“And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.” – Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
We’ve been duped! Well, at least I have. See, I used to have this narrow vision of what a hard cider is, this sweet, sugary cavity bomb carbonated like a soda pop and tart like a Jolly Rancher. I hate even writing those words in this article, so do me a favor and forget I used them. The Cider Farm in Madison, co-located with Brennan’s Cellars, makes a definitive argument that apples can be to ciders what grapes are to wines.
“Some of our ciders, you certainly can tell, were made from apples,” says John Biondi, co-owner of The Cider Farm. “But frequently people will say, ‘These don’t taste like apples at all.’ Well, wines don’t taste like grapes either.” Consider the implications of this statement. The disposition most consumers have is to expect a distinct apple taste. Lack of exposure to the true potential of a cider created the opportunity for overly sweet ciders, what we’ll call six-pack ciders, to come off as more than a gimmick. “If you took generic white grape juice, table grape juice; fermented it to dryness; then added back in Merlot flavoring, sugar, colorant, and then called it Merlot, nobody would buy that. They’d be laughed out of existence. That’s exactly what a lot of these ciders do.”
Imagine eating M&Ms your whole life and being told they were truffles before actually trying a truffle. That’s the difference John is talking about. Sure, they’re both chocolates, but there’s no mistaking the two in a blind taste test. Simply drinking any of the ciders produced at The Cider Farm is an instant education, and if you want to learn more, Deirdre Birmingham, co-owner of The Cider Farm, can tell you anything and everything you’d ever want to know about what happens from seed to cider.
Deirdre and John, her husband, have been living on their orchard for 16 years. Consulting for various people in ag in the area, being the former board chair for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, working on the governor’s Wisconsin Organic Task Force, co-founding the Midwest Organic Tree Fruit Growers Network, and now joining the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) board of directors, Deirdre knows what she’s doing when it comes to running the orchard, and Johns says he’s “kind of a farmer’s husband.”
Even with the range of experience and knowledge Deirdre has, she didn’t have the information she needed to grow the French and English apples used to make the best cider variants in the world. “I quickly found that I was a data point of one growing these rare apples organically in Midwest conditions,” she says. Deirdre had to find out a lot on her own. “How widely should you space them? How far apart should the rows be? How far apart in the rows should the trees be?” The particular apples The Cider Farm wanted to harvest for their ciders are not easy to grow, and they’re susceptible to disease—one particularly lethal one has taken a lot of their trees over time.
The result of her hard work has produced ciders that live up to The Cider Farm’s motto. “Cider refreshment with wine complexity,” Deirdre says. “These are the wine grapes of apples.” Take my favorite of what I sampled, Tremlett’s, which features the Tremlett’s Bitter apple. “Tremlett’s is one of the most strongly tannic of the English cider apples,” says John. “We’re maybe one of six orchards in America that might have enough of that apple to do anything with. We blend it with a very aromatic American apple called Priscilla.” When I tasted it, I was surprised at how soft it sat on the palate. “It’s got this tannic backbone and structure of the Tremlett’s apple, and then it’s got some nice aromatic notes underneath. Makes it kind of a refreshing but interesting cider.”
Though The Cider Farm distinguishes itself through its complex ciders, there’s been this American influence of ingenuity in the drinking world that Deirdre and John are not deaf to. “It’s kind of the Wild Wild West in the U.S. for cider making,” says Deirdre. So I tipped my hat and tasted their Equinox—a cider made with Equinox (now Ekuanot) hops. What really stood out was how the alpha acids in the hops brought out the tartness of the cider that might’ve otherwise gone unnoticed. “We didn’t want to create a cider that tasted like beer,” says John. “We used a hop to create a cider that tasted more like a wine. We think it’s much more like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with the citrusy note than it is anything in the beer family.” I don’t know enough about wines to add to that, so I’ll simply say it’s herbaceous and citric on the tongue and the hops are evident on the nose.
Expect a lot of this sort of mix of ciders from The Cider Farm. They’re aging in oak barrels. They’re using Belgian yeast strains. They’re making distinct dry ciders. It’s really easy to appreciate the obvious effort put into balancing each cider. Though not technically vintages, it’s worth it to try each year’s iteration of a favorite because “as these young trees mature, the complexity of the apples also matures,” says Deirdre.
John and Deirdre also have an event space on site, which is best utilized during Wisconsin’s warmer months for wedding anniversaries, corporate events, birthdays…you get the idea. They also like to put on cider and cheese pairings.
If you appreciate wine, beer, and spirits, you owe it to yourself to visit The Cider Farm. I was as skeptical as anyone, as I sort of keep myself pigeonholed in the beer world. Now, I can’t wait to take my wine-loving wife and family members to try something they’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the Midwest.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
The Cider Farm
8216 Watts Road
Madison, WI 53719