We are four guys in an old pickup, cruising the back roads of Vermont on a crackling fall day, searching for a miracle. Sunlight slants across the road, gilding sugar maples, beeches and a sinewy old tree dangling little orbs that shine like white gold. Maybe this is the one, we think. We pull over, pile out and pick yellow fruit the size of racquetballs. I snap off a bite. It's crisp and sweet. In other words, completely useless to the founding (and only) members of the Feral Cider Society. We toss the apples back into the woods and roll on.
A quarter mile down the road, we hit pay dirt: an ancient, multitrunked apple tree sagging under the weight of its fruit. The apples are small and webbed with a sandpapery russeting. One bite and bittersweet juice sprays across my palate. My mouth goes dry with astringency; my teeth furry. I smell nutmeg, roses, quinine. Bingo. We spread our tarp beneath the old tree and shake hard, apples hailing down. Then we fill our bins and load the back of the pickup. We know from past experience that the juice from these almost-inedible apples will ferment into complex, aromatic cider. We've learned that the nasty stuff is the good stuff.
And we're not alone. Shake a wild apple tree from Manhattan to Maine, and a hipster will fall out. Everybody, it seems, has discovered feral cider.
It's a century-old tragedy with a happy ending. Sweet apples make boring booze. Making cider out of them is like trying to make wine with table grapes. Great cider requires special varieties, but Prohibition swept those from the American landscape. Now there's a scramble to find good fruit. Some cider makers have imported varieties from England and Normandy. But a few of us have realized that the most tantalizing fruit of all lines the dirt roads and abandoned cellar holes of rural America.
Unlike grapes, apples go native in a flash. Chuck a core, and a tree will follow. But every apple seedling is a hybrid, a cross-pollination of its mother tree and its pollen-donor dad. Each one will produce a variety that is new to this world. (To make more of the same variety, you have to reproduce it asexually through grafting.) Most will be sour, green and forgettable. But it's a numbers game, and the numbers are on our side. Among America's millions of feral trees, everything exists: the next Honeycrisp, the next Pink Lady and a cider fruit so fragrant and tannic it can give Barolo a run for its money. It's just a matter of finding it.
If feral cider has a Johnny Appleseed, it's Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery. In the fall of 2008, Brennan was a painter in Upstate New York when he realized that he was surrounded by abandoned orchards practically dripping with fermentable sugars, so he did what any red-blooded American guy would do—he made his own hooch. He did it in the minimalist manner he'd soon become famous for: Gather wild apples, grind the fruit, juice the pulp and let wild yeasts do the rest. The result is a haunting drink with none of the sweet comforts of commercial cider. It has a wild coydog yip to it, like a pet that was lost in the woods and came back changed. Those of us who tasted it fell in love fast. Juliette Pope of Gramercy Tavern was an early adopter, as was Jimmy Carbone of Jimmy's No. 43.
Hard on Andy's heels came Shacksbury Cider's Colin Davis and David Dolginow, two Middlebury College graduates who went feral in the Vermont countryside, combing the woods for wild bittersweet apples. When they like one, they add it to the mix for their Lost & Found release. When they find a potential rock star, they take cuttings from the tree and graft them into the trial orchard for their Lost Apple Project, a technique employed by Basque cider makers for centuries. So far, 1,250 young trees from 15 future phenoms are slowly spreading their limbs in the Champlain Valley, with fruit expected by 2016.
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The wildest cider of them all may be South Hill Cider's Pack Basket, made entirely from wild apples and pears found in one high valley in the Finger Lakes. The trees were far from any road and had to be hauled out by hand, hence the name. South Hill cider maker Steve Selin started the Finger Lakes Apple Tree Project years ago to find and tag promising cider trees. He's currently making one cider (to be released in 2016) from a single tree with wildly complex apples. And he sometimes finds that he has tagged the exact same feral trees as Eric Shatt, whose Redbyrd Orchard ciders are some of the finest I've ever tasted.
Where does it go from here? That's what I ask Dan Pucci, the cider director at Wassail, the Manhattan cider bar (on Orchard Street, no less) that is to cider what the Library of Alexandria was to classical knowledge. Wassail holds one of the most extensive collections of ciders in the world, and Pucci tastes it all as it flows past him. "You get this amazing concentration of flavor in the wild ciders," he tells me. "Smaller fruits, higher sugar, thicker skins, a better ratio of skin to flesh." All that skin translates to intense flavor and mouthfeel. "You definitely get a savory aroma and a different profile of acids and tannins. Less bitey tannins, more zippy." Pucci believes that feral cider could recapture the magic of prephylloxera European wine, when mixed field blends of sometimes-mysterious native grapes were the norm, and terroir was less about dirt than about the unique plants and microflora that had learned to thrive in a particular place. "Grapes no longer have that potential," he says. Indeed, feral ciders can make even the natural wines currently in vogue seem positively Parkerized.
Pucci himself gathered feral fruit this fall from an unlikely location: New York City. Ranging from Red Hook to Riverside Park, Pucci and Alex Wilson of Wayside Cider gathered enough city fruit to make 30 gallons of juice, currently fermenting in an oak barrel at Wilson's Catskills cidery for the Urban Cider Project, which will release the first NYC-sourced cider in a century at a party at Wassail next spring.
By then, the 100 gallons pressed by the Feral Cider Society, currently burbling away in my basement and filling the house with yeasty scents, will also be ready. We'll tap into it as soon as the apple blossoms open, fill pint glasses and sit out on the grass in the cool evening. Will it be brilliant? Abysmal? No telling. And it hardly matters. What's important is that it will take us down a path, back into the woods and the beautiful bitters of fall.