How do ya like them apples?
Hard cider is the new craft beer, and Stowe Cider is a rock star in the competitive Vermont cider scene. The cidery produces 25 varieties of hard cider, including Tips Up (a semi-dry hard cider), Safety Meeting (a dry-hopped hard cider) and High & Dry (a super-dry hard cider), as well as one nonalcoholic unfiltered cider. They also produce barrel-aged ciders and seasonal sips like Strawberry Fields and a cider Shandy.
So, what exactly is hard cider? Well, to start, here’s what it is not. “People don’t expect wine to taste like grapes,” says Mark Ray, co-owner of Stowe Cider, “and it’s a misconception that fermented apples would taste exactly like apples.” Hard cider is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of apples. Some ciders are sweet; some are dry.
Stowe Cider has been in operation for four years and just this past fall opened a new production facility on Mountain Road in Stowe. The cidery hosted an Open House with a toast to thank friends, family and community support. They also offered free pints of High & Dry, their first cider. The cidery is well represented in New England, except Rhode Island and New Hampshire, he says. They are also in upstate New York, where Ray grew up in the town of Hamilton.
Ray has a business background and was also the executive director of the Spanish Institute in Colorado where he lived for 10 years. “I was very close to the craft boom out there, helping friends and being around that from 2004 to 2015,” he says. He names Jesse Brookstein from Call to Arms Brewing in Denver as a mentor who taught him the ropes. “When I first started getting more involved, Jesse was with Avery Brewing in Boulder and he taught me a lot in terms of fermentation and the ins and outs of the craft beverage scene.”
In 2015, Ray traded the mountains of Colorado for the mountains of Vermont and moved to Stowe in 2015 with his wife, Cara, who is from Vermont. Ray owns the business with Stefan Windler, who also lives in Stowe with his wife, Mary. Windler graduated from William and Mary in Virginia where he was exposed to a lot of cider and plenty of orchards. Windler was a scientist working for the Department of Agriculture and started Stowe Cider as more of a hobby at the time. “And then we kinda said, ‘Hey, do you want to take this thing to the next level?’ and we both agreed that we did,” says Ray.
Stowe Cider sources its apples from Vermont as well as from northern New York, in towns like Peru on the other side of Lake Champlain. “We have 16 different cider makers in Vermont, all competing for the same fruit,” says Ray, “so it’s nearly impossible to source all from Vermont. We make over 5,000 gallons per week, and that’s a lot of fruit,” he says. The cider is made year-round. “We try to have all fruit sourced and fermented by May,” says Ray. “By June, July and August, quality and varieties have dropped off.”
”We constantly blend the juice and do the packaging throughout the summer,” says Ray. “We source from orchards, press five miles from our production facility and ferment in-house. We never use concentrate.”
The most popular cider? “To this point, all of our ciders sell equally because we rotate our production cycle and they all sell out,” says Ray. Still, there are favorites, he adds, like Tips Up, “an apple forward semi-dry cider that isn’t overly sweet like many ciders on the market. And with the new production space, Ray says they can make “smaller batch ciders, with cider-specific apples like Newtown Pippin, Ribston Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel, varieties that are well-known for the more serious ciders.”
The new facility also features a family-friendly tasting room. Visitors are welcome to bring their own food or purchase locally sourced foods on-site, like cheese curds and pickles. “We offer pre-packaged foods that pair well with cider, but we’re not a restaurant.,” says Ray. However, local restaurants Sushi Yoshi and Tres Amigos will eventually be able to deliver. And food trucks often pull up in the warmer months.
Bonus: The new facility shares space with an art gallery. “We will do a lot of collaborative events like tours of the gallery and local artist-led workshops, Tipsy Easel stuff,” says Ray. And this winter expect Sip and Stretch yoga classes led by Abby Keller, as well.
As for the seasons, “Winter can arguably be the busiest if we get a lot of snow, people come to the tasting room before and after skiing,” says Ray. “In the winter, people are bundled up and drinking our barrel-aged offerings, like Smugglers’ Reserve. But in summertime, the wholesale level is up because more people are buying the cider for weddings and outdoor concerts.”
Stowe Cider is also a welcome stop on many craft beer tours, too. “While not everyone drinks beer, people do want to be included on a fun afternoon with their friends,” says Ray. “If you can make it to a cidery, winery or a distillery on a beer tour, you’re more likely to get more people on the tour.”
What’s trending in the hard cider world? Hard cider is taking a page out of the craft beer book, says Ray. “From a marketing standpoint there’s a lot more room for innovation, like the use of cinnamon and vanilla—think apple pie” he says. “And pumpkin and hot mulled ciders.”
“We are doing a local infusion project using harvested berries, like blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and black currants.” One cider is called Berry Merrill after Perry Merrill, a true trailblazer who was responsible for putting Vermont on skis in Vermont. As part of the infusion series, Stowe Cider sources locally grown blueberries in Charlotte, and raspberries are sourced from a friend in Stowe, Donna Snow. They also source local ingredients like basil from Zach Woods Herbs and honey from Northwoods Apiary for the ciders.
Many of the local Stowe restaurants proudly serve Stowe Cider, including Doc Ponds, Piecasso and Stowe Mountain Lodge. Ray says that future plans are to include hotel package add-ons for tours and tastings.
“Right now, it’s about how do we make the best cider and meet demand,” says Ray.
Laurie Wilson is looking forward to a long winter, sipping bourbon and cider, and working on her novel in which the protagonist is a hard-cider-loving New York City travel writer