As you drive through the little hamlet of Van Etten, New York, you’ll see names scroll by on your GPS that are familiar if you’ve had the pleasure of opening a bottle or two from Eve’s Cidery. Albee Hill. Darling Creek. The sense of place, the importance of the “where” in making world-class ciders hits you before you even pull up to the cidery.
Ezra greets us clad in a black trash bag with head and arm holes cut out, smelling of fermented apples and yeast: the uniform of a man who has spent his entire day hand disgorging bottles of cider.
As he takes his place in the open air behind the barn, Ezra jokes that he’s the best hand-disgorger in the country, perhaps even the world. That’s probably not far from the truth. Each year, he pops the tops of thousands of bottles of cider, a messy and violent affair that removes the plug of yeast and sediment that collects in the neck of the bottle during secondary fermentation. Crown caps cover the ground at his feet.
After disgorging, the bottles are topped off with a dosage of cider, corked and caged, sprayed off, and packed away to do the things that great ciders do while they sit in the bottle. A surprisingly small and efficient crew of four does it all.
In the former dairy barn that acts as Eve’s entire production facility: a press over here, bottle filler over there, tanks of various shapes and sizes tucked seemingly everywhere. There are stacks of bottles, apple crates, boxes of corks, barrels full and empty. This is the controlled chaos that you’ll find at any small-scale cidery, sprinkled with little reminders of the people behind the magic and the creativity required to build something from the ground up.
Leila and Zuri--Autumn and Ezra’s 12- and 9-year-old children--have drawn pictures on some of the stark white walls inside the barn: fantastic dragons and brightly colored, angular dinosaurs. The extremely cold winter has made fermentation tricky in the barn, so sheets of plastic cover the windows to help combat the real effects that a changing climate are starting to wreak on agriculture-based businesses like Eve’s.
Inside their house, Autumn is by the stove prepping dinner in a kitchen filled with shelves they’ve made by hand. We sit at a table that Ezra built.
Matt, who was corking and caging out in the barn as part of his apprenticeship, joins us. He’s spent the past year working alongside the Eve’s crew, living in a tiny house out back. Very soon he’ll take what he’s learned back to his family farm in Ohio, where he’s been busy planting apple trees with a long-term plan to make orchard-based ciders like Eve’s.
While Leila reads Harry Potter at the head of the table, Zuri--having sliced apples and sampled everything on the cheese board--is mastering the science of leverage as he helps Ezra uncork the first bottle of the night: a still, vinous Albee Hill with a long, sensual finish. This is what you pour for your wine-drinking friends to teach them about the wonderful world of cider. It’s a lovely cider to sip with cured meats and an assortment of cheese.
Autumn and Ezra teach us about growing trees organically, maintaining an orchard, making cider. Zuri tells us about voles and how they girdle trees. We don’t even know what a vole looks like. A lot of this seems so far removed from our lives back home, where we have a handful of hobby fruit trees that are forgotten most of the time.
Yet, these big hurdles and the small victories they celebrate are really just challenges and wins of a different sort. Not even apples to oranges. We face tight deadlines and ornery customers. They deal with short harvest windows and angry wasps. Leila is saving up for an egg incubator. Our son, Luke, is squirreling away his allowance for a laptop. Almost the same at the heart of it. Let’s call it apples to quince.
A single varietal Northern Spy comes out next. Autumn, who took a year sabbatical from the cidery to help a local winery--Forge Cellars--develop an organic growing protocol, opens up two bottles of Finger Lakes Riesling alongside. Forge’s is aggressive and boozy. Silver Thread’s is weightier and muted. This is our lesson in terroir and comparative fermentation with both the cider and wines showing a slate note and bright acidity that make the fermented fruits taste like long-lost siblings.
Before we eat, we join hands and take turns sharing what we’re thankful for. Tonight, for us, it’s new friends inviting us to their table.
A smoky, tannic Kingston Black goes toe-to-toe with the blazing hot venison (procured from a neighbor and cooked in cast iron in the wood stove just inside the front door). Autumn’s Gold, amply carbonated with tiny, creamy bubbles from bottle fermentation, is soft and balanced, on point with chicken tacos topped with a big dollop of sour cream.
Dessert is liquid, a nutty Pommeau whose backstory covers multiple vintages and distillates. As we sip, Zuri and Matt trade their favorite stories about raccoons. Ezra is curled up on the ground next to the table, cuddling with the dog. Leila puts her book aside, cozies up to Autumn. They look like twins.
It’s getting late. An early spring snow is falling fast and wet, causing us some consternation about our 20-mile drive back to Ithaca.
“Just take it slow and you’ll be fine,” Ezra says. He was right.
That’s the great lesson we are learning every day, not just on our cautious drive home or from our admiration of Eve’s long-horizon view of success in a world where everyone wants everything right now. To live our best life we need to slow down our fast lives, preferably around a table, with friends or family or friends who have become family.