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ERIC WEST (Intro): Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider in the Hudson Valley of New York joins me for Episode 5. Andy has received a great deal of positive press—much of it highlighting his use of foraged apples—and his ciders are highly regarded by tastemakers in New York City. Aaron Burr is a shining example of a small-scale cidery that is taking the high road with regard to quality while still achieving success in the marketplace. In this conversation, Andy and I chat about how he became interested in growing apples and making cider, why he uses organic and beyond-organic methods in his farmstead orchard, his success in foraging and collecting unwanted apples for cidermaking, why he enjoys making cider with non-traditional ingredients such as ginger and elderberry, and much much more.
Here’s my conversation with Andy Brennan.
ERIC WEST: Let’s start off with this. So down here in Virginia, we have a number of cities and counties and universities named after founding fathers. But for those who don’t remember their U.S. history, they may not know who Aaron Burr is. So I wanted to ask you—who was Aaron Burr and why did you choose his name to name your cidery after?
ANDY BRENNAN: Briefly, for those who don’t know, Aaron Burr was the vice president to Thomas Jefferson—the third vice president. He actually tied Thomas Jefferson in the election. And at the time, there was no way of determining who would be president. But long story short, Aaron Burr was a very interesting person during the Revolutionary War, had a very interesting political career. Afterwards, he was the one who shot and killed Hamilton in a duel. He later tried to secede Mexico!
WEST: And that’s why you use the dueling pistol as your logo on your labels, is that right?
BRENNAN: Yeah, it’s from that most famous incident.
WEST: And there’s a tie to your own property, right? A tie that Aaron Burr has to your own farmstead?
BRENNAN: In fact that’s where I’m going with this. After his political career unraveled, he returned to New York City and practiced law for another 30 years, until the 1830s or so. His bread-and-butter was writing property deeds and settling property disputes. So in 1817 when the Bairds of Manhattan sold their property to the Browns, they got Aaron Burr to be the lawyer. So his signature is on our deed from 1817.
WEST: That’s really cool.
BRENNAN: The Browns, by the way, kept this as a homestead farm from 1817 all the way to 1960, in their family. Until it was sold in 1968 to someone from New York City who wanted it as a second home. And that’s when it ceased to become a working homestead farm.
WEST: That is one thing I wanted to ask you about. When you were looking for property, were you looking for something with orcharding and cidermaking in mind? Was the Hudson Valley the only place that you were searching?
BRENNAN: Not the only place we were searching. Searching within a two-hour commuting shot of New York City. Because at the time–and I still am, actually–tied to the city for freelance architectural work. So I do have to go in every once in a while. And at the time, Polly was going in almost every day. So we needed to stay close to the city.
But moving up here–or moving away from the city–apples played a part in it. We wanted a farm. Cider was not the goal. It was really just to restore this fantasy of an orchard I had when I was in younger. I lived on the edge of an apple orchard. I spent a lot of time in the orchard, just painting or daydreaming, really. That orchard was razed for development. Having lost that, I always envisioned having that again. That’s why owning a larger property, not just a home, but a property that we would farm and develop for apple orchard.
WEST: So when the idea came to plant trees, it seems that was an exciting time. How did you decide which varieties of apples that you wanted to plant? How did you go about researching how to layout the orchard, pick out rootstocks? What was that process like?
BRENNAN: And is like! It’s evolving here. So originally I approached it a bit more conventionally. I always wanted to be organic. I didn’t want live on a farm where I was going to be spraying, of course. But that’s problematic when you choose apples. Because it’s such a dependent tree and crop. But anyway, I started researching organic apple growing at Cornell. That was my first resource. They didn’t quite understand cider apple production. And at the time, I didn’t either. So it started with the typical–the tree needs sun, good soil conditions, irrigation, and various pest and disease management. So that’s how I started.
I cleared about 5 acres of land, and just started planting. It was over time that–it was not too much longer, after about a year–we had this incredible apple crop in 2007. It was not from our apples, but from wild apples along the side of the road. So that year we went around collecting those apples. You couldn’t sell them, and we didn’t want to eat them. So we took them to Soons Orchard, which is a large and still very helpful orchard nearby. They pressed the juice for us. We fermented that, and something clicked after that cider aged. So we started gearing the orchard more towards cider. Which is a much longer story!
WEST: To look to the past, were you looking at historical, heirloom cider apples that were grown in your region? Or were you broadening your search for cider variety apples? How did you actually choose what to plant?
BRENNAN: Right from the get go, when we started clearing the land, our first trees were–we wanted very local, heirlooom apples. I think that ties to our fantasy of the past. We started with apples like Spitzenburg, Golden Russet, Northern Spy. New York–or very close to New York–heirloom varieties. And again, that changed too as we started becoming more cider specfic. It’s changed. We’re now on our third time. We went from those heirloom varieties–having discovered West County and Farnum Hill Cider around 2008 or 2009–we started planting varieties that they planted. And now we’re topping those trees yet again, in favor of the local wild apples, which may or may not be good for cider. But it’s just more keeping with what our mission is. Which is to stay extremely local.
WEST: You mentioned the organic influence on how you wanted to grow apples. Have you learned anything from your explorations in finding these foraged apples, and how those trees grow? Is there any permaculture influence, or anything that guides the way that you grow the trees, prune or not prune the trees?
BRENNAN: I never read a book on permaculture. Although everybody I know who has, seems to liken us to that approach. Once a year I meet now with a group in New England of very small apple growers who consider themselves beyond-organic. It’s the Holistic Apple Orchard Network. It’s run primarily by Michael Phillips, who literally wrote the book on organic apple growing.
WEST: The Apple Grower, right? And then he wrote another one called The Holistic Orchard, I believe?
BRENNAN: Yeah. It’s a group of 20 or 30 like-minded growers. Some are actually sizeable. We get together and talk about how to live at peace with apples and what plagues them. We have various degrees to which we observe organic principles, and probably permaculture principles.
WEST: So it sounds more like a case of working with nature instead of against it?
BRENNAN: Yeah. That’s the common goal, the common theme.
WEST: When apples are grown in that fashion, is it mainly to satisfy an internal desire or pleasure? Do you think that the resulting cider is better tasting or healthier? What opinion do you have on that?
BRENNAN: I have two opinions on that. One is absolutely, I think that apples that are grown in that manner, the resulting cider is superior. Superior is actually not the right word. What ends up happening is that if you do grow that way, you’re expressing what nature wants to say, not what the farmer wants to say. You have a more true expression of what the land has to offer. For instance, if you don’t amend the soil to have a better pH balance, or a better N-P-K, then basically you’re expressing what the soil is and was. You’re not changing the soil to better satisfy what you want. So that’s one reason why I grow that way. Of course, it is philosophically or spiritually rewarding.
But the other–and I think even more important–reason why I grow this way is I feel that over the last 100 or 150 years since we’ve shaped apples, I think we’ve reduced its ability to survive on its own in nature. And that’s why it is such a heavily sprayed tree. What I want–and this is nearly an impossible mission, at least within my lifetime, and probably 4 or 5 generations afterwards–but I do want to restore the tree to its symmetry with nature. I don’t want it to be dependent on us. I want it to relate to the oaks and to the poison ivy, or whatever it is out there. I want to assimilate the tree back into the larger nature. I believe this emphatically. I believe that’s the key to keeping the tree healthy, and lessening the need for interaction by way of sprays.
WEST: So with growing fruit that way, does that also change your approach to cidermaking? For example, is it easier to encourage a wild–or indigenous–yeast fermentation with those unsprayed, more in-tune-with-nature apples? Are there any effects in how you make cider using those apples?
BRENNAN: Cider is an extension of that. I don’t see it as there’s apple growing and there’s cider making. It’s the same continuation. It wouldn’t make sense to adopt a naturalistic approach to apple growing and get all Scott Labs on the cider making!
I stopped washing the apples before pressing them. The thought there is whatever living organisms are out there in the orchard, they’re going to be a part of the fermentation. There’s some degree to which what I do has been romanticized. I do in some cases use SO2. If there’s an apple that’s clearly rotting or turning vinegary, then that’s something I don’t want to introduce to a cider. So I do have some interaction if need be. But in most practice–I’d say 9 times out of 10, or 4 times out of 5, it depends on the year–it’s really just get them up off the ground and get them turned into juice. And just expect the cider to be a continuation of that growing season.
To some degree, I’m not totally reckless about it. I keep the fermentation more or less in a good, steady temperature environment. And if there’s trapped gasses, I’ll aereate it. Some things I do to keep it a clean and unflawed cider. But as little as possible.
WEST: Like you say, it seems in the press, some people have maybe not come out and said the word, but have pegged you as a purist for foregoing some of the commercial process of apple growing and cider making. But it sounds like it’s a lot more sophisticated than that.
Can you talk about some of the specific ciders that you’ve made from the 2013 vintage? And what your goal was for making each of those.
BRENNAN: In 2013, it was like 2007 in that we had this incredible bumper crop of apples. Again, my own orchard is still growing. And if I stop topping the trees, I might actually one day get apples! But most of our apples come from the town now. So for about 6 years, we’ve started to build a name as the guy who comes around and collects apples. Little by little, the amount of trees we source are growing. We got to the point last year, with this bumper crop that we had, I think it was about 7 times what we normally get in a year. And it’s like, how am I going to approach blending this? I didn’t want it to be one giant batch of cider. I wanted to keep them so separate and explore the different tastes that perhaps originated from the geographical features that are in our picking range.
There are 3 distinct geographical differences in a 10 mile radius. One is the lowlands here, I live in the valley. And just to our east is an ancient ridge called the Shawaagunk Ridge. And to our west is a plateau. Sullivan County, it’s not quite the Catskills, but it’s mountainous. If one pictures central Pennsylvania, it’s sort of like that. In an ideal scenario, we’re hoping that the hodgepodge of apples from each of those areas would end up expressing what it was that made those three geographical areas unique. The three do end up quite different, but that’s entirely unconclusive if it’s the result of just the varieties, or whether or not it’s the geography.
That ends up becoming an extremely interesting question, when it comes to apples. And that is, is the flavor the result of…is it just the variety that gives an apple its flavor, or is it the way in which it’s grown?
WEST: A continuing experiment it sounds like.
BRENNAN: And every time I go down this road, I end up coming up with the same conclusion. Which is it’s exactly half and half. If you start thinking it’s one, it’s the other. And vice versa. It’s always a combination of both.
WEST: It must be exciting for you to have people trying to aid you in your quest to find these trees. Have you made some good friendships or relationships with the people who steer you toward these abandoned homesteads, or toward the sources for these trees?
BRENNAN: That I have to admit is really one of the most rewarding parts of it. Getting to know people who, they wouldn’t contact me if they were indifferent to the trees. They just think it’s neat that somebody is still finding a use for these trees. A lot of them, maybe a third of them, are trees that they’ve had on their property. Maybe their grandparents planted it or something. But a good number of them are literally self-seeded trees that are on the edges of their hayfield or something like that. They’ve never thought to use them. So I think they think that’s neat. I like the cultural resurrection part of it as well. It’s great.
WEST: Beyond the Homestead offerings that you have, I noticed that this year you have a Golden Russet cider. Can you talk about the Golden Russet? Because a lot of people look at it as a classic American heirloom. I wondered what your opinions were on the type of cider that’s made from a Golden Russet?
BRENNAN: That apple, that was one of the first ones we planted. So that one we have fruit from our own orchard. Not a lot. Last year we got about 6 or 7 bushels. But there’s a 90 year old man in our town who’s a cidermaker who planted Golden Russet probably 40 years ago. And he’s now too old to pick his apples. So he called, and said they’re all yours. So I picked from his apples. And then I also got apples from one of the Hudson Valley farms, one of the few that actually grow Golden Russets. So in this case, there’s 3 different sources of Golden Russets. So any thoughts of terroir have gone out the window on this. But we just got the variety, and see what that had to say.
It’s a pretty interesting apple. I think where we live, the soils are so acidic that the apple actually ends up more acidic than what I’ve heard it described. Our Golden Russets don’t need blending with Northern Spy for acid, they’re quite tart. They have an insane sugar content. We fermented out last year somewhere around 8.8% alcohol, I forget what the equivalent in Brix is, about 16. And it does have, being a russet, has a couple other qualities which are great for cider. Russet apples tend to be a little more aromatic, something about the skin or the permeability of the skin gives it some aromatic quality. And the thickness of the skin, is probably why it measures as one of the more tannic varieties. Not so tannic that you can’t eat it, because it’s a great eating apple too.
WEST: I notice the description on your website, you mention hazelnut. The two Golden Russet trees I have access to in Virginia, I do get a lot of that nuttiness, which I really like.
BRENNAN: It’s a fantastic apple. No matter where you grow it, it really comes out in some very…it’s one of the most unique apples you could find commercially, that’s for sure. And that’s pretty rare that you find it commercially. But it should be something that’s widely available, because it also happens to be, my apples are disease-resistant, insect-resistant. I get a little rot on them, that’s the only problem I have with them. In a year like 2010, or 2009, the one that was wet, it’s a hard one to grow, for rot. But that’s about it.
WEST: The other ciders of yours I wanted to talk about were the ones where you add additions to the apples, like elderberry or ginger. Again, this seems to defy the purist label. Because I can’t imagine someone being a hardcore purist about this, adding those types of things! What motivates you to experiment and try these different fruits that have either been foraged or grown commercially? What are you looking to express in those ciders?
BRENNAN: You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing purist about it. And the apples that are used in those blends, are not foraged. They’re from that orchard that I mentioned earlier, conventionally grown apple orchard. It’s IPM, but not organic, nearby me. They don’t grow cider varieties. So for the last 6 or 7 years since we’ve been hoping that our own orchard would provide us purist cider fruit, we’ve always had at our disposal the entire Hudson Valley for juice. It’s never been a case where I’ve been able to ferment their juice and been satisfied with its outcome. So that’s how the idea of blending it with other fruit came to be. Certainly the ginger. I have to say, I’m pretty satisfied with the results. You can steer your cider in a direction that just the apple alone can’t provide.
The ginger, for instance, you can bring cider into a world in which you can eat Thai food or Indian food. You wouldn’t normally think to drink cider with that cuisine. But suddenly ginger cider accompanies well. And likewise elderberry brings cider into the realm of red wine. So now, a tomato-based pasta dish, you could think of cider with.
It’s absolutely not purist at all. It’s an entirely different approach to cider than from really what our main mission is. I don’t think we’ll ever abandon those experiments. In fact, last year we experimented with a hemlock cider, from the needles of the hemlock tree. That turned out to be an extremely interesting addition.
WEST: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was the reaction to your ciders. We mentioned your proximity to New York City. What is it like when you go into the city? I don’t know how often you visit bars and restaurants that serve your ciders, but what’s the reaction like? What do people say, both positive and negative about your ciders?
BRENNAN: For me, it’s really great going into the city. I’m extremely self-conscious about the cider. I always feel like it’s a disaster, who’s really going to go for this? Sometimes I feel like I’m making cider just for other cidermakers, and not really engaging with what a normal customer would be, or would want. But then I go to New York, and find out that people are quite open-minded, they like the fact that I’m just trying different things. That’s been encouraging. Every time I go down there, I return with some fuel from that experience.
WEST: If someone wanted to try your ciders, I knew you were at Franklin County CiderDays back in November. But are your ciders available locally to you in the Hudson Valley? Or do people have to go into the city? Where are the best places people can go to purchase your ciders?
BRENNAN: In the city, the majority of our ciders have sold through restaurants, which I’m happy about. I feel that the chefs have a diverse approach to how my ciders might accompany a meal. And really, that’s how I see cider, as a dinner drink. There’s some ciders in some instances where it’s a standalone. But I really do see it as…
WEST: Like a table wine, almost?
BRENNAN: Like a table wine. In the same way people in Europe think of wine, you have it everyday with a meal. That’s how I see cider. It’s somewhat ridiculous that on the East Coast we’re importing wine from all over, when we’ve got the potential for great cider here. I like that about cider in the city, that chefs are taking our cider and trying to really bring it into their artwork, their presentation. Like a conductor bringing in the long lost string section.
WEST: Have you been surprised by any of the pairings?
BRENNAN: I’m not much into the foodie world. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, I’m just not up on it. So I’m always quite impressed by what people are doing with food these days. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Really a great meal could be like a great movie, not something that you just want to shove it down and get on with your life! I think it’s great.
I’ve always been surprised by bringing cider into ethnic food, like Indian food. I don’t eat meat, so I sort of wonder what cider is like with duck. It might be cider that reintroduces me to meat, but it’s been 20 years now!
WEST: One last thing that I wanted to close with is that there is a lot of interest now in the US, and I guess all over the world, in small-scale cidermaking. And you seem in a way to embody that, that you’ve seen success in the marketplace. Do you have any thoughts about someone who’s looking to do something similar, a homestead-style cider business? Do you have any hints or suggestions for someone who’s thinking about starting that process?
BRENNAN: I’m really glad you keep bringing that up. That I think is ultimately the most important missing piece in the cider renaissance. And that’s the really small-scale players. I think our economy is such that you’re either professional or you make it for yourself. There’s no in between. Really, if there’s going to be any great advancement, it’s going to be in the diversity that cider has to offer us. And that can only come with every town having a cidermaker and a cider mill. And that’s going to be great for the taste, to have that variation. It’s going to be great for the apple as well, to not be a uniform Red Delicious apple that’s grown on the exact same amended soil from state to state. Having all this diversity, both in the growing conditions and in the varieties, can only be expressed by having millions and millions of tiny small cider growers. That’s my mission.
I would definitely like to offer myself as an example of somebody that is under that 2 or 3 thousand gallon range. It is entirely possible to make a living doing cider at that scale. It just requires patience. It can be done. You don’t have to subscribe to this mass economy of scale. I think things are getting better at the legal level, the federal government and most state governments are making it a little easier for small producers and home producers to get into the commercial aspect of it.
WEST: It seems like New York State, above all others, has been really friendly to cidermakers in terms of the legal requirements. And getting New York State cider known as a category.
BRENNAN: That’s due to a lot of factors. New York has a huge apple industry. There’s been organizations such as Glynwood. And now we’ve formed a New York State cider alliance. There’s no money involved with this, it’s simply plugging away at the state officials and saying this would be good for our industry, good for everybody, the economy, the environment, if you just listened to us. We’re doing good things. In New York State we’ve had good leadership in Albany, they’ve listened to us and are making it easier.
I know Virginia is also on the forefront of that. Certainly Washington. Hopefully as success stories grow in those states, places like Massachusetts and New Jersey will be like what are we waiting for?
WEST: It seems like the next phase beyond the cider regulations is getting more of the cider variety fruit in the ground. Do you see that happening in the next 5, 10, 20 years? Is that something you think that the growers will see that cider is not just a passing fad? And they will invest planting these varieties, or top-working over to those varieties?
BRENNAN: That is already happening. It isn’t necessarily happening at the larger side of the economy of scale. Those people have such an ingrained system for selling their apples, they’re not willing to take a risk. It has to be done at the mid-size and smaller orchards, the ones taking the risk. Luckily, they’re the ones who are reaping the rewards too. As the giant orchards see that they’re missing out, perhaps they’ll take the risk too. Somebody like Cummins Nursery would really have a great insight as to what percentage of cider apples are being planted now. I have seen from my circle that it’s replaced, not just been an addition, it’s literally replaced new orchard plantings. I don’t know anyone who’s planting just eating apples. At the very least, they’ll plant something like Golden Russet or Northern Spy, something that’s a cross-over apple.
WEST: Andy, it’s been great talking to you. I wish you and other small-scale cidermakers like you the best of luck and success in the marketplace. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we can get together and share a cider.
BRENNAN: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
WEST: It was a pleasure to talk with Andy. I hope you enjoyed our conversation. To learn more about Aaron Burr, visit aaronburrcider.com. Aaron Burr can also be found on Facebook, search for The Cidery. And on Twitter at twitter.com/thecidery.