Cider Guide Podcast – Episode 2 – Nicole Leibon

Download: 002_Nicole_Leibon.mp3 [35.1MB, 38:11]

ERIC WEST (Intro): This is the Cider Guide Podcast, I’m your host Eric West. Each week I sit down to chat with a personality from the wide world of cider. No boring theme music, no annoying advertisements, just engaging conversation with interesting guests. I hope you’re having as much fun listening to these interviews as I am recording them!

Nicole Leibon of Farnum Hill Ciders in New Hampshire joins me for Episode 2. Largely overshadowed by Steve Wood—her highly influential and opinionated boss—Nicole has guided the cidermaking process at Farnum Hill for almost 15 years now. She and I chat about her background in fermentation, her favorite apple varieties for cidermaking, the Farnum Hill house style and their core products, the evolution of the cider industry in the United States, and the influence of women in cidermaking.

Here’s my conversation with Nicole Leibon.


Nicole at work in the lab. Source: FHC.

ERIC WEST: Nicole, thanks for making time for me today. The first thing that I wanted to ask you is, what exactly is your official title? And does that really encompass all that you do for Farnum Hill?

NICOLE LEIBON: Thanks for having me on, Eric. My title officially is Cidermaker. It’s sort of a vague title because things have shifted around over the years. When I first started I was doing everything from being out in the field to running the pumps and filling the tanks and doing the filtration. And over time, having had two kids, it’s winnowed down to the point where my specific roles are tasting and blending. And that was something that was always important in what I was doing with doing everything else. But that’s really what my focus is now. It’s kind of fun on days when I go in and actually get to wash a tank again! Instead of just drinking all day. Continue reading

Cider Guide Podcast – Episode 1 – Tom Oliver

Download: 001_Tom_Oliver.mp3 [42.6MB, 46:23]

ERIC WEST (Intro): This is the Cider Guide Podcast, I’m your host Eric West. Each week I sit down to chat with a personality from the wide world of cider. No boring theme music, no annoying advertisements, just engaging conversation with interesting guests. If this first episode is any indication—these interviews are going to be a whole lot of fun.

Tom Oliver of Oliver’s Cider & Perry in Herefordshire, England joins me for Episode 1. His ciders and perries are cherished on both sides of the Atlantic and Tom’s widely regarded as one of the best in the business. He and I chat about rediscovering forgotten cider apples and perry pears, his approach to cidermaking and perrymaking, the changing cider palates of women and men, the impact of social media, the challenge of making an honest living from cider, and why the art of cidermaking should be more like avant garde music and less like jazz.

Here’s my conversation with Tom Oliver.

ERIC WEST: First off, Tom, I wanted to congratulate you for the stack of awards you won at The Cider Museum in Hereford competition. It looks like you almost swept the Perry categories—1st in Dry, Medium, and Sweet, 2nd in Bottle Fermented Perry, and a 1st as well for Single Varietal Cider. Is that your best showing at that competition?

TOM OLIVER: That is my best showing. That was fantastic I’ve got to say. I don’t recall anyone getting four 1sts before. I actually had the cup the year before, but that was just for one 1st, which was another perry. So I’ve had a sweet spot at The Cider Museum the last couple of years. Continue reading

Cider, Hard & Sweet by Ben Watson – A Book Review

cider, hard & sweet ben watson

Cider, Hard & Sweet, by Ben Watson, is now in its 3rd edition, and for good reason. This quintessential book on cider informs the reader in a clear and lively way. Reading it from cover to cover is enjoyable; opening it at random for a casual peruse will quickly get you sucked in. You’ve been warned—set the timer on the oven or dinner will be burned.

Watson sets out 10 clearly organized chapters, which cover: the history of cider, apple varieties for cider, sweet cider, hard cider, cider styles and traditions, tasting and evaluating cider, perry, cider vinegar and spirits, cooking with cider, and cidermaking: beyond the basics. Being my husband’s wife, I have often heard these topics casually discussed, but reading Watson’s book helped me put the information together in a cohesive way.

One of my favorite chapters was that on apple varieties for cider. Ben Watson begins by explaining why apple trees are often grafted—apples rarely reproduce “true to type” from seed, which greatly affects how new varieties are formed. Like me, you’ll surely learn something in the details he shares. However, most of this chapter is spent in more immediate concerns—the flavor profiles of different categories of apples, and how they can contribute to a well-rounded cider, which includes sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and aroma. Previously, I had been mystified by cider makers that blended apples in their chosen proportions before pressing—how did they know what they would end up with? Watson reveals that it’s less a matter of magic and more a matter of knowing your apple categories. Cider producers will enjoy using this chapter as a jumping-off point when considering adding different varieties to their orchards or cider blends.

Another interesting chapter is Stronger Waters: Cider Vinegar and Spirits. As a teacher, I know that learning in context is much more effective than learning in isolation; even if your main focus is cider, learning about other apple-based drinks will extend your knowledge and give you a rounder picture. The “stronger waters” covered in this chapter are: apple brandy, pommeau, apple jack, ice cider, and cider vinegar. You may have never heard of some of these beverages before, though a description of ice cider (made from “freezing fresh cider pressed from apples in the dead of winter”) will surely intrigue you. I can attest to its deliciousness, which I can only describe as something akin to maple syrup, but alcoholic and made with apples—anyway, it’s worth a try. Conversely, anecdotes of “apple palsy” might put you off applejack, but nevertheless, the section will entertain you.

There’s a chapter suited for every reader, and each is skillfully done. I’m interested, however, in seeing how the chapter “Cider Styles and Traditions” will change in future editions, as cider itself blossoms and changes in the United States. What new styles will be invented or reinvented? Which categories will expand?

This book is not a read-once-and-put-on-the-shelf affair. Our copy is smudged and dog-eared. Part of the reason for this is the way in which the content is displayed. Helpful sub-headings divvy up each chapter while relevant photographs, diagrams, and easy-to-read charts are peppered throughout. Readers are prompted to smile at the start of each chapter, which begins in a prescient quote or verse.

The strength of this book rests on Ben Watson’s talent for finding a balance between breadth and depth, covering ground in a way that piques the interest of the cider drinker and the cider maker alike. Reading this book is probably the quickest and most accurate way for your average imbibing layman to reach the ranks of cider connoisseur. What’s more, it’s painless—nay, it’s downright enjoyable.

Cider Hard and Sweet

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The New American Cider Guide: Apple Knocker Hard Cider

It’s now March, and the phone interviews with cider makers for our upcoming book, The New American Cider Guide, are well underway. I don’t have to do too many truly “cold calls,” but with only one or two emails preceding, some calls are barely defrosted before that first ring. Yet the conversations themselves are decidedly warm and rewarding. I’m learning a lot about individual cider businesses and what makes cider makers tick.

That’s a good thing, because it will be many more interviews and a lot more writing before we achieve the reward of holding the finished book in our hands. But with several profiles behind us, we wanted to take a little peek at what it could be like.

Brad Genung from Apple Knocker Hard Cider was one of the first to reply to my interview request and to send me some photographs for our book. Using my write up of the interview and his photos, I’ve created a mock-up version of the Apple Knocker profile. Though I most likely will play with it a bit before print, I hope that you enjoy this preview.

Here it is, folks: Apple Knocker Profile for The New American Cider Guide . If you can’t open the pdf, here’s the content:

apple knocker h.c. color

Surrounding areas once ridiculed the inhabitants of Cobden, Illinois, as rustic country bumpkins, or “apple knockers.” Full of gumption, working-class Cobden took ownership of that term by making Appleknockers its high school mascot. When the school made it to the state basketball finals in 1964, the “apple knockers” were fully transformed, from foolish to tenacious.

Modern-day apple knocker Brad Genung embodies that spirit of grit. He spent about five years developing Apple Knocker Hard Cider before selling his first production run of 6,000 gallons in 2012. Though Genung acknowledges “there’s a little bit of anxiety in every bottle,” he has reason to believe Apple Knocker will be a success; current production is up to 20,000 gallons, and the business has had to pull back distribution so that the supply can meet demand.

Currently Genung uses apples from local orchards, but Spring 2014 heralds the beginning of Apple Knocker’s own orchard with the planting of two acres, to be extended at the rate of an acre a year. The trees will all be trellised in a similar fashion to his wine grape vineyards. The dense spacing—every 8 feet on 12 foot centers for a total of 460 trees per acre—is made possible because all of the trees are grafted onto dwarf rootstock.

Apple Knocker Hard Cider Bottles

Genung believes that there are three main approaches to making cider. Beer brewers who decide to go into cider focus on big, bold flavors; traditional cider makers use “beautiful, wonderfully tannic apples” to create ciders with depth and complexity; and winemakers make cider the way they make good white wine, by focusing on fresh fruit character. Genung, who has owned Owl Creek Vineyard since 1995, takes the vintner’s approach. On first impression, this may come as a surprise; Apple Knocker is sold in 22 oz. bombers with a label that’s reminiscent of craft brewing. But part of what drew Genung to cider is the convivial culture that surrounds it, and he worried that wine bottles would align his product with wine’s serious and restrictive image. Genung wanted his packaging to reflect the “free expression” phase that cider is currently in.

Brad Genung’s experimentation has resulted in a core trio: Hard Knocks, Bad Apple, and Sweet Knockers. So far, he’s proudest of Hard Knocks, which is a semi-dry cider. He ferments it to dryness using Belgian yeasts, and then adds back apple juice for a touch of sweetness. He describes it as having some citrus and sour flavors, with a light oak character on the finish. He’s also working on developing a dry hopped cider; by using Cascade hops at cooler temperatures, he hopes to imbue only a light hoppiness to the cider, complementing the flavor of the apples. Even when borrowing techniques from the beer brewing tradition, he’s looking for “the clearest expression of the apple.”

“It’s delicate, and it’s ethereal, like the great moments in life. You pick up these subtleties that you appreciate so wonderfully, and then it’s all gone. It’s like the really defining moments in life that you always harken back to, that’ll put a smile on your face to make you happy. That’s what enjoying a good cider should be like.”

Apple Knocker Hard Cider

Photo: Brad Genung stands behind dock crushing crew Tim and Karin with about-to-be-pressed cider apples. The apples are pressed cold to inhibit any wild yeasts or red wine yeasts that might be present, without having to add sulfites.

The New American Cider Guide

Old-time cider mills are still a common sight in the Great Lakes.

At the start of each new year, I look back at the old to reflect upon my successes and failures. Which goals did I fulfill, which ones remained merely dreams? One failed project that continues to haunt me is The Cider Guide to North America, a book that I began researching in June 2012. Armed with a laptop, camera, voice recorder, GPS receiver, and a pocket notebook, I set out on the first of what my wife and I would refer to as my “cider trips.” This journey through the Mid-Atlantic took me to 12 different cidermakers and distillers, all generous with their time and all eager to share their stories. The six-day trip from Virginia to New York was exhausting but incredibly energizing. I was convinced more than ever that cider had a bright future and that I was in the right place at the right time to document it.

The breathtaking mountain scenery of the Pacific Northwest.

Future trips took me to the West Coast, the Great Lakes, the Hudson Valley, and New England. Along the way, I angrily pounded my steering wheel in snarled traffic, was hassled by a customs agent even though I’d declared every bottle, and grew sick of McDonald’s coffee and Panera sandwiches. Some visits didn’t materialize and I had to readjust my complex itinerary on the fly. I slept on tasting room floors, in unheated guest houses, at primitive Forest Service campgrounds, in brightly-lit rest areas, and next to somber gravestones in an out-of-the-way cemetery. But I also drove on more jaw-droppingly scenic roads than most people will experience in a lifetime. I shared lavish meals and drank amazing cider with gracious hosts who took a chance on someone they’d never met. I was welcomed with open arms nearly everywhere, and was amply rewarded for stepping out of my comfort zone to undertake such a Herculean (perhaps Quixotic?) task. I still shake my head in wonder at all of the hospitality I was shown.

The peaceful confines of Ivy Cemetery.

In all, I’ve interviewed over one hundred cidermakers, winemakers, distillers, orchardists, importers, event promoters, and bar owners, gaining a broad-spectrum view of American cider culture in the process. I’ve traveled to Franklin County CiderDays (twice), GLINTCAP (twice), and Virginia Cider Week. I’ve made many friends through cider, which left me feeling all the more guilty for putting the project on the back burner. I knew there was still demand for the information I’d gathered and the perspective I’d gained, yet somehow life kept getting in the way…a common theme for those who can’t yet justify a full-time career in cider.

Enjoying the San Juan Islands of Washington from the deck of a ferry.

My wife Melissa has repeatedly urged me to dust off my notes and revive the book project. I knew she was right; cidermakers across the country had taken time out from their busy schedules to speak with me, and I’d done almost nothing to repay that debt. Recently she upped the ante by offering her services as writer, editor, fact checker, layout designer…basically whatever I needed to help the book project rise from the ashes. So I’m pleased to announce that, together, we are hard at work making the first guidebook to American cider a reality.

The Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

The New American Cider Guide will profile every commercial cider producer in the United States, from the smallest garage operation to the largest industrial behemoth. (If it’s not on our map, it won’t be in the book. Leave a comment if we’ve overlooked you!) Taken as a whole, these profiles will offer an insider’s view of the resurgence of modern American cider culture. The New American Cider Guide will appeal equally to the intrepid cider traveler who is planning a road trip and to the curious cider enthusiast who wants to learn the story behind what’s in the bottle.

San Diego County has a surprisingly rich apple history.

If you haven’t already, please like Cider Guide on Facebook, follow Cider Guide on Twitter, and subscribe to these Cider Guide posts (at the top of the right sidebar) for updates on the book’s progress. You can also visit for more information. Cheers!