive in the wild) suffer less disease compared to the cultivated ones. Is it the gene? Is it the assimilation? I think it’s both.

People absolutely love your cider–every bottle sold almost as soon as it’s capped. It’s obvious you didn’t enter into this enterprise to get rich, but do you worry about producing enough Aaron Burr Cider to make it profitable enough to continue? Can you make your cider fast enough?

AB: I want a cidery every 10 miles. Many people in the cider industry would be horrified by that thought because that means more competition; when a company’s growth is limited, investors run. But there is no other way to showcase the apple’s diversity. The apple deserves it and customers deserve it. This type of industry would also employ more people and preserve more land for farming than a limited number of cider companies operating on the economy-of-scale model. Mass-blended cider degrades a beautiful species just as mass-blended hamburgers degrade the individual life of each bovine. 

Ten miles is far from today’s reality though. To some extent I am trying to make up for the lack of cideries in my county by producing “locational” ciders in other townships. Instead of blending all the apples by taste as is traditionally done using the primary colors, acid/sugar/and tannin, I resolved with 2013’s abundance to group the apples per geographical identity. For instance, the apples found along the ridge will be one cider, the apples found here in the valley another. 

Perhaps this “locational” concept will be the next verbiage stolen and abused by economy-of-scale cider producers, though it would be an obvious lie. They already use the words: “craft”, “hand-made” and “artisan”, and some even claim to use “real cider apples” and grow on “one-hundred year old trees.” In the end, it is up to the customer to thoroughly research where their food and drink comes from. I trust intelligent people to do that.     

You ask if it is profitable enough to be sustainable. The answer has to come from the consumer. Apples are biennial and subject to weather set backs. In 2012 we lost 90% due to frost, for example, so I have to adjust my prices according to nature and to reflect long-term sustainability. I do heed what customers are willing to spend, but perhaps too self-consciously, my prices might be too low given all the factors. Still, I’d rather raise the price than try to make up for it in quantity. Again, I trust some people would opt to pay the difference rather than see me compromise the product. Someone has to offer the purist standard. I would hate to live in a world where even the artists cut corners.

Here’s another quote of yours: “We have to get the local population to bond with the soil once again.” Can you talk about that? What did you mean?

AB: We live our lives on pavement. Think about that. Whether in a house, a car, a sidewalk, or at work there is a hard barrier below us which separates us from the very thing that provides our bodies nutrients. The soil is where our ancestors are and it’s where we will be in no time, it’s odd that we don’t revere it more. We have compartmentalized social functions into a grid regardless of the animals, soil, and weather that stand in our way. They are road kill. 

These are the facts and to some extent this grid works for us. Perhaps with hydroponics and nutritional supplements we can even grow our food above the pavement, too. But if you care about the evolution our bodies then it strikes me as logical to take interest in food from the past and the growing techniques for that food. Some even argue we are still reeling from the advent of agriculture 10 thousand years ago. All I know is we can’t expect our bodies to rapidly adjust. Whenever possible I like to break from the grid and allow things to overlap. As a species I think we can benefit by inviting a little dirt into our homes. 

Talk about the magic of all this. Apple trees that have survived for hundreds of years, wild yeasts swirling in the air, you being in this place at the right time–all the things that evolve in your beautiful bottles to create a perfect glass of cider.

AB: I definitely would not call my cider perfect. All I want is authenticity. Other cider makers might have a more forgiving notion about what is and what isn’t authentic, but I have my own standard.

My mission is to re-introduce a fruit and drink to people who do not consider the fruit and drink most suitable to their location. I don’t push cider on the folks of Florida. In the Northeast we have the perfect situation for cider culture so it saddens me to see, for example, a New Yorker opt for red wine as their nightly dinner drink. The history of this region had cider at every table and that’s for natural reason. My interest in sustainable farming, art and history do coalesce in fine cider.    

If, in fact, I am at the right place and the right time then it’s ironic. My interest in wild apples comes from my identification with them. I always felt outside the sphere, like my perspective meant nothing to the world of people steadily progressing further and further from me. If now, we are discovering the health benefit and taste of those wild apples I can vicariously feel more engaged with humanity. It’s what I always wanted. But now I have a huge responsibility to represent those apples faithfully. I can’t let commercial interests redefine them. I hope my cider proves their uniqueness. 

Any last words? What was I not clever enough to ask?

AB: Craig, as I responded to each question I realized you were one step ahead of my answers and had already asked the follow up. You might even assume my answers are for one whole question.  

Well, Andy, we thank you for taking the time to do this for HandPicked Nation. Your answers were very enlightening. It’s time for a glass of cider!

AB: Thank you. I’ll join you in a glass. Cheers.

Have you tasted a cider from where you live? Tell us your story about local cider.

Photo credit: Ben Huberman