I’m busy making friends with the calico cat sunbathing in a window at Blackduck Cider‘s Ovid, New York, tasting room, when I hear, “That cat isn’t fat enough to eat yet. We’ll wait until fall, then we’ll roast her.” I turn around to find John Reynolds, founder and head cider maker, emerging from the cluttered storage area.
Reynolds is an opinionated and passionate farmer with a sense of humor, and he focuses on producing extraordinarily delicious wild fermented cider. He’s not alone. Ithaca has 10 cideries in a 30-mile radius, making it the highest-density cider region in the state, including some of the best cider makers in the country. The region is just waiting on the recognition it deserves.
A couple hours before I met Reynolds at Blackduck, I arrived in downtown Ithaca via OurBus, which starts at New York City’s Port Authority and goes directly to the city. Ithaca recently received a grant from the state of New York to promote the city’s award-winning cideries. Visit Ithaca worked with OurBus to develop a promotion offering discounted round-trip tickets (around $30, depending on the day) for the “Cider Express special” bus ride.
The bus is comfortable enough, air conditioned, quiet (by mandate), and the drive to Ithaca is a feast for the eyes. I couldn’t get the WiFi to work on my phone, so I mostly stared out the window at the clear, rocky waters of the Delaware River, the rolling green hills, dense forest, and the fields of corn and yellow Goldenrod.
The bus stops just outside the city center, where I met my companions dispatched from the tourism office to shuttle me between cideries. If you’re keen to discover Finger Lakes cider, it’s best to do so by car as long as you have a designated driver or plan on tasting rather than drinking (though there are carless ways to get in the action — more on that below).
These are some of Ithaca’s must-visit cideries, in no particular order.
For the cider newcomer: Finger Lakes Cider House
Finger Lakes Cider House is the home of Kite and String cider. Located in Interlaken just a short distance outside Ithaca, it’s one of the most popular cideries in the Finger Lakes. In 2008, the founder, Garrett Miller, and a group of friends arrived at Good Life Farm (home of the cidery and adjoining cafe) with nothing but shovels, a few horses, and their bare hands, and they began cultivating the land.
Miller didn’t know much about cider when he bought Good Life, but it soon became clear that the land could support an orchard. So Miller switched his focus to building a cidery. Today, Kite and Sting uses a mix of apples from the Good Life orchard and from farms within a couple hours of the Cider House.
While Miller and I wander the certified organic farm, his face lights up at the mention of sustainable farming.
“I have lots of opinions about the word sustainable,” he says, clearly excited.
Miller explains that he tends to avoid using the word, instead referring to his farming practices as regenerative. He focuses on helping the land “heal and recover” using non-traditional methods. For instance, in past years, he’s let turkeys roam in pens in his apple orchard to help fertilize the ground. He also plants cover crops like millet, sunflowers, clover, peas, and buckwheat. The cover crops aren’t for harvesting but are grown to add nutrients to the soil, naturally control pests and erosion, and limit the growth of invasive weeds.
“This farm used to have two species: corn and the worm that ate the corn,” Miller jokes. Now, the biodiversity of the farm is beginning to show signs of recovery, like the tree frogs that dot the branches of his peach trees and act as an all-natural pest repellent.
While Good Life Farm is the paragon of environmentally conscious farming, I’m here for the cider. Kite and String’s cider is as friendly and approachable as Miller himself. It’s equally suitable for cider newcomers and more experienced drinkers. I especially enjoyed the Glacial Till, which has the taste and texture of a stone-washed dry riesling. However, the real draw is Pioneer Pippin, the two time Best in Show winner at the Governor’s Cider Cup.
Where: 4017 Hickok Rd, Interlaken, NY 14847
For the adventurous drinker: Blackduck
By the time we left Finger Lakes Cider House, my head was buzzing with visions of farmland blossoming with apple trees and vibrant green vegetation while the natural wildlife, from bunnies to coyotes, makes its homes in the brush and the nearby woods.
Then we arrived at Reynolds’ Blackduck tasting room (so named for Reynolds’ obsession with ducks; his property is home to many “geriatric” ducks as he lovingly refers to them). The sparse bar has just enough standing room for around five people and a sign outside listing operating hours alongside the caveat “or by chance.” The wood paneled room is lined with dusty old wine and cider bottles; the only sign of the modern world is a WiFi-enabled register at the front. It’s as no frills as a farmhouse can get up here. It’s all about the cider, no distractions allowed (except that calico, who kept drawing me to her window). After all, the Blackduck motto is, “Cider is life.”
Blackduck is certainly environmentally friendly, though it operates somewhat off the grid. Reynolds refuses to be certified as organic by the USDA because he has fundamental disagreements with the agency’s standards.
Reynolds’ cider is unfiltered and wild fermented, meaning he doesn’t inoculate the cider with yeast to initiate fermentation. This also means he has less control over the cider’s final flavor. Some of the apples he uses are wild foraged while the rest come from his Daring Drake orchard (the duck theme is no joke). His explanation of his cider’s ingredients is short and sweet: “No, nada, nothing. It’s fruit, whatever is on the fruit, and whatever drips off my brow.”
Though the wild fermentation process is cidermaking at its most natural, it’s relatively uncommon to find wild fermented cider at your local wine store.
“There aren’t 10 of us [wild fermenters] in the US that aren’t full of shit. [Americans] want bubbles and they want sugar,” Reynolds insists. Then he backtracks, taking a softer approach. “They want cleaner flavors.”
“Wild fermented” might conjure up assumptions that the flavors are confused or rotten. The opposite is true. Take Blackduck’s Woody cider. The flavors are layered and complex, each one bursting on your palette like an Everlasting Gobstopper. And though there is a distinct funk, Woody is also fresh, with a surprisingly crisp, clear bite — much closer to a burbling clearwater creek than the muddy puddle you might be expecting due to its cloudy complexion.
Woody was not only the best cider I tried on my visit to the Finger Lakes but also the best I’ve tried to date anywhere — and I drink quite a bit of cider in my off time. Blackduck’s delightfully tangy and briney Perry cider (that’s cider made with pears) is another popular choice — just be warned: It will likely shock your senses.
Where: 3046 Co Rd 138, Ovid, NY 14521
For the spiritual drinker: Redbyrd
Redbyrd’s charming tasting room, which fits just three stools, sits inside a little hillside farmhouse. Inside, the burly Eric Shatt, who runs the cidery with his wife Deva, stands behind the wood bar. Shatt is not just a cider maker, he’s also the farm manager for Cornell’s apple orchards, which serves as a “living laboratory” for students studying agriculture and fruit production.
The Redbyrd farm is certified biodynamic, a form of holistic agriculture established in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Schatt discovered the practice while working in the wine industry and has used biodynamic practices on his farms for around a decade. Though biodynamic farming is both sustainable and organic, to hear Schatt describe it you’d think it’s sci-fi.
“One of the philosophies around biodynamics is that there are infinite forces playing on the Earth,” explains Schatt. “There are life forces beyond what we can see and recognize. [Biodynamics] works to enhance and harmonize those forces,” Schatt continues. “Why is the moon the only celestial body that influences the rhythms of the Earth? When different planets are in different phases, and constellations, how does that affect plants and water? It’s a complete system approach to agriculture.”
Biodynamic farming might sound like witchcraft, but its principles are sound: Farmers encourage animal and plant biodiversity and recirculate nutrients into the soil through what are known as preparations — farming practices that resemble pagan rituals.
“Biodynamic farmers put compost into a cow horn and bury it in the ground, and the cow horn acts as a funnel — it’s capturing this life energy and concentrating it into the compost, so the compost holds these forces.” Schatt pauses and bursts into laughter. “A lot of people think its really kooky and a waste of time, but I think it works!”
Schatt’s spells seem to be working, because his cider is exceptional. Redbyrd’s dry rosé cider is grown up with just a hint of sweetness, perfect for easy drinking. The sparkling Celeste Sur Lie is another revelation. The texture is creamy and silky, and it tastes of buttercream and honeycomb — again without veering into saccharine territory. Most folks, however, reach for the Workman Dry, a cider named for its approachability.
Where: 4115 Newtown Rd. Burdett, NY 14818
For the community-minded drinker: South Hill Cider
In 2003, Steve Selin, a singer, fiddler, and guitar player in Rose and the Bros, stumbled upon a neighbor’s farm filled with wild apple trees. As we walk through his orchard, he explains that by “happy accident” the apples happened to be perfect for cider. He began making cider at home and bringing kegs of his home ferments to shows.
Friends and fans loved his cider so much that he decided to start making it full time. In 2013, he began cultivating his own orchard. His trees, like those at Good Life Farm, are still in the process of producing enough fruit to support South Hill Cider on their own. To supplement his own apples, Selin often goes back to his roots, foraging apples growing wild all over the Finger Lakes.
One of Selin’s hobbies is to keep track of all the wild apple trees he stumbles upon, either growing in the forest that abuts his land, on the side of the road, or abandoned orchards. He, like many other Ithaca orchardists, is beginning to graft wild seedlings onto his apple trees.
“[Wild apples] are offspring of the apples that settlers planted but have been wild for generations,” Selin says. “Cider is a totally wild food.”
Grafting is incredibly beneficial to both apples and orchards. Major commercial varieties like honey crisp and red delicious dominate now, but there used to be hundreds of apple varieties in New York. By grafting wild seedlings onto orchard-grown trees, farmers help cultivate a wider range of apples, using diversity to help ensure the fruit’s long-term survival. The practice is also a natural defense against pests and disease.
The go-to South Hill Cider is Old Time, a crisp, off-dry cider with a clean finish — a perfectly executed classic. For something more adventurous, try Packbasket, Selin’s wild fermented cider made with 100 percent wild foraged apples.
Selin’s first tasting room for South Hill Cider opens on September 19; he hopes it will also double as a welcoming neighborhood hang out.
Where: 550 Sandbank Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850
How to experience Ithaca cider without a car
If you’d rather not rent a car once you arrive in Ithaca on the “cider bus,” don’t panic: Ithaca cider is still within your grasp. Here are more ways to taste the drink everyone in the region is talking about.
Take a tour: Experience! The Finger Lakes offers the sommelier-led Luscious Libations tour, which visits wineries and cideries in the area. If you’d prefer to stay in the city, Ithaca Is Foodies offers a craft beverage focused culinary tour of downtown Ithaca, which stops at bars and breweries. Just be sure to book in advance, because these tours fill up fast in the fall.
Rent a bike: In 2013, Ithaca’s farmer’s market came in at number nine on the 101 Best Farmers’ Markets in America list. If you’re visiting during the weekend, rent a bike and ride up the Waterfront Trail, which connects to the market and nearby Stewart Park. The market is 30 miles long, and 10 cider makers set up shop there every Saturday and Sunday.
The Cellar d’Or Wine & Cider: If you’re planning to spend the weekend in Ithaca (hint: you should) you’ll need supplies. You can find bottles of the best Ithaca cider at The Cellar d’Or wine shop. There’s cider on tap to fill up growlers, and you’re welcome to taste before buying.
Finger Lakes Cider Week: The best time to take the bus to Ithaca is for Finger Lakes Cider Week, which has 30 events showcasing the area’s cider (25 of which are taking place in Ithaca) from September 27 to October 6. Redbyrd and Finger Lakes Cider House are holding tastings and orchard tours while South Hill is hosting a late-night dance party. If you’re staying in downtown Ithaca, local restaurant Coltivare is holding a cider pairing dinner, and Cornell Orchards will open its doors to visitors as well. This map shows every location where cider week events are taking place to help you plan exactly which spots to visit during your stay.