Last year I brought you beekeeping for Rosh Hashanah; this year I chatted with a hard cider brewer. (Honey…then apples. Get it?) Ross Brockman is a co-founder of Downeast Cider House, a craft cider company now brewing out of Boston. We talked about how he got started and how, exactly, cider is made.

I’m used to talking to foodies who have given up high-stress corporate jobs to pursue their dreams. But you started straight out of college. How did you know that cider was your calling?

created at: 2013-08-28The way we got into hard cider was pretty subtle, but I’m glad it happened. About halfway through our senior year at Bates College, we were out to dinner with our parents, who were in town visiting. We were talking about what we were going to do after we graduated, and none of us was looking forward to clocking into the 9-5 cube life.

One of the founders, who has since moved on to other things, had an apple orchard in his family for five generations, going back to the 1800s. They still live on the orchard and gave us access to lots of awesome apples and cider, which we ate and drank ferociously all fall at school. Knowing this, the dad of co-founder Tyler Mosher offhandedly mentioned hard cider. We kind of jokingly talked about starting a hard cider company, and the seed that was planted that night stuck with us and kept growing. The more we explored and thought and talked about it, the more we seriously started considering it.

Because we went to a liberal-arts college and none of us had any particular skills, prospects, possessions or serious responsibilities, like a wife or kids, it was a fairly easy decision to empty our small bank accounts and give it a shot. The worst-case scenario was that we would fail, lose a small amount of money and not end up in an office getting yelled at by a boss, waiting for the clock to strike 5 and regretting that time in college when we thought we could start a business for ourselves. We had the access to apples, some family knowledge of cider and a dream of making delicious hard cider for a living!

Take me through the cider-making process. Is it just as simple as fermenting apple juice and calling it a day?

The cider-making process can be as simple and complicated as you want it to be. The other day I grabbed a sample of some fresh-squeezed juice for our next batch, and accidentally left it in my car overnight. When I took it out in the morning, it had started fermenting. So technically, I made hard cider that night while I was sleeping! Obviously, we do a little more than leave juice lying around, but cider-making at its core—excuse the horrible pun—is so easy you can do it by accident.

Our process isn’t overly complicated. It’s the other stuff that goes into the production that’s difficult. We take fresh-pressed local juice and put it in our fermentation tanks. While apples have their own yeast and will naturally ferment, we add our own yeast—an ale yeast for a smoother, less “champagne-y” finish than traditional ciders—to achieve a higher level of consistency from batch to batch, as the wild yeasts can be quite unpredictable in terms of timing and flavor. From this point, we do our thing, which is simple but also something we keep secret, so that while we’re getting off the ground, other larger companies can’t copy exactly what we do.

When we have the final product, we allow it to cold-condition anywhere from three weeks to three months before pumping it into our “brite” tanks, which are pressure tanks that we fill with cider and carbon dioxide that join up overnight to become the carbonated, finished product. From here, the cider is either going into cans or kegs. Kegs are as simple as hoses going from the tank into the kegs, although they’re really heavy to drag around. Cans are a little more complicated. We have a new, automated canning line that takes an enormous pallet of over 8,000 empty cans and removes each layer onto a shaker table, then funnels the cans down to a rinser and spins them in a full 360 down a chute while spraying them with water. Next, the cans are purged of oxygen with a CO2 blast, filled with the cider, topped with a lid and seamed by pneumatic-powered rollers. The can is sprayed again with water to clean it off, hit with an “air knife” to dry before packing, and ends up a full can of cider on our packing table, where we make the four-packs to ship to our wholesalers.

The upkeep of this packaging equipment, as well as other production equipment and systems, is what makes doing what I accidentally did in my car overnight somewhat harder on the large scale of commercial production. All of this is managed by two liberal-arts economics majors and one philosophy major! The learning curve is steep, but fortunately, in the Internet age, there’s no shortage of forums filled with world-class brewers and winemakers discussing in great detail the slew of problems one might face on any given day when running a fermentation facility.

You’re canning your cider, which a lot of microbreweries are doing with their beers now. How come? 

created at: 2013-08-28The cans happened in as subtle a manner as the company got started, and in a way that has been becoming the way we make decisions, with a shrug and a, “Huh, why not?” We were touring a new brewery in Lewiston, Maine, called Baxter Brewing Company. They were doing exclusively cans, and when their owner was talking to us about cans, he made all the right points and convinced us that if given the choice between cans and bottles, cans were better.

There are many reasons that cans are awesome:

  • One of the most effective ways to “skunk” a beverage is to expose it to light, which is why good beer is bottled in those dark amber bottles to keep out the most light. The only thing more effective than those bottles? Cans. They allow zero light.
  • A can is cheaper than a bottle, allowing for a lower retail price.
  • Cans are easy to take camping, hiking, boating and wherever else your outdoor spirit takes you, whereas bottles can be something of a hassle, if allowed at all.
  • Cans take up less space on a delivery truck and are lighter. This means that more cans will fit on a truck, leading to fewer shipments and less gas, which is beneficial to the environment, not to mention more efficient for everyone involved. Again, lower costs to us equal lower prices for the consumer.

It’s important to know why cans have such a bad stigma. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, large domestic brewers, who were making not-so-great beer to begin with, were packaging in cans that had no lining between the aluminum and the liquid. This imparted a tinny, metallic taste to the beer, so consumers associated cans with bad beer. The cans we use now are fully lined and won’t affect the flavor of what’s inside.

Apples and honey are, of course, a traditional Rosh Hashanah pairing. What’s a food and cider pairing that would be in the spirit of the Jewish New Year?

Hard cider pairs well with a wide range of food, from poultry (“cider can” chicken) to beef (cider-basted smoked brisket). You can also substitute hard cider for a white wine sauce in any recipes with seafood and vegetables.

For Rosh Hashanah, a simple recipe that anyone can make is hard-cider based applesauce. It’s simple: Core, peel and chop several apples of your choosing (use approximately two to three apples per 12-ounce can of cider), and throw them in a saucepan. Pour in the Downeast Original Blend and simmer that mess of goodness on low heat until the apples are soft and can be easily mashed. Toss it in the fridge to cool and serve it later as a side with some homemade potato latkes. The alcohol will have burned off while simmering, so it’s fine for kids. (But feel free to arm yourself with a fresh can on the side!)