We visited Blackduck Cidery on their opening day for the 2019 season, a good and bad choice of times to visit. The good? The excitement and promise of a new season, fresh energy. The bad? Lots of people. Alright, it wasn’t a hoard or even a mass of people. But when you try to pack three groups of four people—along with the two of us—into a tiny tasting area, it feels cramped. Besides, when you visit Blackduck, you want one-on-one time with John, owner and cidermaker. More than any cidermaker we’ve met, his personality is reflected in the ciders he makes.
John holds court with witty banter, as wry and dry as the ciders he makes. In a matter of seconds, he talks James Brown’s sweat and redheads, then drops some Pittsburgh references after hearing that we hail from the City of Champions. Turns out his wife is from the ‘Burgh and there are a few prominent shoutouts to her hometown in the cidery: fermentation tanks named NEBBY and YINZER. (Not sure what those mean? Find out and impress a Yinzer! We have promised John a JAGOFF sticker for another tank.)
His sense of humor is omnipresent whether he’s pouring or marketing the ciders: the Cassette Deck series moniker for his small-batch ciders is a cheeky nod to another regional cidery named after a defunct listening device.
John’s inspiration is evident: empty Asturias and Basque bottles line the shelves above the tasting bar, and the flagship cider is a call back to a Spanish Civil War anti-fascist, defiant battle cry: ¡No pasarán!
“Defiant” might be too strong of a word to describe the Blackduck style, but it’s not far off. When asked about sulfites, John bristles. Nope. He has strong opinions on French cider (too sweet, though expressed in a much more colorful way). Blackduck is about the apples (or, in the case of some of the small batch bottlings, other pome like pear and quince), the hands that nurture and forage them, and letting the ambient yeast do what it does best.
The ciders are all a little funky, irreverent, “feral” even, as a portion of the apples used in a number of Blackduck ciders truly are—foraged from wild trees in the area. One example: Queen’s Repping # 218 with 100% Newtown Pippin apples both estate grown and foraged. The cider is gold in the glass, loaded with tiny tongue-coating bubbles. The nose is wet leaves, groundfall apples, a funky walk in an orchard. It starts creamy. Then underripe apple, acid, bitter. The dry kicks in and it’s gone in a blink. That palate-sweeping dryness would make this a fantastic pick to pair with fatty smoked meat.
Up and down the tasting sheet, it’s variations on these themes: tart, sour, dry.
Blackduck is the polar opposite of a modern cidery like Cider Creek, right down to ambiance. Here, weighty logs stand heavy as the tasting bar and tanks are packed in tight in the dark production area in the back. Color is added by the beautiful oil paintings on the walls from a local artist, @vanessavarjian, who also happened to design the label artwork for the Cassette Tape series.
If you’re looking for an off-kilter experience, a place with personality (and flavor) to spare, Blackduck should be toward the top of your list.