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WWM Interviews: Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Ciders

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American cider might be seeing the beginning of a full-blown renaissance. If so, it would seem to indicate a maturation of the American palate and an ever-broadening return to tradition. The same trends can be found in other drinks: a more natural approach to wine, a more crafted and regional approach to beer, a revival of classic cocktails and their seemingly obscure ingredients. For too long we've associated cider with cloying sweetness or with nonalcoholic juice served warm at the county fair. Nothing wrong with either, except that they have very little in common with traditional cider, which is as diverse in its offerings as it is rich with history. Recently, I corresponded with cidermaker Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge Ciders in Dugspur, Virginia. In her lilting voice, Flynt speaks with a precision regarding her craft that in no way masks the pure joy she finds as an orchardist and cidermaker. We talked harvests, the intricacies of apple varieties, the differences between certain cider regions and the joys of farming in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

(Note: Foggy Ridge was recently chosen as the top American dry cider in a great article written by Eric Asimov in the New York Times. Out interview took place on October 30, a week before that article was published.)

-Scott Lyon

Woodland Wine Merchant: First off, congratulations on the good press in last week's Times. For an orchardist, this must be a wonderful time of year. What was your 2013 harvest like?

Diane Flynt: 2013 included a cool fall, cool wet summer and just about perfect fall harvest. Apples (and grapes too) like a diurnal swing, or a significant difference between daytime high temperatures and nighttime low temperatures. Foggy Ridge Cider's orchards are at 3000' feet elevation in the Southern Appalachians, so we experience warm days and cool nights. I look for good acid levels in our fruit, and 2013 fruit has good acidity as well as complex flavors from our near perfect fall.

WWM: What's the difference between a "dessert" apple and a "cider" apple? And how are their orchards different?

DF: Dessert apples are simply apples traditionally grown for eating rather than for cider—which also, in our world of Big Farming, dessert fruit often also means apples that can be grown, harvested and shipped efficiently. Cider apples have similar characteristics to wine grapes, that is, a balance of tannin, acid and fruit that contributes all three flavor components to a fermented beverage.

Tannin is a key component of cider fruit, and this makes many cider apples inedible, or at best unappealing to eat out of hand. While many great cider apples are also tasty, the high tannin varieties such as Tremlett's Bitter, Dabinett and even Hewe's Crab, the famous Southern cider apple, are far too bitter and acidic to enjoy eating. So the difference between dessert apple and cider apple is flavor, tannin level but also how the apple is grown and harvested, and how it travels.

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My trees will out live me, and will produce fruit long after I'm gone. I don't want to damage our excellent rocky soil, or pollute our water supply or do anything other than enrich and strengthen the environment in which I farm.

WWM: How did you choose the varieties of apples that are planted in your orchard? How many varieties do you have?

DF: At Foggy Ridge Cider we grow over 30 apples, all chosen for cidermaking. Some, like Cox's Orange Pippin, Albemarle Pippin and Roxbury Russett, are delicious eating apples. But many are somewhat challenging, like Ashmead's Kernel, our "acid bomb", or downright inedible, like Tremlett's Bitter. Though we grow several English cider apples, we focus on American heirloom apples suitable for cidermaking. I love Hewe's Crab, the key ingredient in Foggy Ridge First Fruit Cider. Harrison is another great Colonial American cider apple (from Harrison, NJ) as is Black Limbertwig, an apple long grown in the Southern Appalachians.

WWM: At the moment, cider is seeing something of a bourgeoning or a resurgence in popularity. Why now?

DF: Cider is having its moment! The top Macro or Factory Cider brands grew over 60% in 2012; artisan cidermakers are experiencing fast growth as well, fueled by several factors. On the national stage, Macro cider is growing in large part because beer sales are flat or dropping. The Macro Beer categories have purchased cider producers (Crispin, Angry Orchard) or have started their own (Stella Artois Cidre), and are pursuing cider drinkers in earnest with well funded marketing campaigns as a way to recapture market share. Macro Cider has cleverly positioned their cider brands as "artisan" and has capitalized on the gluten free moniker.

This is all interesting from a business standpoint but let me say while I think artisan cider has had double digit growth for over five years—Farm Cider is just plain delicious. Just like wine from a smaller winery, with carefully grown and fermented grapes, artisan cider is complex; it speaks of terroir; it is interesting and is an ideal food beverage. Consumers interested in the provenance of their food and beverage like the idea of estate cider. People interested in eating locally or regionally prefer a beverage that is crafted from ingredients that aren't shipped in containers from Europe, the Midwest or even China.

WWM: What differentiates your ciders from, say, those Macro brands that you mention?

DF: First, our focus on the fruit, on quality ingredients is what most differentiates Foggy Ridge Cider. Second, we ferment our cider like a fine winemaker ferments wine. All our cider is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel; we ferment cold to get a long, slow ferment designed to maintain the fruity esters and complex flavors of our fruit. We tank age our cider for months and we carefully blend many ferments into our four sparkling ciders and our apple port. We don't add flavorings and use neutral yeasts designed to perform at low temperatures and highlight the flavors and aromas of the fruit, rather than introduce flavors (no Belgian ale yeast, for example!)

Some Macro Ciders say "our cider is made with spring water" or "we get from apple to bottle in one month". We don't chaptalize, which is a common practice for less expensive and more commercial brands; we don't ferment from concentrate (quite common also) and we don't flavor our cider with ginger, cherry, pumpkin, sugar or anything else.

Image courtesy foggyridgecider.com

Why drink a highly commercial cider from England, likely chaptalized, colored with caramel and full of sugar, when you can enjoy a cider made from cider apples. Full stop.

WWM: You seem to favor the English tradition of cidermaking, as opposed to the traditions of Normandy or the Basque Country. What draws you in to those particular ciders?

DF: In America, artisan cidermakers are creating our own traditions. First the fruit—many European varieties don't grow well in this country, or are just not widely grown.  Normandy cider is delicious, but it also has that "European funk" that does not always translate well to American palates. Basque Cider, much of which is sold as vinegar (really, look it up), has a place and can be quite exciting paired with Basque food, but this cider style tips too far toward the acetic acid end of the spectrum for my palate. While there are more and more artisan ciders available in England, the English ciders we get here are all quite commercial.

The American cider tradition is quite rich with excellent cider fruit and a variety of cidermaking styles. We are all feeling our way, but I'm most excited by ciders from Farnum Hill in New Hampshire, Slyboro and Eve's Cider in NY and Eden Ice Cider in Vermont. Why drink a highly commercial cider from England, likely chaptalized, colored with caramel and full of sugar, when you can enjoy a cider made from cider apples. Full stop.

WWM: Talk to me about your philosophy of farming. What's your approach to the land? How did you find what is now Foggy Ridge?

DF: As you can tell from my comments about Farm and Factory Cider, my views on farming drive my approach to beverage making. "Respect the land" is my guiding principle. My trees will out live me, and will produce fruit long after I'm gone. I don't want to damage our excellent rocky soil, or pollute our water supply or do anything other than enrich and strengthen the environment in which I farm. A tree, like a grape vine, is a tube that transports water and nutrients into fruit. As a farmer, I need to take care of that "tube", that tree that creates flavor.

My husband and I spent our early careers in NC. We looked for farm land for over three years before finding this tiny corner of Virginia. Foggy Ridge Cider is on the Blue Ridge Plateau, the southernmost Zone 5 planting region due to elevation. Our mountain orchards are steep; the soil is rocky and we have a big diurnal swing all year. Ideal for fruit growing!

WWM: Where did you learn to manage an orchard, or to make cider for that matter? Who are your heroes in the apple or cider world?

DF: I studied cidermaking in England, and winemaking here in the US. While our orchard was growing, I worked with cidermakers in CA and in New England, which was one of the most valuable things I did to build my knowledge. Cidermaking is a young art in the US, but the principles are the same as winemaking (NOT brewing!), so there is much knowledge to draw on. Pomologists at VA Tech and at Cornell advised me on our orchard lay out and I found the original 30 varieties in our test orchard with Tom Burford's help, a VA orchardist and expert on heirloom apples.

I most admire apple growers who constantly experiment with cider apples and take risks in their orchards. Steve Wood at Farnum Hill is the best cider apple grower in the US, in my view. I also admire John Saunders at Silver Creek Orchard in Nelson County, VA. John has planted over 3000 trees with grafting wood from Foggy Ridge Cider orchards. In the cider world, I learn from Eleanor Leger, owner of Eden Ice Cider in Vermont, every time I talk to her.

WWM: What's your favorite food & cider pairing? 

DF: People should keep in mind that cider is not one thing—there are bone dry ciders, fruity cider, tart acidic cider and tannic cider. Oh, and sweet cider too! For a dry cider, like Foggy Ridge Serious Cider, I like those classic Brut Champagne pairings like a rich creamy cheese or something salty and fatty, like pomme frites or rich crab cakes. A tart fruity cider, like our First Fruit Cider, is ideal with rich meat dishes like pork belly or braises. Cider with some residual sugar pairs well with spicy dishes, like BBQ or Asian foods.

My cheese friends tell me that cider is a much better partner for cheese than wine. I like our apple port, the dessert cider we call Foggy Ridge Pippin Gold, with blue cheese, walnuts and dried fruit. And aside from the seasonal connection, cider is perfect with Thanksgiving food. A tannic red wine fights with the many sweet and spicy notes on a holiday table, but a crisp clean cider just marries all the flavors.

WWM: Do you have a favorite apple variety? What makes it special for you?

DF: Tom Burford always says his favorite apple is "the last one I ate." I like acidity so Ashmead's Kernel is my all time favorite eating apple. I'm eating late season apples now, and will through the winter, so Winesap, Arkansas Black and Limbertwig are all on my table.

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Woodland Wine Merchant carries a small assortment of Foggy Ridge Ciders, which, frankly, we think are pretty dang delicious. Don't let your fall feasts be without.
Foggy Ridge Serious Cider (750ml) — $18 Foggy Ridge First Fruit (750ml) — $ 18 Foggy Ridge Handmade (500ml) — $ 14