Written by Jen Rose Smith
Published in Vermont's Local Banquet
2015 was a banner year for apples. By early October, Vermont’s trees were bowed low with ripe fruit. At Windfall Orchards in Cornwall, Brad Koehler’s century-old trees groaned under cascades of apples he would sell at farmers’ markets or ferment into a dry, European-style hard cider.
But he would reserve crates of his sweetest fruit for ice cider, a richly flavored, alcoholic drink that evokes traditional ice wines but is startlingly new—and entirely New World.
Like ice wine—which is made from grapes that freeze on the vine, resulting in higher concentrations of sugar—ice cider exploits the differing freezing points of water and sugar to condense fresh cider prior to fermentation. It’s a process that doesn’t truly begin until nighttime temperatures drop into the teens, when you-pick farms and outdoor markets have long since closed.
The ice cider technique that most closely mimics the traditional ice wine harvest is called cryoextraction. Apples are left to freeze on the trees, where each passing day concentrates their sugar content. The fruit is harvested from leaf-bare trees, then pressed and fermented at low temperatures.
It’s not a process that works for all varieties of apples, as some plop onto the grass before the first deep freeze. So most Vermont ice cider producers harvest apples when ripe, and press them as the weather begins to cool. They then prepare the fresh cider for fermentation through cryoconcentration: Fresh cider is left outside to freeze naturally for 4 to 8 weeks, then the frozen cider is brought inside to melt. As the block of juice begins to thaw, the stickiest and most sugary liquid is drawn off—like sucking the sweet stuff out of an icy popsicle. Cider makers measure the sugar content of what they’re drawing off and repeatedly bring the vat of icy cider outside to freeze again. It’s labor intensive and delicate, but results in a rich, full-flavored nectar ready for fermentation.
Ice cider was invented in Québec’s Eastern Townships, which are just north of Vermont. Christian Barthomeuf made the first bottle; he is a French-born vintner who moved to Canada in the 1970s and initially struggled to make his Eastern Townships vineyard a success. He produced Québec’s first ice wine, but remained dissatisfied with the results. Around that time, he took an inspiring walk through a neighbor’s orchard and had a startling realization: Ice cider could be a natural alternative to ice wine.
Québec’s climate was better suited to apples than grapes, and like grapes, apples have a lush sugar content balanced by plenty of tannins. Ice cider hit Québec’s store shelves in 1996, and by 2014 the minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recognized Québec Ice Cider as a reserved designation of the province, where there are now approximately 50 producers.
It took more than a decade—and one pivotal sip—for ice cider to cross the border into Vermont. Eleanor and Albert Leger, a Canadian-American couple with a home in the Northeast Kingdom, were looking to make a life (and a living) on their Charleston farm. “Cider was not a “thing” back then,” says Eleanor. “But in 2006 we were up in Montréal and tasted ice cider for the first time. We looked at each other and said: ‘Why is nobody making this in Vermont?’”
The Legers released their first vintage in 2007 and started Eden Ice Cider. Cambridge’s Boyden Valley Winery also released ice cider that year. Each was the result of painstaking experimentation and broad collaboration. Boyden partnered with nearby orchards and pressed fruit at Castleton’s Brown Family Orchard. Eleanor Leger took Cornell University’s renowned cider-making course and the Legers met with French producers.
As they began to develop an ice cider recipe, the Legers looked for distinctively flavored heirloom varieties. They consulted Zeke Goodband of Scott Farm in Dummerston, who sent them home with dozens of bags that the couple then pressed and tested individually. Eventually they settled on a blend of 15 apples: Their ice cider contains McIntosh and Empire varieties from Champlain Orchards, plus Roxbury Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, Black Oxford and several Reinettes from Scott Farm.
Apples are generally categorized by their acidity, sugar content, and tannins. Honeycrisp and Macouns are classic “sweets,” with high sugar, low acid and low tannins, while “sharps” can bring a hefty dose of acid with a bit less sugar—like Granny Smiths, these are pucker sour, but without the mouth-drying edge that tannins bring. The classic cider varieties used by British and European cider makers are “bitters,” with relatively low acid and sugar, whose astringency recalls strong black tea or heavily oaked red wines. Many apples fall between the categories and are called “bitter-sharps,” “bitter-sweets,” or “sharp-sweets.” Vermont’s ice ciders build their recipes from this panoply.
“We were looking for an ice cider that had a good acidity on the mid-palate and on the finish,” Eleanor says. “Even if it’s a sweet ice cider, it needs a balance of acidity and sweetness.” The Legers continue to experiment and release bottles that are made with just a single kind of apple, or exclusively heirloom varieties.
In contrast, Boyden Valley Winery settled on three varieties of apple that create a consistent, balanced ice cider: Northern Spy, a cider apple with substantial acidity, and Empire and Mcintosh, dessert varieties with high sugar content. To many cider makers, the broad and infinitely variable possibilities are thrilling. “There are so many different blends,” notes Boyden’s Bridget Jones. “The use of so many different varieties is really expanding the palate of ice ciders.”
Even though Vermont’s ice cider landscape is new, it’s expanding rapidly. As the Legers began releasing bottles of their first ice cider, they wondered if they could create a larger market for their product by stimulating a bit of competition. They invited Champlain Orchards to partner with Eden to launch their own label and asked Brad Koehler to do the same. Each orchard developed a signature blend, and the contrast between the two captures the breadth and variety that is possible when working with apples.
Brad settled on a mix of more than 30 varieties of dessert apples—some foraged—that he brings to the Legers’ West Charleston winery. “I wanted something complex, with lower tannins,” says Brad. Champlain Orchards has since brought their ice cider production in house, and they bottle two blends: a Honeycrisp-only ice cider, and a lightly effervescent blend of the Honeycrisp and heirloom varieties. The carbonation adds a welcome piquancy, a tingling reminder that ice cider invites endless experimentation.
There are now almost two dozen ice cider producers in Vermont, and each one offers a new way to explore the flavors and diversity of the state fruit. In climate-controlled produce sections of grocery stores across America, mass-produced, storage-friendly apples are still the norm, but Vermonters are learning to love the russeted, mottle-hued, aromatic fruits that grew here centuries ago and are now being tended by a new generation of orchardists. As we relearn the flavors of the apples that 18th- and 19th-century Americans tended and relished, ice cider makers are transforming them into an entirely new North American tradition.