Drinks

Cider House Rules

Shacksbury Cider is saving apple varieties on the verge of disappearing forever
Photos: Michael Tallman
Apple Grafting

Apple seeds, like baby humans, or snowflakes, are all unique,” David Dolginow, cofounder of Vermont’s Shacksbury Cider, says. Though he’s chuckling as he talks, Dolginow is totally serious, which is why the cider he and his partner, Colin Davis, make is so special. They're not only using wild Vermont apples you won't find anywhere else, they're also saving varieties that could disappear forever, never to be tasted again. Enter the Lost Apple Project, a growing orchard of salvaged apple varieties, producing an award-winning line of ciders called Lost and Found.

It all started when cheesemaker Michael Lee of Twig Farm creamery in Cornwall, Vermont, served his homemade cider at a small tasting Dolginow and Davis attended in the summer of 2013.

“The cider really blew our minds, not only because it tasted so good, but also because it was made from all Vermont apples,” Dolginow says. 

It was an aha moment for the Shacksbury duo, who had traveled to England and Spain for research, but also to forge partnerships with orchards to import certain apples they couldn’t get in the U.S.

Wild Vermont apples.

“The main struggle for us is 99 percent of apples in the U.S. are for eating,” Dolginow explains. Apples grown for eating aren’t optimal for cider production, because they don’t provide the flavor, tannins or acidity of true cider apples traditionally used in French, Spanish or English ciders. “That’s why you see so many flavored ciders on the market. The alcoholic base [of cider made from eating apples] doesn’t taste like much.” Case in point? All that ginger, pear and raspberry cider you see in stores.

Lee opened Dolginow’s and Davis’s eyes to the potential of wild Vermont apples, and the pair decided to take matters into their own hands, quite literally.

Picking wild apples.

They gained traction immediately. Their first Lost and Found vintage, which went on the market in the summer of 2014, was called 1840—the year the earliest-recorded hard cider was made in the Vermont town of Shacksbury. It won a 2015 Good Food Award and put Shacksbury on the map.

The accolades are still rolling in today, as the cidery continues to grow with a line of canned cider released this summer—a big hit—and the launch of a cider club for unique Lost and Found bottles. In November, Shacksbury will also release its first barrel-aged cider, a robust brew perfect for fall dishes.

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“Our whole vision is cider that can stand up to the best wine in the world,” Dolginow says. “On the one hand, we really love natural wine, and on the other side, we’re deeply inspired by the history of apples in New England, in Vermont, and the Champlain Valley,” Dolginow explains. The dual source of inspiration means minimal interference in the cider production and spending hours out in the woods of the Green Mountain State, collecting wild apples.

“It’s like once you buy a car and you start seeing that car everywhere: Once you start foraging, you start seeing apple trees everywhere,” Dolginow says. He makes it sound casual, but finding the best apples for cider is no small task. “We’ve probably picked from 1,000 different trees, and all of them are unique varieties.”

How can he tell they’re unique? Because the trees are wild with no sign of grafting, which is the process of taking a cut of one tree, shaving off the end, slicing a cut into another tree and twining them together. Grafting is the only way to propagate the same apple. So when you see an orchard with one apple, it was grown by grafting—not by planting seeds. (Remember, no two seeds are alike.)

Collin Davis testing cider.

Of all the apples Dolginow and Davis have sampled, and the roughly 150 single-varietal ciders they’ve fermented from those apples, they’ve propagated only 12 apple varieties. It’s those trees that make up their Lost Apple Project’s orchard. Though they still work closely with their European counterparts on ciders like the Classic, Farmhouse, Arlo, Dry and Semi Dry, they’re growing their foraged apple orchard each year.

As the Lost Apple Project continues to thrive, more wild apples will be preserved and a wider range of cider produced—a trip back in time sealed in every bottle. Count us in for the ride. As Dolginow says, “It’s a process that’s been going on for thousands of years, and it also feels like magic.”

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