Hard cider was once the Drink of Americans. Every farm produced it. John Adams drank a tankard of it every morning. Children drank a drink called ciderkin. And the famous apples of the Johnny Appleseed legend? Apples intended to be turned into hard cider.
Even Prohibition, which utilized the destruction of apple trees as a symbol of temperance, included a passage in the Volstead Act explicitly allowing farmers to make cider while the rest of the country went dry. That proved to be its undoing, decentralized as it was, America’s large industrial brewers quickly pumped beer into throats of the newly-populated cities, and cider’s popularity plummeted.
But Rhode Islander Cassie Tharinger sees fresh life in it; in the last 5-10 years, cider has been returning to the American drink list. Just as the craft brewing industry has revitalized American beer, the craft cider industry has an opening. Perhaps one better than the craft brewing industry, as no single cidery dominates the market as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors do among breweries.
Ms. Tharinger, raised in Vermont, moved to Rhode Island about twelve years ago and worked at the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, while hobby fermenting cider on her own time. She also became the fruit coordinator for Urban Greens, a harder task back before farmers’ markets began to spring up. It required her to take trips to Hill Orchards in Johnston, RI, where the owner, Allan Hill, taught her more and more about growing apples. With her hobby cider-fermenting on one hand, and this newfound passion for apples on the other, “I saw my interests dovetailing,” she says.
But most of Johnny Appleseed’s hard cider apple nurseries have long ago been cut down, despite what tales will tell you. So Ms. Tharinger moved to Maine for a year and a half to study under John Bunker of Fedco Trees, a large tree nursery that propagates old apple varieties. According to Ms. Tharinger, Mr. Bunker’s philosophy is that the study of apples is worthless without propagation.
At this point, it’s good to understand how apples spread. “Each new seed produces a new variety, your Granny Smith seed does not equal a Granny Smith apple tree,” she says. Instead, branches of one tree are grafted onto another tree, so on one tree, many varieties of apple might grow. Fedco Trees has a research nursery, which Ms. Tharinger runs. “It’s a repository of varieties,” she says. A living library of apples.
Now she had a plan: “to root cider in good orchard growing.” Armed with both an understanding of apple-growing and cider-brewing, she returned to Rhode Island to create a cidery based around an orchard. With American hard cider apple varieties hard to come by while demand is growing; and no existing importation trade for English, French, and Spanish cider apples; the potential cidery needs to grow its own cider apples, she reasoned. For the last six to nine months, Ms. Tharinger has been pursuing her dream; putting together a business plan, networking, and doing outreach for the cidery.*
But it’s never just that simple. With cider (except for that dark brown liquid previously known as “apple juice”) out of the American drinking landscape for the last 90 years, cidermakers have had to start pushing for better rules about what constitutes cider. The dream, pushed for by cider advocate Steve Wood of Farnum Hill Ciders, is a cider section in your local liquor store. The Cidermakers’ Conference, which recently held its second annual meeting, is pushing for a legal definition and regulation. While there is a federal license, few state ones exist; Massachusetts and Vermont are exceptions. Rhode Island has nothing about cider anywhere. Indeed, its laws aren’t conducive to starting a cidery.
“I’ve thought about going somewhere else, but this is home,” says Ms. Tharinger, visibly troubled. She says that not only is land expensive, but the poor small business environment is daunting.
A bill introduced by Representatives Teresa Tanzi (D – Narragansett, Peace Dale, Wakefield) and Jared Nunes (D – Coventry, W. Warwick) would allow farm wineries to sell at farmers’ markets. But the liquor lobby has come down hard against it, and Ms. Tharinger says that it’s hard to get farm wineries to advocate for the law; angering distributors could impact whether their products make it to shop shelves. But Ms. Tharinger thinks it’s a good move. She’s spoken to other cider start-ups, and selling at farmers’ markets is a way many get started, it’s where most of their selling happens.
Despite the obstacles, Cassie Tharinger sees the potential in starting a cidery here in Rhode Island. And after nearly a century of its absence, Rhode Islanders might just be a thirsty for a little cider.
*Previously, this article incorrectly referred to the process of cidermaking as “brewing” rather than “fermenting” and in one instance referred to a “brewery” rather than a “cidery”. I have also corrected a mistake which claimed that European apple varieties were expensive to import; rather trade is non-existent.